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Three Years after Fukushima: Lulled into the Myth of Safety?

World sentiment seemed to steer away from nuclear energy and toward more renewables following the disaster at Japan's Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant on March 11, 2011. Three years later, have we forgotten?

A “myth of safety” permeated before the accident — and indeed may have led to it. And the myth continues today, says Kennette Benedict, executive director of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which published a new English version of the book, “The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Disaster:  Investigating the Myth and Reality.” The book was released today to commemorate the third anniversary of the disaster.

The book describes minute-to-minute events within the plant, utility and government agencies as the accident unfolded. It is based on the findings of an independent panel that conducted 300 interviews with those who played a role during the crisis — from workers in the plant to government leaders forced to make fateful decisions during the crisis.

Owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant suffered a catastrophic failure when a tsunami flooded the facility and shut down emergency generators, thus halting cooling to the reactor. The 140,000 people who lived nearby evacuated and have yet to return. The disabled plant continues to struggle with radiation release.

The book attempts to bring cultural and historic perspective to the accident. When Japan decided to pursue nuclear power more than 50 years ago, it faced the task of winning over the Japanese citizenry, still wary from the nuclear bombing of their country during World War II. Thus began the campaign of “absolute safety,” a notion that leaders and workers also grew to embrace. This caused them to ignore red flags raised about the design of the Fukushima-Daiichi plant, particularly the potential flooding of the back-up power generators¸ according to Benedict.

“You don’t attempt to prepare for accidents because there will be no accidents,” Benedict said during an interview. “You trap yourself and set yourself up for a complete disaster. That is the real message of the book, and it is a message we should take to heart.”

Fukushima may have rattled this myth, but it remains intact, she said. Indeed, the new Japanese government has softened its stance on nuclear energy, as the public grows weary of conservation and high electricity prices.

 After the accident, Japan shut down all of its nuclear reactors, which had supplied more than a quarter of the nation’s power. With only 15 percent of its energy from indigenous sources¸ Japan has become ever more dependent on expensive fossil fuel imports since the nuclear accident. This led to $30 billion in losses by Japan’s top 10 utilities over two years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Since then, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun to discuss nuclear revival as part of a larger economic revitalization of the country.

 ”The current Japanese government is more pro-nuclear than the previous one. The government's latest energy policy plan maintained nuclear as an important energy source, but it also stressed the importance of reducing the country's reliance on nuclear and increasing adoption of renewables,” said Roy Li, managing director of Asia Pacific of Upsolar, a Chinese solar module manufacturer with offices in Tokyo.

Indeed, Japan instituted generous feed-in tariffs for renewables in July 2012, which spurred the rapid installation of 1.4 GW of capacity in a matter of months. Large-scale solar has accounted for most of the growth in the last year, according to EIA.  Japan also is looking at significant additions of geothermal capacity — the country has the third largest reserves in the world.

German Tipping Point

While Abe may be softening on nuclear, Fukushima clearly created a Malcolm Gladwell-type “tipping point” in sentiment toward nuclear power in Germany, said John Kourtoff, CEO and director of Ontario-based offshore wind developer Trillium Power. Nuclear power accounted for about a quarter of the nation’s power before the accident. Germany is now phasing out nuclear altogether.

Fukushima “forced all German politicians to finally turn the page on the nuclear era or be sent into the political wilderness,” Kourtoff said. “The full manifestation of the quiet change in thinking on the 'nuclear power issue' that had been occurring at the public level was in the German State of Baden-Württemburg where the conservative CDU party that had been in power for a continuous 57 years, which backed nuclear, was swept from power. The German Green Party was then installed to form the first state or national government in the western world.

On the other hand, France remains a nuclear stronghold, deriving 75 percent of its electricity from the resource, according to the World Nuclear Association. Many other countries are somewhere in the middle. In the U.S., for example, nuclear has supplied roughly 20 percent of power supply since 1990. But the U.S. has built no new nuclear since the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar 1 came on line 1996. TVA is working on 1,150 MW Watts Bar 2, which it expects to begin operating in late 2015, according to EIA, but new nuclear projects are scarce.

“The point is unlike in the 50s, 60s, 70s, people are not talking about it as a great new thing. It is not a rising industry,” said Benedict.

While sentiment about nuclear may be mixed, what hasn’t changed since 2011 is a strong worldwide drive to add more renewable energy to the power mix. Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecasts a 230 percent rise in renewable energy capacity by 2030 worldwide in its Global Energy and Emissions Model 2013. This marks a 35 percent increase from its renewables forecast in 2012.

“Many countries are discovering that solar and other renewables are now the fastest, most-cost effective, and least risky way to get new power generation on-line,” said Tom Leyden, CEO of U.S. company Solar Grid Storage. “The nuclear industry is virtually dead in the U.S., not due to environmental or safety concerns, but because it’s simply too risky financially, and when compared to new renewables, is more expensive.”

Myth Continues?

Still, Benedict worries that the safety myth continues to hold sway and influences not just Japan, but other countries as well.

She points out that in Japan, it wasn’t one, but a series of behavioral mistakes emanating from this myth that led to the accident. For example, Fukushima’s configuration — with its emergency generators in the basement — was designed for locations threatened often by tornados, like the U.S. Midwest, not coastal Japan where flooding is the larger threat. Yet Japan ignored this fact because all levels of society, from the government through industry to the community, had bought into the perpetuated myth of absolute safety.

“The point about an accident is that it is a surprise — something you haven’t thought about,” she said. “It is not possible to have a complex technology and not have accidents. There is no completely safe nuclear plant.”

Lead image: Nuclear plant via Shutterstock

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