Our hearts go out to the people of Japan who are suffering the devastating effects of one of the most powerful earthquakes in the past one hundred years, followed by a devastating tsunami. Thousands are dead, injured and missing, and hundreds of thousands have been left homeless, many with limited food and water.
The greatest danger to the people of Japan, however, may lie ahead in the unfolding disaster of the damaged nuclear power plants at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station located 130 miles north of Tokyo. Already, substantial radiation has been released from the fires, explosions and partial meltdowns of the radioactive fuel rods in these plants, brought about by loss of coolant in the reactor cores and the spent fuel pools. The containment shells surrounding several of the reactors have been breached, allowing for the release of radiation into the environment.
High radiation levels at the plants have resulted in reducing the work force trying to contain the radiation releases to skeleton crews, volunteers who are putting their own lives in jeopardy for the common good. Keijiro Matsushima, an 82-year-old survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, commented, “It’s like the third atomic bomb attack on Japan. But this time, we made it ourselves.”
The amount of radioactive material in the crippled reactors at Fukushima Daiichi dwarfs the amount in the Chernobyl plant, which 25 years ago had the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. Residents have been told to evacuate from a 12-mile radius of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants, and told to stay indoors in a further 7-mile radius. The United States has warned its citizens in Japan to stay beyond a 50-mile radius of the damaged power plants. Many countries are helping their citizens to leave Japan altogether.
The major lessons to be drawn from the tragedy in Japan are: first, nature’s power is far beyond our ability to control; second, the nuclear industry, in Japan and elsewhere, has arrogantly pushed ahead with their dangerous technology, wrongly assuring the public there is no reason for concern; third, the reassurances of self-interested nuclear “experts” are not to be trusted; and fourth, the nuclear power plant failures in Japan are a final wake-up call to replace nuclear power with safe, sustainable and renewable forms of energy.
There are 440 commercial nuclear reactors in the world. Of these, the US has 104, nearly twice as many as Japan’s 55 nuclear power reactors. Of the US reactors, 23 are of the same or similar design as those that are failing in Japan. President Obama’s 2012 budget calls for $36 billion in loan guarantees to subsidize new nuclear power plants.
California, known for its propensity for earthquakes, has two nuclear power plants: one at Avila Beach, north of Santa Barbara; and one at San Onofre, between Los Angeles and San Diego. Both plants are located near major fault lines. The Diablo Canyon power plant at Avila Beach is situated near the San Andreas and Hosgri fault lines. The San Onofre plant is located less than a mile from the Cristianitos fault line. Diablo Canyon is designed to withstand a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and San Onofre to withstand a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Japan’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake has demonstrated, however, that the force of earthquakes can dramatically exceed expectations.
Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors 1 and 2 made the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s list of top ten nuclear power sites with the highest risk of suffering core damage from an earthquake. Living in Santa Barbara, downwind from those reactors, we should be worried. The millions of people who live and work in New York City, within the evacuation range of the Indian Point 3 nuclear power plant, should also be worried because that plant is listed as number one on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s highest risk sites.
We know that we humans cannot control earthquakes. Nor can we control tsunamis or other natural disasters. What we can control are our decisions about the use of technology. We can say “No” to technologies that are catastrophically dangerous. From my perspective, this would include any technologies that require an unattainable level of human perfection to prevent massive annihilation. As we have seen in Japan, natural disasters and nuclear power plants are a potentially deadly mix. The dangers grow even deadlier when human error is added to the equation.
In addition to their potential for catastrophic accidents, nuclear power plants are subject to deliberate attacks by terrorists or during warfare. After more than half a century, there also remains no long-term solution for the storage of highly radioactive nuclear wastes, which will threaten future generations for many times longer than human civilization has existed. Of critical concern as well, nuclear power plants use and create the fissile materials that can be used to make nuclear weapons.
Mother Nature has given us a deadly warning that it is past time to end our reliance on nuclear power and invest instead in solar power, the only safe nuclear reactor that exists – 93 million miles from Earth. The question is: Will the disaster in Japan open our eyes to the need for change, or will we be content to continue to tempt fate and simply hope that we do not become the next place on the planet where nuclear power fails catastrophically?