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Why the Washington Post's Description of the Nuclear Disaster as “non-catastrophic” is both Callous and Erroneous

Trivializing Fukushima

by LINDA PENTZ GUNTER

On April 23, 2012, the editorial board of the Washington Post proclaimed that the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan was “non-catastrophic.” The writers eagerly promoted nuclear power while omitting inconvenient deal-breakers such as cost, waste, safety, health risks and human rights. The board taunted Germany and Japan – and the anti-nuclear movement – for looking to renewables but misrepresented Germany’s successes. They showed a shocking disregard for the suffering in Japan due to a very real catastrophe that is by no means over. And they utterly ignored those who have already paid the price for the nuclear fuel chain, like indigenous uranium miners, and its newest victims, the children of Japan whose future has been stolen.

The following rebuttal can also be found, with more detail, on the Beyond Nuclear website.

Washington Post (WP): Nuclear “is the only proven source of low-emissions ‘baseload’ power.”

FACT: Renewable technologies can and do deliver baseload power. In many regions, peak wind and solar production match up well with peak electricity demand. Numerous case studies, including by theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, predict that 80%-100% of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century. 

WP: Germany and Japan are “giving up all of that guaranteed, low-carbon electricity generation in an anti-nuclear frenzy.”

FACT: Nuclear energy is “guaranteed” only as long as the electrical grid is reliable and when natural disaster struck in Japan, nuclear energy wasn’t so “guaranteed” but instead worsened the crisis. In Germany, renewable energy is revitalizing home-grown industries like steel and more people there work in the renewable sector (370,000 and growing) than in the nuclear (30,000) and coal industries (20,000) combined. No “frenzy” necessary.  

WP: Nuclear power is “low-carbon electricity”.

FACT: This common nuclear industry propaganda line conveniently ignores the significant carbon emissions caused all along the nuclear fuel chain by uranium mining; milling; processing; enrichment; the transport of fuel; the construction of nuclear plants; electricity generation (which releases radioactive carbon dioxide); and the still inadequate permanent management of waste.

WP: “With all but one reactor offline, [Japan’s] consumption of crude and heavy fuel oil for power generation has roughly tripled.”

FACT: Japan has long been the third largest oil consumer in the world, but, unlike the US, Japan is looking at a rapid and meaningful deployment of conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy immediately and may introduce a feed-in tariff to speed it along. 

WP:  Germany’s “electricity sector emits more carbon than it must after eight reactors shut down last year.”

FACT: In fact,  the opposite is happening. Germany reduced its carbon emissions in 2011 by 2.1 percent  despite the nuclear phaseout. In addition, the EU emissions trading system caps all emissions from the power sector. While eight nuclear power plants were shut down, solar power output increased by 60 percent.  

WP: With Germany and Japan “making the paths to their emissions goals more difficult, anti-nuclear activists justify this mess by insisting that renewable energy sources will pick up the slack. But that raises major questions of feasibility and cost.”

FACT: Japan recognizes that rewnewables can be deployed fast, cheaply, reliably, cleanly and, above all, safely and is looking to implement a feed-in tariff to encourage development. Germany’s home-grown small-town energy revolution is underway, with more than 100 rural communities becoming 100% renewable. At least 50% of renewable energy on the German grid is provided by individuals and farmers.  As to cost, a 1,000 MW reactor costs up to $15 billion to build while a 1,000 MW deepwater wind farm is priced at $6 billion with no fuel costs, disaster recovery fund or long-lived toxic waste liability. When nuclear disaster strikes, the fiscal cost is also catastrophic, with Japan’s current “clean-up” cost estimated at $257 billion.   

WP: “Japan could still reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent of its 1990 levels by 2030 without nuclear power. Yet even if that’s true, it’s hardly a reason to let all of that existing nuclear infrastructure and know-how go to waste.”

FACT: Since December 2, 1942, when a team of scientists created the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, the industry’s entire infrastructure has gone precisely there – to waste: 67,000 metric tons of irradiated nuclear fuel – and at least another 10,000 metric tons of radioactive waste from nuclear weapons – with nowhere to go.

