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The Demonic Reality of Fukushima

In the days following the March 11, 2011 beginning of the Fukushima Nuclear Catastrophe, chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano repeatedly reassured the Japanese public, news media, and world community that there was “no immediate health risk” from mounting radioactive releases from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. His choice of words was very similar to the U.S. nuclear power establishment’s during the Three Mile Island melt down of 1979, as captured by Rosalie Bertell’s classic anti-nuclear primer No Immediate Danger? Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth.

However, as the New York Times revealed Monday, Edano and his colleagues at the highest levels of the Japanese federal government were actually worried about a worst-case scenario, a “demonic chain reaction” of atomic reactor meltdowns spreading catastrophic amounts of deadly radioactivity from the three operating units at Fukushima Daiichi (as well as multiple high-level radioactive waste storage pools there), to the four operating reactors and pools at Fukushima Daini (just 7 miles south, which itself avoided catastrophe thanks to a single surviving offsite power line; several offsite power lines were lost to the earthquake, and all diesel generators were lost to the tsunami), to the operating reactor and pool at Tokai (much closer to Tokyo). Regarding such a nightmare scenario, eerily similar to what Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa depicted in Dreams, the New York Times reported:

“We would lose Fukushima Daini, then we would lose Tokai,” Mr. Edano is quoted as saying, naming two other nuclear plants. “If that happened, it was only logical to conclude that we would also lose Tokyo itself.”

On March 13, 2011, even as Fukushima Daiichi’s reactors were melting down and exploding, and its storage pools at risk of boiling or draining dry and the high-level radioactive waste catching fire, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) provided false assurance to the U.S. public and news media, that no harmful levels of radioactive fallout would reach U.S. territories. However, at the very same time, NRC was itself worried about potentially hazardous levels of radioactive Iodine-131 reaching Alaska.

Just last week, NRC held public meetings about its newly unveiled, so-called “State of the Art Reactor Consequence Analysis” (SOARCA). One meeting took place near the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, nor far from Philadelphia or Washington D.C., where two General Electric Boiling Water Reactors of the Mark I design (GE BWR Mark I) operate. Paul Gunter, Beyond Nuclear’s Reactor Oversight Project Director, attended and testified.

SOARCA is meant to replace a 1982 study, “Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences” (CRAC-2). CRAC-2 made shocking projections of casualties and property damage that would result downwind of a catastrophic radioactivity release from an accident at either Peach Bottom Unit 2 or 3: 72,000 “peak early fatalities”; 45,000 “peak early injuries”; 37,000 “peak cancer deaths”; and $119 billion in property damages. But CRAC-2 was based on 1970 U.S. Census data. Populations have grown significantly in the past 42 years, so casualty figures would now be much worse. And when adjusted for inflation, property damages would now top $265 billion, in 2010 dollars. Such shocking figures may explain why NRC, which commissioned the study, tried to conceal its results from the public. But U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) made the information public in congressional hearings.

Of course, as shown by Fukushima Daiichi, a major accident at either Peach Bottom reactor could very easily spread to the second reactor. And, as Yukio Edano — who now serves as Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), with direct oversight of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) — warned about Fukushima Daini and Tokai, a catastrophic radioactivity release from Peach Bottom could spread to other nearby nuclear power plants, such as Limerick Units 1 and 2, Three Mile Island Unit 1, and Salem Units 1 and 2/Hope Creek, forcing workers to evacuate and putting many additional reactors’ and high-level radioactive waste storage pools’ safety at risk.

Despite all this, NRC’s SOARCA — by assuming almost all radioactivity will be contained during an accident, any releases will happen slowly and in a predictable fashion, that emergency evacuation will come off without a hitch, etc. — claims that casualties will be low, or even non-existent. Such false assurances fall flat on their face in light of the lessons learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Catastrophe, including the new revelations described above.

In fact, Peach Bottom 2 and 3 are bigger in size than Fukushima’s Units 1 to 4. Peach Bottom 2 and 3 are both 1,112 Megawatt-electric (MW-e) reactors, 2,224 MW-e altogether. Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 was 460 MW-e. Units 2 and 3 were each 784 MW-e. Altogether, they were “only” 2,028 MW-e, smaller in size than Peach Bottom 2 and 3. The same is true regarding high-level radioactive wastes. The Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 to 4 storage pools contained a total of 354 tons of irradiated nuclear fuel. Peach Bottom nuclear power plant, however, stores well over 1,500 tons of irradiated nuclear fuel on-site. Although Peach Bottom has installed dry cask storage, the vast majority of irradiated fuel is still stored in the Mark I elevated, and vulnerable, pools. Beyond Nuclear recently published a backgrounder on the risk of Mark I high-level radioactive waste storage pools.

NRC should immediately withdraw its absurd SOARCA report, and get about the business of protecting public health, safety, and the environment — its mandate — rather than doing the nuclear power industry’s bidding by downplaying risks as at Peach Bottom 2 and 3. A good place to start would be immediately and permanently shutting down all 23 operating Mark Is in the U.S., including Peach Bottom 2 and 3, as Beyond Nuclear’s “Freeze Our Fukushimas” campaign calls for.

Cindy Folkers is a Radiation and Health Specialist at Beyond Nuclear.

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