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Caught between nostalgia and science fiction

by beyondnuclearinternational

Swapping one dangerous technology for another isn’t progress

By Linda Pentz Gunter

It’s starting to sound a lot like a Christmas carol as a growing chorus of voices clamors to stop the European Union from including nuclear power in its “green taxonomy.”

Six countries, five former Japanese prime ministers, four former nuclear regulators, a bunch of French hens (at least 20 protesters), and two heads of Italy’s major energy behemoth, have all spoken out in recent weeks against rebranding dangerous, expensive nuclear power as “sustainable” energy or even a bridge to an all renewable future.

The youth climate movement, Fridays for the Future, have also condemned the potential inclusion of nuclear power in the EU Taxonomy as “greenwashing”, with spokesperson Luisa Neubauer telling Euractiv that Germany “can phase out both coal and nuclear power and enter the renewable age.” Why, she asked, would you “swap one high risk technology, coal, for another high risk technology? And maybe those risks aren’t quite the same, but the risks attached to nuclear energy, people have experienced that.” In addition, the costs for nuclear power, she said are “in a different galaxy” compared to renewables.

Francesco Starace, a nuclear engineer by training and the head of Enel, the Italian multinational energy company, said of nuclear power, “we can’t stay halfway between nostalgia for the past and hope in science fiction”. Enel Green Power head, Salvatore Bernabei, said “we don’t intend to invest in nuclear, obviously.”

Said Starace: “We must act now because the red alert for humanity has gone off and the next ten years will be crucial. There is only one road and it is already marked: electrification, renewables and batteries”.

The five former prime ministers of Japan spoke from direct experience, having lived through the devastation caused by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which began on March 11, 2011, but is still damaging human health and the environment today.

“Promoting nuclear power can ruin a country,” wrote Junichiro Koizumi, Morihiro Hosokawa, Naoto Kan, Yukio Hatoyama and Tomiichi Murayama in a statement directed at the EU.

“We have witnessed in Fukushima over the last decade [ ] an indescribable tragedy and contamination on an unprecedented scale,” the prime ministers wrote. “Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes and vast areas of agricultural land have been contaminated. Radioactive water well beyond storage capacity continues to be generated, many children are suffering from thyroid cancer, and massive amounts of the country’s resources and wealth has been lost. We do not wish European countries to make the same mistake.”

The former Japanese prime ministers reminded the EU that they have witnessed the multiple tragedies of a nuclear accident first hand. (Photo: Matthias Lambrecht/Creative Commons)

The four former nuclear regulators — Dr. Greg Jaczko (US), Prof. Wolfgang Renneberg (Germany), Dr. Bernard Laponche (France) and Dr. Paul Dorfman (UK) — stated categorically that “The central message, repeated again and again, that a new generation of nuclear will be clean, safe, smart and cheap, is fiction.”

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, the four said, using nuclear power to address it was a completely unrealistic proposition. “The reality is nuclear is neither clean, safe or smart; but a very complex technology with the potential to cause significant harm,” they wrote. 

They added: “Nuclear isn’t cheap, but extremely costly. Perhaps most importantly nuclear is just not part of any feasible strategy that could counter climate change. To make a relevant contribution to global power generation, up to more than ten thousand new reactors would be required, depending on reactor design.”

Although France is leading the charge — for obviously self-interested reasons — to include nuclear power in the EU Taxonomy, the country is not without its nuclear opponents. The nationwide Réseau sortir du nucléaire and scores of regional groups struggle to get attention, but have staged protests for years. France relies on nuclear power for 70% of its electricity and is also a member of the UN Security Council as a nuclear weapons country, giving it an illusory sense of prestige of which it is reluctant to let go.

Last December, protesters descended on France’s foreign ministry, roundly criticizing French president, Emmanuel Macron’s continued promotion of nuclear power. At the same time, the country was facing electricity shortages due to five French reactor outages.

Even scientists, sometimes the more cautious of species, have spoken out. According to the Financial Times, which viewed the documentation, scientific experts “hired by Brussels to help draw up the sustainable investment rules” have criticized the inclusion of nuclear power, while not going as far as to ask for its removal altogether. However, the experts wrote that “the inclusion of nuclear energy contravenes the principle of ‘do no significant harm’”, the Financial Times said.

Meanwhile, Austria is preparing to take the EU to court if it persists in labeling nuclear power as green. Austria has the support of Spain, Luxembourg and Denmark in calling the consideration of nuclear as a “sustainable” energy source “a step backwards.”

Germany, which is close to phasing out all of its nuclear power plants, has also rejected nuclear as part of the EU Taxonomy while so far failing to oppose the inclusion of gas, again for vested interests.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.

