Anniversary of Fukushima Disaster Raises Questions About US Nuclear Plants

fukushima-anniversaryMarch 11th marked the somber two year anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting triple meltdown of the Fukushima Da-ichi nuclear power plant.  Although the grand majority of media attention has left the region since the event occurred, the aftermath of the second largest nuclear accident in history still reverberates globally to this day.

The unprecedented geological event claimed 19,000 lives and still leaves more than 160,000 residents displaced.  Radiation levels are too high to clean up the damage at the power plant, let alone permit citizens to return to their homes.  The harsh reality is that, after waiting for radiation to subside, projections estimate the cleanup will take 30-40 years to complete, costing tens of billions of dollars.  Long story short, most (if not all) will never see their real homes again and they will have no option but to start over entirely.

As of now, the fate of the victims remains murky at best.  NPR sent writers to the region, documenting the story of the Togawa family and their struggles to cope with the disaster and pick up the pieces to carry on.  After being evacuated hours after the earthquake, the family of five now lives in a 300 square foot temporary housing pod.  To put that in perspective, that’s only slightly larger than an average two-room college dorm.

Fortunately their situation is improving slightly, as both parents have found work and the children are getting more comfortable with their new school, but uncertainty still looms large.  Kenichi Togawa, patriarch and former Fukushima plant employee, says it best, “[w]hen I think about just today, I can stay happy…but when I think about the day after tomorrow and my future, I feel like I’m in a pitch-black box.”

It begs the question; what is the likelihood of something comparable happening in the US?  With 111 million Americans living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant, the importance of the nuclear industry to generate power as safely as possible is critical.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Allison Macfarlane is confident that the industry is better off than it was prior to Fukushima.  In an interview with the Associated Press about the two-year anniversary, she stated that all but five of the US’s 104 reactors were performing acceptably at the end of 2012.  “The performance is quite good,” she says, while still noting, “[y]ou can’t engage that many reactors and not have a few that are going to have difficulty.”

Of note, new safety measures are being carried out by the NRC to upgrade ventilation systems that will minimize core damage, along with new monitoring equipment to gauge water levels of pools that contain spent nuclear fuel.  “So far the industry seems to be cooperating,” Macfarlane stated about the new regulations, which are slated for nationwide completion by 2016.  Vice President of the Nuclear Energy Institute Joseph Pollock concurs, saying that plant managers are “working aggressively” to meet the 2016 deadline.

The FLEX program is another attempt by the NRC at adding an additional layer of security for a potential nuclear crisis.  Proposed in 2012, the program involves developing regional headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee and Phoenix, Arizona while also requesting each nuclear facility to implement advanced equipment designed to keep reactors functioning during a large disaster.  The regional hubs would serve as a failsafe measure, able to quickly transport massive generators or other equipment at a moment’s notice to keep reactors cool if an extended power outage took place.

Although the process to implement stronger nuclear regulation standards and deploy new equipment is taking a considerable amount of time, money and effort, the benefits could save thousands of lives during times of duress.  There’s no denying that nuclear energy is extremely cost-effective and plays a strong role in the global energy portfolio, especially in countries with geographic constraints like Japan, but human safety must be at the top of the list looking forward.

With today’s advanced technology in hand, resources to make the appropriate changes and the memories of nuclear disaster fresh in our minds, we can’t afford to risk the American equivalent of Chernobyl or Fukushima to occur.

The evidence of the consequences is no longer theoretical and cannot be ignored.

Kristopher Settle

Kris can be found on Twitter and Google+.

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  • Kris Settle

    Update –

    worth noting that Forbes released this article today (3/18) on Fukushima – http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2013/03/18/fukushima-fear-is-still-the-killer/2/?ss=businessenergy?ss=businessenergy

    that refutes a detail i mentioned in this article, which is the concept of having to stay away from the radiated area for an extended period of time. It looks as though most people still aren’t able to return to the region as of now, but it certainly won’t take the government or the people 30-40 years to OK returning to the region, as I alluded to. More than anything I hope this is true and a sizable portion of the 160,000 displaced residents can return home, hopefully sooner than later.

    The threat of an incident like this happening in the US or anywhere else around the globe is still present, however, and it’ll take advanced measures to reduce the risks associated with nuclear energy.

    Hindsight is 20/20 I suppose, but my apologies for the error.