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[Hiroaki Koide] Japan risks nuclear disaster for consumer convenience

TOKYO ― I have been warning about the possibility of catastrophic nuclear power accidents for the past 40 years. That the very nightmare I always predicted has come true makes it no less alarming to watch the ongoing Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster unfold.

Nuclear power plants are machines; machines can fail at times. Nuclear power plants are constructed and operated by people; people are not infallible ― mistakes may be made. Beyond that, natural disasters are beyond our control. No matter how much we try to prevent accidents from happening, we must still be prepared for when they do occur. The essential risk of nuclear energy is that it involves imperfect machines controlling an enormous amount of naturally dangerous substances. In the event of a worst-case accident, catastrophic damage is unavoidable. Any assurances that nuclear power is “absolutely” safe are propaganda.

I cannot predict how the present situation will turn out. In my worst-case scenario, the cooling of the reactors will fail, causing the reactor core to collapse ― the so-called meltdown. And if there is water remaining at the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel containing the reactor cores, a steam blast explosion can occur. If that happens, the primary containment shell covering the reactor pressure vessels ― the final radioactivity-confining barrier ― can be damaged. Then a great quantity of radioactivity will be released into the environment. The workers at the Fukushima Power Station are currently fighting hard to prevent such a scenario. I hope their struggle will be successful.

Most of the world’s nuclear power plants have been built away from seismic faults. There are a hundred nuclear power stations in the U.S. constructed on the East Coast where earthquakes do not strike. There are a hundred and fifty nuclear power plants in Europe, where the crust is stable and there is no fear of earthquakes. However, in Japan, the most seismically active country in the world, there are 54 operating nuclear plants.

There is a very large possibility of the next disastrous accident occurring at the five nuclear reactors at Hamaoka, Shizuoka prefecture, where there is a very high and imminent probability of a major earthquake along the Tokai Fault. We now know that land on which the Hamaoka plant is built is unstable and will magnify any damage caused by the earthquake.

Are we just going to wait until another disaster strikes at Hamaoka? The Fukushima episode must prompt Japanese to ask themselves whether their appetite for convenience is worth making such foolish choices.

Many Japanese believe that we will not be able to lead comfortable lives without nuclear energy. But there are alternatives. Nuclear energy at present only produces 18 percent of overall electricity capacity. To generate this share of electricity now being produced by nuclear plants would require only 20 percent of the production capacity of Japan’s extant thermal power plants, which are only operating at 50 percent capacity.

Certainly nuclear is the worst choice by any standard. But even exploring alternative energy sources like thermal can only go so far. The so-called “advanced countries,” including Japan, need to examine their extravagant energy usage.

In night satellite photos of Earth, Japan is brilliantly lit up. Doors to buildings open automatically. People throng towards the escalators and elevators rather than the stairs. Even in summer, thanks to air conditioning, they work in long-sleeve suits. Vegetables and fruit, requiring abundant energy, are grown year-round and sit on dinner tables regardless of the season.

Due to the Fukushima nuclear plant accident, produce from Fukushima and surrounding areas has been contaminated. Nobody wants to eat radioactive food, myself included. However, if we refuse to eat the affected food, the area’s agricultural and fishing industries will collapse.

We thought our affluence gave us license to indulge in abundant energy production. Nuclear energy is a symbol of that trend. In reality it has led to a decline in agriculture and fishing. If, faced with this nuclear accident, we allow agriculture and fishing to go by the board, it will mean that we have not learned anything from this tragedy.

Given the false propaganda by the government and energy companies, it’s understandable that the general public was deceived that nuclear energy was safe. That is not to say that the deceived person bears no responsibility for being taken in. Children, however, must be deemed blameless. Being particularly sensitive to the effects of radiation, they should be protected from exposure accordingly. After all information is made public, contaminated food should be consumed only by adults.

The ultimate solution to relying on foolish technology is to rein in our energy consumption. Regrettably, humans appear to be foolish and greedy beings. However, if we are to hand our living Earth over to our children and grandchildren, we have to know when “enough is enough.” There is no doubt it would require an arduous discipline to let go of our luxurious lifestyle and change the spendthrift habits of our society. However, if that is the only way to ensure a sustainable and peaceful future, then we as a species must acquire a bit of wisdom. Let us pause and seriously ask ourselves how much energy we really need in our day-to-day lives, and work immediately on reforming our energy-wasting world.

The best course for Japan is to abolish all nuclear power stations at once. It is a mystery to me how people don’t realize this after witnessing the tragedy of the Fukushima accident.

By Hiroaki Koide

Hiroaki Koide, an assistant professor at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University, has become a leading anti-nuclear voice in Japan. This article is adapted from his talk “The End is Coming for Nuclear Power,” given on April 29 at Meiji University in Tokyo. He is author of “Hidden Truth of Nuclear Power.” Translated from Japanese by Shun Daichi. ― Ed.

(Tribune Media Services)