January 31, 2022 Posted by | Nuclear | , , , | Leave a comment

Fukushima’s radioactive water problem

Water should be stored at nuclear site, not dumped in the Pacific

new-fuku-water-slider

By Linda Pentz Gunter

We are republishing this story this week, as the Japanese government is now threatening the imminent dumping of the radiologically contaminated water, stored at the Fukushima nuclear site, into the Pacific Ocean. The article below provides the background on this issue and the alternative choices. Our Japanese activist friends are urging us all to sign onto their petitions — there is one for groups to sign and one for individuals — asking the Japanese government not to dump 1.2 million cubic meters of radioactive water into the ocean. Japan civil society groups and Fukushima fishing unions are strongly opposed to this needless ocean discharge. Groups please sign here. Individuals please sign here.

Original article, published September 15, 2019, follows:

Last week, Japan’s then environment minister, Yoshiaki Harada, made news with a pronouncement that wasn’t news. The storage tanks at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site, filled with radioactive water, were reaching capacity. By 2022 there would be no room for more tanks on the present site. Japan would then have to dump the radioactive water stored in the tanks into the Pacific Ocean, he said.

Although likely unrelated to those remarks, a day later, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dispatched 19 of his cabinet ministers, including Harada. Harada was replaced as environment minister by rising star, Shinjiro Koizumi, the son of former primer minister, Junichiro Koizumi. Both father and son are opposed to nuclear energy, and on his first day in office, the younger Koizumi told reporters that he believed Japan should end its use of nuclear energy and close its nuclear power plants.

01Shinjiro Koizumi, Japan’s new environment minister, says Japan should cease using nuclear power.

I would like to study how we scrap them, not how to retain them,” Reuters reported him saying. This is a surprising position from someone inside the fervently pro-nuclear Abe government and it remains to be seen whether he will be allowed to translate his position into policy.

Dumping Fukushima Daiichi’s accumulated radioactive water has long been the plan proposed by Tepco, the site owner. Fukushima fishermen, along with some scientists and a number of NGOs from around the world, continue to object.

We addressed this issue briefly on a recent TRT broadcast (see video below).

Cooling water is needed at the Fukushima site because, when Units 1, 2 and 3 lost power, they also lost the flow of reactor coolant, causing their cores to overheat. The fuel rods then melted, and molten fuel dripped down and burned through the pressure vessels, pooling in the primary containment vessels. Units 1, 3 and 4 also suffered hydrogen explosions. Each day, about 200 metric tons of cooling water is used to keep the three melted cores cool, lest they once more go critical. Eventually the water becomes too radioactive and thermally hot to be re-used, and must be discarded and stored in the tanks.

As Greenpeace International (GPI) explained in remarks and questions submitted during a consultative meeting held by the International Maritime Organization in August 2019:

“Since 2011, in order to cool the molten cores in the Tokyo Electric Power Company Fukushima Daiichi reactor units 1-3, water is continuously pumped through the damaged Reactor Pressure Vessels (RPVs) and circulated through reactor buildings, turbine buildings, the Process Main Building and the “High Temperature Incinerator Building”  and water treatment systems.

“As a result, the past eight years has seen a relentless increase in the volume of radioactive contaminated water accumulating on site. As of 4 July 2019, the total amount of contaminated water held in 939 storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant (units 1-4) was 1,145,694 m3 (tonnes). The majority of this, 1,041,710 m3, is contaminated processed water. In the year to April 2019, approximately 180 m3/day of water was being circulated into the RPVs of units 1-3.”

In addition to the cooling water, the tanks also house water that has run down from the nearby mountains, at a rate of about 100 tons each day. This water flows onto the site and seeps into the reactor buildings. There, it becomes radioactively contaminated and also must be collected and stored, to prevent it from flowing on down into the sea.

The water tank crisis is just one of multiple and complex problems at the Fukushima Daiichi site, including the eventual need to extract the molten fuel debris from inside the stricken reactors. Decommissioning cannot begin until the water storage tanks are removed.

Tepco has tried to mitigate the radioactive water problem in a number of ways. The infamous $320 million ice wall was an attempt to freeze and block inflow, but has had mixed results and has worked only intermittently. Wells were dug to try to divert the runoff water so it does not pick up contamination. The ice wall has reportedly reduced the flow of groundwater somewhat, but only down from 500 tons a day to about 100 tons.

In anticipation of dumping the tank water into the Pacific Ocean, Tepco has deployed an Advanced Liquid Processing System that the company claims can remove 62 isotopes from the water — all except tritium, which is radioactive hydrogen and therefore cannot be filtered out of water. (Tritium is routinely discharged by operating commercial nuclear power plants).

jkhijkTepco’s “Land-side Impermeable Wall” (Frozen soil wall).

