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Fukushima: One year later

Posted Mar. 12, 2012 / Posted by: Erich Pica

One year ago I, like many people across the United States and around the world, watched as the horrible images flooded in from Japan and the Fukushima Province after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated the coastline. News of the natural disaster was grim, and it only became more so when news spread that the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi facility were damaged and offline.  

While watching, or should I say living, the news reports over the weekend and seeing the destruction of the number two containment building, my wife asked me to explain what was happening at the reactor site. As I tried to clarify the process of how the reactor rods were overheating and reacting with the cooling water, creating the hydrogen that subsequently exploded; as I explained to her the immense threat of the spent fuel pools overheating and leading to an additional massive release of radiation, I felt myself choking up. It was the first time, in all my years of advocacy, that an event linked to an issue I work on caused me to physically break down. At that moment I wished I knew less.  

It is one thing to advocate against nuclear reactors and discuss the potential threat of an unforeseen and uncontrolled meltdown. It is quite another to witness the very disaster that you feared. The realization that more than a hundred thousand people would be displaced, thousands of square miles of land would be contaminated, and that the brave workers at Tokyo Electric Power Company were potentially sacrificing their lives to shut down the reactors was just too much.

The Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster provides one of those rare historical pivot points for countries to reevaluate their embrace of nuclear technologies. Months after the Fukushima accident the German government voted to shutdown its nuclear reactor fleet by 2022.  In Japan, the public and some government officials are leading an effort to keep the reactors closed, replace the energy from those reactors with renewable energy and put in place energy efficiency standards. Even China slowed down its push to build more than two dozen reactors.  

Unfortunately, the sensible reactions of Germany and Japan have not been mirrored in the United States. While in the process of evaluating the lessons learned from Fukushima, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the relicensing of the Vermont Yankee facility in Vermont just 10 days after the nuclear disaster began in Japan. It has also voted to approve a new reactor design called the AP 1000, as well as approved initial licensing to build two new reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia.

While it’s appalling that the United States seems to exist in an alternate universe, Friends of the Earth has been working for the past year to use the lessons of Fukushima to educate the public and push back against the nuclear industry. For one, we are involved in litigation against the NRC to block its approval of the new reactor design. For the past year we have worked with allies to defeat a construction work in progress bill in Iowa. The legislation would allow the public utility, MidAmerican, to raise electric rates to fund the construction of new nuclear reactors. Even though we beat them back last year, MidAmerican has returned this year, trying to push the same bill in a new session, and we're fighting back. The good news is Iowans aren’t buying the swindle -- according to a Des Moines Register poll, 77 percent of Iowans oppose a rate hike for nuclear reactors.

The lessons of Fukushima are being heeded in many countries. Sadly, here in the United States, our government is failing to listen to the alarm set off by the disaster in Japan. As we remember the tragedy from a year ago, rest assured that Friends of the Earth will continue to ramp up its efforts to shut down existing reactors and prevent new ones from being constructed.

Photo: Fukushima I by Digital Globe

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