The terrible truth about nuclear power

On 11 March 2011 a massive 9.0 earthquake off north-eastern Japan and a subsequent tsunami triggered the worst nuclear power disaster since Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986. This could not have come at a worse time for politicians and the nuclear industry who were set to launch a massive nuclear power station building programme.

Three out of six reactors were operating at the Fukushima nuclear plant at the time of the earthquake. These shut down automatically. However, the 10-metre tsunami breached the defensive wall, destroying power lines to the plant and emergency generators, leaving back-up batteries with an eight-hour life to pump cooling water over the nuclear material. When they failed, the fuel heated up, causing a build-up of gas which led to several explosions and fires, destroying the roofs of two buildings and releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere. Partial meltdown of at least two reactor cores is likely.

However, it has been the storage pools loaded with spent nuclear rods that have been of the most concern. Such rods have to be kept cool in pools for years; the water acts as a radiation shield as well as a coolant. If the water cannot circulate, it heats up and evaporates, causing the zirconium cladding around the fuel rods to burst into flames, blasting highly radioactive material into the atmosphere. Hence the round-the-clock attempts by a small group of workers using fire-hoses and helicopters to get water into the pools, whilst others have attempted to reconnect the electricity supply. At least five have died, two are missing and 22 have been injured. The Japanese government raised the legal dose of radiation allowed for these workers by 150%.

Around 70,000 people were evacuated from a 20km zone around the plant, and people living between 20 and 30km from the plant were told to stay indoors. The Citizens’ Nuclear Information Centre demanded that the government evacuate people from the 20-30km zone and any areas outside that which have had significant radioactive contamination, prioritising pregnant women and children. In the village of Kawauchi-mura people organised their own evacuation en masse, the deputy mayor saying: ‘You can’t stay indoors for ever – you need to eat, the elderly need care.’

Radiation levels were measured at 1,600 times the normal level at an evacuated residential area near the power plant and ten times higher in Tokyo. Spinach has been found to contain radiation 27 times the government safety limit 100km from Fukushima. Abnormal levels have also been found in milk, tap water and other vegetables. As we go to press, radioactivity levels in Reactor 2 are massively higher than normal, probably as a result of water seepage from the reactor core. Two plant workers have been hospitalised with beta-ray burns. Sea water 20 miles offshore has very high radioactivity levels, raising fears of contamination of seafood. Potassium iodide (KI) pills reduce the risks associated with exposure to radioactive iodine. KI pills have been distributed, but thanks to the anarchy of capitalism, the US has witnessed a large demand for these pills where there is no need for them, prompting fears that there will not be adequate supplies in Japan in the event of a larger radiological leak. The nuclear crisis has hampered the earthquake and tsunami relief efforts, with food and supplies unable to reach areas outside the evacuation zone. Panic buying has created shortages in Tokyo and other areas not directly affected by the disaster.

Governments around the world tried to convince their populations that they are concerned about the safety of nuclear power. In Germany, Angela Merkel ordered seven reactors to be taken offline, while all 17 had safety standards reviewed. Merkel had reversed the planned phasing out of nuclear power in Germany and extended the operating lives of existing plants. Other countries also instigated safety reviews and/or put plans for new plants on hold. British ConDem minister Chris Huhne accused European governments of ‘rushing to judgment’ over nuclear safety. The ConDem government is committed to building a new generation of nuclear power stations initiated by the previous Labour government. In opposition in 2007, Huhne had said ‘Nuclear is a tried, tested and failed technology and the Government must stop putting time, effort and subsidies into reviving this outdated industry. The nuclear industry’s key skill...[is] extracting lashings of taxpayers’ money’.

Nuclear power is indeed the most expensive method of producing electricity, and needs subsidies in order to be profitable. To increase profits, expenditure on workers, materials and safety measures must be cut. The regulators have the same relationship as regulators had with the banks before the credit crunch: they rely on self-reporting. Nuclear plants are built to operate for 40-60 years, with possibly another 50 years needed for storing spent nuclear fuel. The type of reactor at Fukushima was known to have no facility to vent a build-up of hydrogen gas, and the Union of Concerned Scientists had warned about storing more fuel than the pools were designed for. These warnings were ignored as they would have incurred extra costs. The Fukushima plant’s safety was based on earthquake and tsunami data for the last 100 years, neither of which is confirmed by recent trends.

In Britain, the cost of decommissioning old nuclear power stations is estimated to be at least £73bn. Most existing and planned nuclear power sites in Britain are located on or near the coast because nuclear power requires vast quantities of water. These sites will become more vulnerable to rising sea levels and to increasing damage from tidal surges and storms. Reactors located inland put severe strain on freshwater resources and damage plant life and fish. In France, where nuclear power stations supply 78% of the nation’s electricity, most reactors are sited near ecologically-sensitive rivers and account for about 50% of the country’s freshwater consumption. During the heatwave of 2003, operations at 17 nuclear sites had to be scaled down or halted due to the rapidly rising temperatures in rivers and lakes. France had to buy power on the European spot market costing ten times the domestic rate. The 2006 heatwave led to the same problem in France, Germany and Spain.

Nuclear power and technology are not the answer to the world’s environmental problems. Stopping capitalism’s wasteful production for the sole purpose of capital accumulation, and replacing it with a system to meet people’s needs, provides the only framework within which these problems can be resolved.

David Hetfield

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 220 April/May 2011


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