 

But, like the ice wall, the filtration system has also been plagued by malfunctions. According to GPI, Tepco admitted only last year that the system had “failed to reduce radioactivity to levels below the regulatory limit permissible for ocean disposal” in at least 80% of the tanks’ inventory. Indeed, said GPI, “the levels of Strontium-90 are more than 100 times the regulatory standard according to TEPCO, with levels at 20,000 times above regulations in some tanks.”

The plan to dump the water has raised the ire of South Korea, whose fish stocks would likely also be contaminated. And it has introduced the question of whether such a move is a violation of The Conventions of the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as was raised in a joint written statement by the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and Greenpeace International, before the UN Human Rights Council currently in session.

So what else could or should Tepco do, if not dump the water offshore and into the ocean? A wide consensus amongst scientific, environmental and human rights groups is that on-site storage for the indefinite future is the only acceptable option, while research must continue into possible ways to extract all of the radioactive content, including tritium.

Meanwhile, a panel of experts says it will examine a number of additional but equally problematic choices, broadly condensed into four options (each with some variations — to  dilute or not to dilute etc):

  • Ground (geosphere) injection (which could bring the isotopes in contact with groundwater);
  • Vapor release (which could infiltrate weather patterns and return as fallout);
  • Releasing it as hydrogen (it would still contain tritium gas); and
  • Solidification followed by underground burial (for which no safe, permanent storage environment has yet been found, least of all in earthquake-prone Japan).

Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds, recommends a chemical injection processes (drilling mud) — also used by the oil industry — to stop the flow of water onto the site entirely. But he says Japan has never considered this option. GPI contends that Japan has never seriously researched any of the alternatives, sticking to the ocean dumping plan, the cheapest and fastest “fix.”

All of this mess is of course an inevitable outcome of the choice to use nuclear power in the first place. Even without an accident, no safe, permanent storage solution has been found for the high-level radioactive waste produced through daily operation of commercial nuclear power plants, never mind as the result of an accident.

According to Dr. M.V. Ramana, by far the best solution is to continue to store the radioactive water, even if that means moving some of the storage tanks to other locations to make more room for new ones at the nuclear site. The decision to dump the water, Ramana says, is in line with Abe’s attempts to whitewash the scene before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and claim, as he has publicly in the past, that everything at Fukushima is “under control.” (Baseball and softball games will be played in Fukushima Prefecture and the torch relay will start there, all in an effort to pretend there are no dangerous nuclear after-effects remaining in the area.)

“The reason that they keep saying they need to release it is because they might have to move some of this offsite and that goes against the Abe government’s interest in creating the perception that Fukushima is a closed chapter,” Ramana wrote in an email. “So it is a political decision rather than a technical one.”

As with all things nuclear, there are diverging views on the likely impact to the marine environment and to human health, from dumping Fukushima’s radioactive water into the ocean. These run the gamut from “a little tritium won’t hurt you” to “the Pacific Ocean is dead thanks to Fukushima” — both of which are wildly untrue. (Tritium can bind organically inside the body, irradiating that person or animal from within. The many problems in the Pacific began long before Fukushima and are likely caused by numerous compounding factors, including warming and pollution, with Fukushima adding to the existing woes.)

kjjmkThe effect on deep sea creatures of radioactive ocean dumping could be long-lasting.

 

What is fact, however, is that scientists have found not only the presence of isotopes such as cesium in fish they tested, but also in ocean floor sediment. This latter has the potential to serve as a more long-term source of contamination up the food chain.

But it is also important to remember that if this radioactive water is dumped, it is not an isolated event. Radioactive contamination in our oceans is already widespread, a result of years of atmospheric atomic tests. As was reported earlier this year, scientists studying deep-sea amphipods, retrieved from some of the deepest trenches in the ocean — including the Mariana Trench which reaches 36,000 feet below sea-level and is deeper than Mount Everest is high — detected elevated levels of carbon-14 in these creatures.

“The levels closely matched abundances found near the surface of the ocean, where the amount of carbon-14 is higher than usual thanks to nuclear bomb tests conducted more than half a century ago,” reported Smithsonian Magazine.

Weidong Sun, co-author of the resulting study, told Smithsonian Magazine that “Biologically, [ocean] trenches are taken to be the most pristine habitats on Earth”.

How chilling, then, to realize that our radioactive irresponsibility has reached the lowest depths, affecting creatures far removed from our rash behaviors.

Consequently, the decision by the Japanese government to release yet more radioactive contamination into our oceans must be viewed not as a one-off act of desperation, but as a contribution to cumulative contamination. This, added to the twin tragedies of climate crisis-induced ocean warming and plastics and chemicals pollution, renders it one more crime committed on the oceans, ourselves and all living things. And it reinforces the imperative to neither continue nor increase our reckless use of nuclear power as an electricity source.

Fukushima’s radioactive water problem

June 11, 2020 Posted by | Fukushima 2020 | , , , | Leave a comment