On Friday, March 11, 2011
Northern Japan was hit by a massive 9.0 earthquake just off its eastern coast. The earthquake spawned a huge tsunami that washed away villages and caused tremendous destruction. At least 2,700 people are confirmed to have died, but many thousands are missing and more than 10,000 people are presumed dead, as bodies have begun washing ashore . To make matters worse, a number of nuclear reactors were in the center of the disaster. Three are now in danger of meltdown, as Japanese emergency workers struggle to contain a nuclear disaster that is already the worst since the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. Much of the country is now experiencing rolling blackouts, and many of the 400,000 displaced survivors living in makeshift shelters are struggling with limited food and water. The turmoil has caused havoc in Japan’s now recovering economy, leading to a massive drop in the stock market and fears of an economic collapse. The situation is also having an impact in the United States and is prompting a renewed debate over nuclear power and the role of government.
NUCLEAR CRISIS: The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was hit directly by both the earthquake and the resulting tsunami. Three reactors were severely damaged, creating multiple failures in the system that cools the nuclear fuel rods. This has led to a series of explosions that have further damaged the nuclear reactors and released radiation into the air. In the hopes of preventing a full-scale meltdown, emergency workers at the nuclear plant have desperately sought to inject seawater into the reactors to cool down the nuclear fuel rods, but the results have been mixed. The temperatures of the reactors continue to rise, prompting fears of a widespread meltdown. The New York Times noted, “Japan’s nuclear crisis verged toward catastrophe on Tuesday after an explosion damaged the vessel containing the nuclear core at one reactor and a fire at another spewed large amounts of radioactive material into the air.” “Experts in Japan and the United States say the country is now facing a cascade of accumulating problems that suggest that radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks or even months.” Eight hundred workers from the plant have been withdrawn, while 50 heroically remain, despite their increasing exposure to radiation. The Japanese government has also told people living within 12 miles of the reactors to evacuate and those within 20 miles were told to stay indoors. The Times quoted a senior nuclear industry executive who had been in contact with his Japanese counterparts who said Japanese power managers are “basically in a full-scale panic. … They’re in total disarray, they don’t know what to do.” Also, the “pool storing spent fuel rods at that fourth reactor had overheated and reached boiling point and had become unapproachable by workers.”
The Japanese government has formally asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for assistance, which dispatched experts to Japan to provide technical assistance. Joe Cirincione, a nuclear expert and president of the Ploughshares Fund, said, “This is an unprecedented crisis. … You have multiple reactor crises at the same time. We’ve never had a situation like this before.”
NUCLEAR DEBATE: The nuclear crisis in Japan has renewed debate over the safety of nuclear power not just in the United States but around the world. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) said on Face the Nation, “I don’t want to stop the building of nuclear power plants. … But I think we’ve got to quietly put…the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami.” Rep. Ed Markey, (D-MA) has called for a “timeout” on new reactors and said that the U.S. should have a moratorium on building reactors in seismic areas of the country. The crisis threatens the bipartisan consensus that emerged over the need for more nuclear power. Nuclear power has been seen as an alternative to burning fossil fuels since it omits zero carbon. William Saletan of Slate warned: “Let’s cool this panic before it becomes a political meltdown. … If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous.” At the same time, Joe Romm and Richard Caperton of the Center for American Progress write that the nuclear crisis “remind[s] us that nuclear power is inherently risky. … Let’s be clear: If something goes wrong with a U.S. nuclear reactor, the American public will be in double jeopardy — we’ll suffer the health consequences and then also have to pay for it.”
ROLE OF GOVERNMENT: The crisis in Japan clearly demonstrates the importance of government safety regulations. As we learn the full causes and outcomes of the Japanese disaster, the U.S. should revisit and improve safety rules for both existing and proposed reactors. Romm and Caperton explain that, “because taxpayers have so much to lose in a nuclear disaster, the government has a responsibility to take every precaution to minimize that risk.” David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists explains in the New York Times that there is a “need to revisit emergency plans to ensure that people get the help they need even when disasters overlap.” Yet Media Matters reported that “in the wake of the crisis at Japanese nuclear reactors, the conservative media have pushed for the removal of ‘obstacles’ to nuclear power and a faster nuclear permit process for nuclear plants.” The proposed budget cuts from Republicans in the House of Representatives further threaten to undermine the safety of the American people. Romm and Caperton warn that “Congress must not cut funding for NOAA’s tsunami warning service. House Republicans have proposed cutting funding to NOAA — the agency directly responsible for tsunami monitoring and warning — restricting the government’s ability to respond. America has a number of reactors that could be affected by a tsunami.” Furthermore, despite the massive 9.0 earthquake, much of the damage in Japan was not caused by the earthquake, but by the tsunami. Thousands of lives were saved due to the strict government-enforced building codes that were absent in a country like Haiti or China, which experienced a significantly higher death toll.
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