By Howie Hawkins, March 11, 2021
Ten years ago today the Fukushima nuclear disaster began. It is far from over. It won’t be over for decades to come at best.
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake caused the reactors at the Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan to shut down. A tsunami soon followed that flooded the emergency generators, cutting power to the pumps that circulate cooling water into the reactor cores and catastrophe struck: three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and the release of more radiation into the atmosphere than any nuclear accident in history except the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. 8% of the Japanese landmass was contaminated by radioactive fallout. 154,000 people had to be evacuated.
The disaster has never stopped. Radioactive water has been leaking into the Pacific Ocean for ten years. Pumped-in water has been required to cool the melted down reactor cores as well as the spent fuel in and around three other previously shut-down Fukushima reactors whose building structures were also damaged by the earthquake. For ten years now, water has been pumped into the containments vessels for the reactor cores and into the spent fuel pools to prevent further meltdown. This coolant water becomes radioactive. Much of it is stored in huge tanks on site, but they are running out of storage space. The Japanese government and the nuclear complex operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), now want to dump this radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. But radioactive water has been seeping into the ocean at unknown rates for ten years because the containment vessels are breached at their bottom due to the core meltdowns, resulting in some coolant water, as well as clean groundwater that seeps uncontrollably into the containment vessels and gets contaminated, migrating into the ocean.
So the disaster continues. Only robots can approach the extremely radioactive reactor cores. Removing the melted fuel to contain it safely where water won’t seep in and then out contaminate the ocean is decades away. So the disaster is in maintenance mode, with water continuously injected to keep the melted nuclear fuel from overheating and releasing more radiation into the atmosphere while radioactive water leaks into the ocean. The land around Fukushima is still contaminated despite surface soil removal to mitigate the radioactivity. A Greenpeace sponsored study in March 2019 found high levels of radiation in both the continuing exclusion zones and in areas where evacuation orders have been lifted. The levels ranged from five to over 100 times higher than the average accumulated natural background radiation dose to an individual for 1 year, exclusive of radon, which is the internationally recommended maximum exposure.
Dirty, Dangerous, and Uneconomical
Yet the leaders of the two corporate parties in America are pushing a revival of the nuclear power industry that has proven itself to be dirty, dangerous, and uneconomical. The Biden climate plan calls for more nuclear power.
Nuclear power is dirty because it generates dangerous nuclear waste that has to be isolated for hundreds of thousands of years and because nukes leak ionizing radiation as they operate. Studies have documented increased cancer risk for people who reside near nuclear power plants, especially for childhood cancers such as leukemia. Workers in the nuclear industry are also exposed to higher than normal levels of radiation and die at higher than average rates from cancer.
Uranium mining is about the dirtiest industry on Earth. Navajo uranium miners had a lung cancer rate 29 times higher than other Navajos before the Navajos banned uranium mining on their land. The niner’s children grew up drinking from contaminated wells and are now suffering from radiation-related diseases, while their grandchildren still play around the abandoned uranium pits and slag piles. The breaching of the Church Rock uranium tailings pond in 1979 released more radiation than any nuclear accident in U.S. history, including the Three Mile Island meltdown, and rendered groundwater and the Rio Puerco unusable by Navajos living in this area north of Gallup, New Mexico.
Nuclear power is dangerous. Catastrophic accidents like Fukushima, Chernobyl, and others do happen. The older the nukes get, the more prone they are to serious accidents as metals become brittle from radiation. Embrittlement means reactor containment vessels and other metal structures become weaker and especially vulnerable when emergency cooling with cold water creates a pressure cooker environment that could result in cracking, containment failure, and the release of massive amounts of radiation. The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Agency, or as anti-nuclear activists call it, Nuclear Rubberstamp Agency) has extended the operating lifetimes of many nukes designed to operate for 40 years to 60 years, and some to 80 years, and is now considering applications for 100 years.
Nuclear power is uneconomical. It has never been able to operate profitably without massive subsidies like the Price-Anderson Act, which provides (partial) government insurance coverage against nuclear accidents because the private insurance industry won’t insure them.
Lazard – the world’s leading financial advisory and asset management firm – produces annual reports on the costs of different forms of energy. Lazard reports that the cost of new nuclear power is $119 to $192 per megawatt-hour, compared to $32 to $42 for utility-scale solar and between $20 and $54 for onshore wind per megawatt-hour. In other words, nuclear costs at least two to three times more than wind and solar. That’s why markets are not investing in nuclear. They are putting all of their energy investments into renewables. Nuclear power can only continue with government subsidies.
Corporate Welfare and Corruption
During the Obama-Biden administration, federal loan guarantees for nuclear power plant construction were offered to re-start the nuclear power industry. Two plants started in South Carolina have been stopped due to massive cost overruns and construction delays. Ratepayers poured $9 billion into the project that had originally been projected to cost $6.3 billion. Two plants started in Vogtle, Georgia suffer from the same problems. Originally projected to cost $14 billion, the cost so far is $30 billion and the lifetime cost is now projected to be $65 billion, not counting decommissioning and waste storage costs. But under Governor Brian Kemp, whose political career has been sponsored in large part by Georgia Power and the Southern Company, ratepayers are continuing to throw good money after bad into these projects.
