Author of Data-Driven Book on Fukushima Disaster Visits Atlanta
(APN) ATLANTA — Nearly three years after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, Dr. Edwin Lyman, a leading expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), addressed students at Emory School of Law, as well as a large crowd at the Carter Center, on Monday, February 10, 2014, to discuss stories his new book Fukushima: A Nuclear Disaster, which was released the next day.
Lyman co-authored the book with Dave Lochbaum, head of the Nuclear Safety Project at UCS; and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Susan Stranahan.
The team read through thousands of pages of internal documents from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy invited Lyman to speak of the terrors in Japan, to help Atlantans understand what really happened at Fukushima and the dangers of the new nuclear construction happening in their backyard, including Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 under construction near Augusta, Georgia.
Given the weakness of current regulatory safety standards in the U.S., these new reactors give cause for real concern for residents across the state.
“The bottom line is that Fukushima wasn’t a Japanese nuclear accident; it was a nuclear accident that happened to occur in Japan,” Lyman said. “Regulators have to abandon the attitude that it can’t happen here; or it certainly will happen, too, here; it’s only a matter of time.”
On March 11, 2011 the earthquake and tsunami that wiped out Japan’s northeast coast resulted in the one thing no nuclear reactor can survive – an extended power outage.
In 2008, experts warned TEPCO that the company could have underestimated the effects of a tsunami on their plants, but the company concluded further research was needed. They failed to respond appropriately to protect from stronger tsunamis.
“Building embankments as tsunami countermeasures may end up sacrificing nearby villages for the sake of protecting nuclear power stations… may not be socially acceptable,” one TEPCO document said.
Officials feared a tall sea wall would send a message of potential danger to the public.
Today, the situation at Fukushima remains uncertain at best. Crews continue to pump water to keep highly radioactive spent fuel pools cool, but some of that water is leaking into the basements of the compromised buildings and ultimately going into the ocean.
The water that is recovered is stored in a huge on-site tank farm and the site is running out of room to store the tanks, which are increasing radiation levels onsite.
Instead of continuing to treat all this contaminated water, TEPCO has proposed building an ice wall that would keep rainwater and groundwater from flowing into the site and ocean.
TEPCO has already received an 11.5 billion dollar bailout from the Japanese government and raised their rates for customers by 15 percent, but the road to cleanup will be long and even more expensive. Lyman estimates the total cost for decommissioning the reactors alone will be 10 billion dollars.
“Decommissioning is going to be a really big deal. They don’t know how big because they don’t even know what actually happened in the reactors.” Lyman said. “They don’t know where most of the radioactive fuel is sitting. Until they figure that out, they can’t even figure out how to decommission these plants.”
The company has also said it would pay 12,700 dollars to the residents forced to evacuate during the accident, which displaced 160,000 people – some by government mandate and others by choice.
Many families are now prepared to return home to areas where the Japanese government has declared uninhabitable, yet many places affected by the storm are overrun by vermin and lack food supplies, basic services, and infrastructure
While national health impacts from the accident won’t be fully known for decades, estimates of cancer deaths are in the thousands.
Lyman expressed great concerns about iodine-131 contamination levels in Japan. Similar contamination caused 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children and fetuses after the Chernobyl accident, he noted.
In fact, more than 40% of Fukushima children have thyroid abnormalities.
For the Japanese, the ongoing fallout from Fukushima is a daily reminder of the myth of nuclear safety.
“Japan used to be pro-nuclear. Now the majority is… against nuclear power. It takes an accident to do that,” Lyman said.
Could it happen here?
In his remarks, Lyman stressed the similarities between both Japan and the United States’ tendency to condone close relationships between industry giants and the agencies that regulate them.
“We don’t believe that U.S. nuclear plants are much better equipped than Japanese reactors to cover severe accidents. U.S. emergency plans are not designed to protect the public after an accident of the scale of Fukushima. They simply do not assume that such an event could occur,” Lyman says.
For instance, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires a ten-mile evacuation radius around US nuclear plants. After the Fukushima accident, the NRC advised all US residents within 50 miles of the plant evacuate and documents obtained by the Fukushima authors show that the NRCs worst case projections would have had US embassy staff 140 miles always in Tokyo evacuate.
Lyman also warned about seismic risks in the U.S.
“It has been known for decades that seismic hazards to plants in the Eastern Central U.S., including the South East and the Midwest, are higher than when most of the nuclear plants there were actually licensed,” he said. “You have plants that are operating when it’s known that the hazards are greater than what they’re designed to withstand. The regulator is not responding to that with promptness and that’s a big problem.”
His warnings were on point: Many residents and activists had concerns when a 4.1 earthquake (unusual for the Southeast) hit less than fifty miles away from Plant Vogtle last week.
In addition to seismic concerns at Vogtle, Lyman raised safety issues with the Westinghouse Actively Passive (AP) 1,000 reactor design that Georgia Power is using for Vogtle Units 3 and 4.
The design features a large water tank at the top of the reactor that would use the force of gravity to funnel in water to cool the fuel in case of a power outage. But with just a three day supply, a longer power outage could have dire consequences if emergency vehicles cannot get to the site or the tank cannot be refilled.
“I’m worried about the AP1000. Again, here’s an example where the industry’s giving this impression we have an exciting new reactor design, which is going to be safer. It turns out, safer than what? It has to meet essentially the same safety guidelines and the present reactors and Westinghouse isn’t going to put more safety than it’s required to because it costs too much money. So they say, well, this aspect is safer than current reactors so we can cut costs here. So they’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. As a result, those reactors are not necessarily safer, they may even be more dangerous than current reactors.”
It’s not just the new reactors, however, that are cause for concern. High levels of risks plague many of the hundred reactors currently online in the U.S.
“Some reactors have a chance up to 100 percent that their containment will leak or fail like we saw at Fukushima,” Lyman said. “The industry and the NRC have not dealt with that issue to the extent it needs to be dealt with.”