Chebeague author laments disregard for nuclear energy safety
CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — In today's 24-hour news cycle, three years can feel like three decades. So while tens of thousands of Japanese citizens continue to try and rebuild their lives, the third anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11 may go largely unacknowledged in the U.S.
Environmental journalist Susan Stranahan offers one simple reason why that day remains relevant: nobody has paid attention to the lessons.
In "Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster," published Feb. 11 and co-authored by David Lochbaum and Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Stranahan details the natural disasters that led to the accident, the desperate attempts of power plant engineers to stem the meltdown, and the response of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — which, Stranahan said, has in essence been to do nothing, despite the fact many U.S. nuclear plants bear great similarities to the one in Fukushima that failed so spectacularly.
Stranahan, a Chebeague Island resident since 2008, will discuss the book on Sunday, Feb. 16, at 12:30 p.m. at the Chebeague Island Library. Admission is free.
"Over many decades, the nuclear industry in the United States and Japan and around the world has perpetuated a myth of safety," Stranahan said this week in an interview. "That myth is that the probability of severe accidents is so low that extraordinary steps don't need to be taken. ... What happened at Fukushima shot holes in that whole theory because the events were so far beyond what anyone had ever believed was possible that the safety plans just proved to be worthless."
On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake caused a power outage at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It also caused a tsunami that flooded the plant and rendered its backup generators inoperable. Without power to circulate cooling water around the reactors, the cores overheated and began to melt, leading to gaseous buildup, explosions and damage estimates well over $100 billion.
The tsunami itself was a tragedy, claiming roughly 16,000 lives. The death toll of the nuclear accident was zero. But in addition to displacing countless families — 80,000 people have still not been able to return — it will be years before scientists know with any certainty how many different cancers may have been caused by the radiation, Stranahan said.
The implications for U.S. nuclear plants are also stark.
"There are a number of reactors in the United States that are located below large dams, and the potential of a dam breaking, either through natural disaster or terrorist attack, could create a tsunami," Stranahan said. "And so you would think that based on what we saw at Fukushima that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would say, 'We need to address flooding as a potential safety issue in our requirements.' And yet, it has not become a high priority."
In the wake of Fukushima, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the NRC appointed a task force to determine how the organization should respond. When the task force recommended a major re-examination of safety regulations, "the nuclear industry howled," Stranahan said. "They just said that's impossible."
That was partly for economic reasons, Stranahan said, and also because the industry operates under an unusual premise: That there's no need to make nuclear power plants safer because they're already safe.
In the U.S., "We've got a lot of reactors that are exactly the same age, exactly the same design" as the one in Fukushima, Stranahan said. "The (Japanese) nuclear regulatory playbook was modeled right after what went on in the U.S."
Stranahan, who wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1972 to 2001, was the lead reporter for the newspaper's team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979. She has written about nuclear power off-and-on ever since. When the Union of Concerned Scientists approached her in 2011 about writing a book on Fukushima, she jumped at the chance.
"I don't care where people are on the spectrum — whether they like (nuclear power), hate it, or ambivalent about it — but I want to play a role in helping them make an informed decision," she said. "This isn't an anti-nuclear book. It's a book that says nuclear power must be safer if it's going to be part of the energy mix."