WP: Germany “will instead rely on electricity imports from neighbors running old, reliable coal, gas and, yes, nuclear plants for years to come.”

FACT: Even after shutting its eight oldest nuclear power plants, Germany is still a net exporter of electricity. In 2011, Germany exported 6 TWh more than it imported. Additionally, German electricity exports to Europe’s nuclear power house France increased throughout 2011.   

WP: The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was “scary but ultimately non-catastrophic.”

FACT: The Post is writing in the past tense about an accident that is not over. The extent of radioactive contamination is still unknown and growing. Unit 4 at Fukushima Daiichi remains precarious and could cause further, and greater, harm, with its high-level radioactive waste pool on the brink of potential collapse.

To the existing human suffering in Japan will be added, over time, countless people who will sicken and die prematurely as a result of their exposure to the Fukushima radiation. In addition to cancer, likely negative health effects can include birth defects, spontaneous abortions, brain tumors, diabetes, heart disease, and genetic and teratogenic mutations. Emotional suffering should not be dismissed. The Post writers would do well to imagine their own children forbidden to play outside; evacuated hundreds of miles away; or shamed into consuming radioactively contaminated food and milk. In Japan, stress, grief and guilt have split families and entire communities apart. Farmers and fishermen have lost their livelihoods due to radiological contamination of land and sea. Thousands are being forced to accept permanent exile from their homes, jobs, friends, land and everything they once knew. With a 20km (12.4 mile) area around the stricken reactors a “dead zone” for a minimum of decades and potentially centuries, it is hard to know what more the Post editorial writers need to qualify as “catastrophic.”

WP: “Maintaining existing reactors — and, we would argue, including next-generation nuclear technology as a component in forward-looking anti-carbon policies — doesn’t rule out a promising future for renewables, too.”

FACT: Actually, it does and has. In 1953, the Eisenhower Administration scrapped the last three years of the Truman Administration’s Paley Commission energy policy work and its recommendation to develop the nation’s energy independence through solar power. Instead, Eisenhower, listening to a different set of policy advisers, launched the Atomic Energy Act and the myth of the “Peaceful Atom.” The lion’s share of energy subsidies and research and development dollars have gone to the US nuclear sector in the past 60-plus years, stunting growth in the renewables sector and critically retarding their deployment now when they are most needed for climate change.

In order to address global carbon emissions, a new reactor would have to be built somewhere in the world every two weeks, an economically unrealistic, in fact impossible, proposition. According to a 2003 MIT study, “The Future of Nuclear Power,”  such an unprecedented industrial ramping up would also mean opening a new Yucca Mountain-size nuclear waste dump somewhere in the world “every three to four years,” a task still unaccomplished even once in the 70 years of the industry’s existence.

The lessons of Fukushima demonstrate that, in a crisis, nuclear power can fail, dramatically compounding, rather than alleviating, a national emergency. The destruction of human and animal lives and the environment is too high a price to justify continued use, when quicker, safer, cheaper, non-carbon emitting alternatives are ready and available.

Like many in Congress who are lavished with campaign contributions and lobbying dollars by the coal, oil and nuclear industries, the Post refuses to let go of 20th century thinking and the unwieldy, expensive and polluting energy technologies that forward-looking countries have chosen to phase out. Germany sees a bright business future and a revitalized economy in renewable energy investment. The Post argues that the US should continue to languish behind, clinging to dinosaur technologies that have no place in a modern world where global survival now hangs in the balance.

The editors urge that we build more reactors, and continue to use our existing, aging and vulnerable ones, thereby risking another Fukushima – or worse – in the US or anywhere in the world. The newspaper makes this case simply to prop up a failed, dangerous and expensive industry. It is an unacceptable argument from every perspective; financial, climatological, environmental, moral, ethical, technological and practical.

Linda Pentz Gunter is a founder of Beyond Nuclear and its international specialist. For more, see www.beyondnuclear.org