March 23 (Bloomberg) -- Some people just shouldn’t be in charge of high-risk nuclear facilities.
As far back as 2005, I warned Eisaku Sato, governor of Fukushima at the time, about the dangers of letting spent fuel accumulate in cooling ponds at the prefecture’s nuclear plants and the need to put it into much safer dry stores as soon as possible. He seemed to be the only one who listened. But clearly there were people who always knew better and whose arrogance characterizes the nuclear industry.
Almost two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami that preceded the nuclear disaster in Japan, the crisis is still far from under control. A massive steam explosion in Unit 3 and a severe fire in the spent-fuel pools remain possible. How long will the emergency workers need to spray water on the exposed reactors? The heat has to be contained for years to come.
It is high time Japanese authorities extend the 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) evacuation zone around the crippled nuclear-power plant at Fukushima on the Pacific coast. Contamination levels in foodstuffs have greatly exceeded official limits more than 100 kilometers away -- even before the rain washed more radioactivity out of the sky. Pregnant women and small children should immediately be evacuated from a progressively increasing area.
Three reactors at the Fukushima-I nuclear power plant are in advanced stages of meltdown. The core of Unit 4 is in the cooling pond under the sky after two hydrogen explosions ripped off the roof and devastated the building. Huge quantities of radioactivity have been released into the environment, estimated by the French authorities at 10 percent of the Chernobyl levels or even more. The main difference is that Fukushima isn’t in the Ukrainian countryside and the population density is dozens of times greater: The Tokyo metropolitan area of 40 million people is hardly 200 kilometers away.
Civil society in all countries should assess the record of nuclear power and draw the conclusions. Alternatives have been available for a long time. China now operates four times more wind power than nuclear capacity and this year will probably generate more kilowatt-hours from wind than from splitting the atom. The share of renewable energy in new grid connections in the U.S. went from 2 percent in 2004 to 55 percent in 2009. Half of the world’s new generating capacity in 2008-09 was renewable.
The problem is elsewhere and it’s political. We need to shift away from top-down supply-oriented projects to decentralized, highly efficient and flexible systems providing affordable, clean energy services. This isn’t the case in France, for example, where almost 75 percent of the country’s electricity is powered by nuclear energy -- the highest percentage in the world.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t wait to gauge the fallout for the nuclear industry. Three days after what history might recall as 3/11, he said it is “obviously out of the question to phase out nuclear power” in France. His special adviser, Henri Guaino, even sees a chance that the Japanese disaster “should rather favor our nuclear industry compared to those of other countries where safety has been put a bit more into second place.” Of course, neither the president nor his political adviser is a nuclear expert.
Over the past few decades, the French nuclear industry has been handed to highly reliable followers in key technocrat positions, cementing their influence in political decision-making.
This development has come at a high price. As in Japan, the system lacks democratic control and is incapable of correcting mistakes and adjusting to changing realities. The highly praised French nuclear program has a poor record: fundamental strategic errors in uranium enrichment technologies; poor load factors for operating reactors; a 55 percent increase in significant safety events to more than 1,100 last year compared with 2009; endless delays and cost overruns for units under construction; and a plutonium economy that generates substances with no book value and negative market value.
Who will now lend money for future nuclear projects? Certainly not commercial banks, which will be even more reluctant to take on the risk. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank never provided any money. The insurance industry is confident it can stem the costs of the Japanese disaster. Fitch Ratings explains why: “Damage to nuclear reactors and nuclear damage for homeowners’ policies are typically excluded from coverage.”
The nuclear industry has always lacked foresight. On 3/11, Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. was still recovering after a massive tremor that shut down its seven Kashiwazaki units on the west coast in July 2007 and three reactors are still off-line. Tepco and the authorities didn’t hear that wake-up call, brushing off the warnings of many experts.
It’s time to take the arrogance out of nuclear power and move on.
(Mycle Schneider is an independent analyst of energy and nuclear policy based near Paris, and was an adviser to the German Environment Ministry from 2000 to 2010. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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