In New York State, Governor Cuomo secured $8 billion in ratepayer subsides to keep four upstate nuclear power plants operating that their owner, Exelon, had planned to shut down as money losers. Two Ohio nuclear power plants also received subsidies from the state government to stay open. However, after the Speaker of the Ohio was indicted last year for a $61 million bribe from the nuclear industry to smooth passage of the subsidies, the state legislature is now considering a repeal of the subsidies.
Nukes Increase Global Warming
One of the rationales for nuclear power put forward by politicians like Biden and Cuomo is that nuclear power is a carbon-free energy source that will help stem global warming. But nuclear power is not carbon free.
The nuclear fuel chain – which includes uranium mining, milling, and fuel enrichment – is carbon intensive. Nuclear plants emit Carbon-14, a radioactive form of carbon. A review of 103 studies by Benjamin Sovacool, director of the Danish Center for Energy Technology at Aarhus University, found that the life cycle emissions of nuclear power is 66 grams of carbon dioxide for every kilowatt-hour produced. This compares to about 9 grams per kilowatt-hour for wind and 32 grams per kilowatt-hour for solar. Nuclear power is the highest carbon emitter after the fossil fuels.
Nukes Are Intermittent
Another rationale for nuclear power is that it provides the baseload power needed to provide a steady supply of power as opposed to the intermittency of wind and solar power production. The first problem with this argument is that nukes are intermittent. They go down regularly for refueling, too often for inspection and repairs after “unusual events,” and sometimes during heat waves (France, 2003) and cold streaks (Texas, 2021).
The supposed intermittency problem with renewables can be solved with energy storage and grid inter-connectors. The prices of various forms of energy storage are plummeting alongside the prices of wind and solar power. Grid inter-connectors can get power from where it is produced to where it is needed on a continental and even inter-continental basis. When the wind blows in Texas and not in New York then, grid inter-connectors can shift power from Texas to New York. The same is true of the sun. If the sun is not shining in Germany but is on solar farms in the Sahara, grid inter-connectors could transfer power from the Sahara to Germany.
“Advanced” Nuclear Is Backward
The Biden climate program calls for promoting “advanced nuclear that eliminates risks associated with conventional nuclear technology” (Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations) and “small modular nuclear reactors at half the construction cost of today’s reactors” (The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice).
Biden is promoting the same industry that promised that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter” and is now touting another supposed low-cost nuclear option: the small modular reactor (SMR). Actually, small reactors are more expensive than large reactors in producing power. The lower construction costs are more than offset by higher production costs due to loss of economics of scale
Small reactors are not safer. The small size of SMRs would create a greater number of nuclear sites to be guarded, maintained, and eventually decommissioned. The nuclear industry promotes locating small reactors below ground for safety in case of a meltdown. But the increased risk of flooding underground increases their susceptibility to short circuiting and failure of the cooling system. Emergency intervention will be more difficult.
The only country in the world that can claim to have a SMR industry is Russia. The country’s first SMRs were two deployed in 2018 on a barge into the Arctic Ocean to power oil and gas drilling. It is the first of seven floating nuclear power stations that Russia is planning to build for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Just what the climate needs. What could go wrong?
China is also considering nukes on barges to power oil and gas drilling in the South China Sea. Saudi Arabia wants small reactors to acquire enriched uranium for its nuclear weapons program, which highlights another problem with nuclear power. Nuclear power is always a threat for nuclear weapons proliferation and to be a target for terrorists. The terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attack had nuclear stations on their potential target list.
Another “advanced” nuclear proposal is to use alternative fuels like thorium. The U.S. already tried thorium and failed. Thorium reactors were developed for 50 years without success. After four commercial failures, the industry gave up on them in the 1980s.
Some even continue to push breeder reactors that are designed to “breed” more fissile material than they consume. These failed as well. The Experimental Breeder Reactor EBR I in Idaho suffered a partial meltdown in 1955. The first US commercial prototype, Fermi I in Michigan, had a meltdown of two fuel assemblies in 1966. We almost lost Detroit.
The Green Party’s Green New Deal has called for a rapid phase out of nuclear power as renewables are phased in since we first promoted it in 2010. Unfortunately, the Democrats took the Green New Deal slogan and diluted its content. The phase out of nuclear power was dropped from the non-binding resolution for a Green New Deal submitted to Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. Last year AOC said “the Green New Deal does leave the door open for nuclear.”
That is why we need the Green Party. If that is what the most progressive of Democrats say about nuclear power, we are in trouble. The Green Party grew in large part out of the anti-nuclear movements in Germany and the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s. The Green Party needs to keep on fighting for a real program environmental justice and sanity. No Nukes!
Howie Hawkins was the Green Party candidate for President in 2020. He has been an anti-nuclear activist since he followed environmentalist David Brower out of the Sierra Club and into Friends of the Earth after the Sierra Club board voted in 1969 to support the Diablo Canyon nuke near San Luis Obispo, California. In 1976, he helped organize the Clamshell Alliance that mobilized large-scale nonviolent resistance to the Seabrook nuke in New Hampshire.