November 13, 2013 – Fukushima! Fukushima! That’s the current state of the nuclear power industry. Over the last four decades there have been three large nuclear accidents: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Each has led to a slow down in the construction and deployment of new fission nuclear power stations. But Fukushima is a problem that will not go away probably for decades. That doesn’t make this type of technology an attractive option for a world trying to reduce the burning of fossil fuels while relentlessly pursuing energy development.
Fukushima is costing the Japanese government $80 billion at the moment to clean up the environmental mess. And estimates by independent nuclear engineers believe the total cost will approach minimally $250 billion and possibly as much as $500 billion. Compare that to BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout at $30 billion and the latter looks like chump change.
For Japan which generated 30% of its energy from nuclear it probably means a full bore effort to develop renewable energy using solar, wind, geothermal and tide. For the rest of the world that is considering fission reactors for power generation it is a wake up call to look at alternative nuclear models like thorium reactors, hybrid fission-fusion reactors, and fusion.
With no precedent to follow, Fukushima is the ultimate disaster for a nuclear industry that has had a reasonable safety record considering the toxicity of the fuel it uses. For the Japanese who lived near Fukushima there is now a wasteland that will remain toxic for several hundred years. This is the same result as Chernobyl except that the former has also impacted the neighbouring ocean. The environmental consequences of the meltdown at Fukushima has so far affected the Pacific Ocean to the east of the country. But the radioactive discharge will creep across the Pacific in time and do we completely understand what the impact will be on Pacific islands and the west coast of North America? How is the marine environment being impacted? Should Pacific islanders continue to eat the fish they catch? Will exotic beaches in tropical islands in time be off limits to swimming?
This is what we know right now. The Japanese have restricted fishing in the offshore area directly opposite Fukushima. But for migratory species like the Pacific Bluefin Tuna which will certainly be exposed to this radiation pollution, these offshore areas are feeding zones. And the Bluefin migrates across the Pacific where it can be caught off North America’s west coast.
Fortunately, from studies done by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute we know for the moment that levels of radiation (cesium, polonium and strontium) are not at any level to suggest it would be hazardous to eat large fish species caught in the ocean. If there is a potential threat it might be from strontium contamination in sardine populations but even here it is only impacting the local Japanese fishery and not the traditional west coast fishery off Peru. In fact the level of radioactive exposure appears to be far less than the dose one gets from dental x-rays. So for the moment we can thank the diluting power of the Pacific Ocean for making Fukushima less a threat to those of us further away from Japan’s shores. The inshore fishery and coastal beaches near Fukushima, however, will remain problematic for years to come.
For a reliable source of information on radiation health risks from Fukushima check out the Woods Hole Oceanographic Oceanus online magazine site.
So Fukushima has pretty much killed conventional fission reactor technology. But safer nuclear technologies are on the horizon and I have written about them in previous blogs. The real question is will post-Fukushima fears lead to a NIMBY response from those who will live near these plants should they receive the green light from government and utility providers?