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It has been three years since a 9 magnitude earth quake, with its subsequent tsunami, propelled three reactors of Fukushima’s Daiichi nuclear power plant into meltdown. Reviews were subsequently undertaken. The energy that comes from nuclear stations fell from 14 per cent before the accident to 11 per cent in 2012. Fifteen reactors were retired, mainly from Germany and Japan.
Despite that, the allure of nuclear energy has persisted. The BRIC countries are accelerating nuclear production, with Russia aiming to gain 45 per cent of its electricity via nuclear power by 2050. France and the United States have affirmed their nuclear stances, holding the line that continued interest in its use is vital.
Little wonder, then, that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission could be found understating, and in other instances blatantly concealing, the effects of the meltdowns at Fukushima. It has superbly consistent form on that score, doing exactly what its remit suggests: regulating matters of a nuclear concern.
Journalists at NBC News have been going through various emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. These show how NRC staff “made a concerted effort to play down the risk of earthquakes and tsunamis to America’s aging nuclear plants” (NBC News, Mar 11). These affirm what was already known: that the NRC kept mum about the severity of Fukushima, downplaying it where necessary, propping up other parts when needed. The illusion of public safety had to be maintained.
One email from March 13, 2011 from the Director of the Office of Public Affairs, Eliot Brenner, to staffers describes that “very hectic weekend and a good test of our crisis communication planning.” Accordingly for the NRC, nuclear disasters are matters of public relations as much as anything else. Contain, restrain and restrict is their abiding rationale. “We can expect fall-out over this to continue for a time along the lines of: Can this happen in the US and what is the NRC doing about it?”
A series of questions and answers outlined for NRC Commissioner Gregory B. Jaczko (Mar 12, 2011) goes into some depth about the concealment. Questions are asked whether such meltdowns might happen in the US context when “an earthquake that significantly damages a nuclear power plant” and whether the “Japanese plants” were similar to US ones. The designated public answer was that, “All US nuclear power plants are built to withstand environmental hazards, including earthquakes and tsunamis.” The answer not intended for public circulation revealed that the reactor design which succumbed to that very disaster “is a Boling Water Reactor that is similar to some US designs, including Oyster Creek, Nine Mile Point and Dresden Units 2 and 3.”
As for what would happen in the event of a plant meltdown, the NRC would reiterate in its public answer that nuclear power plants in the US “are designed to be safe”, employing “multiple barriers between the radioactive material and the environment”. The confidential response, however, made it clear that the core might well “melt through the containment liner and release radioactive material to the environment.” Just don’t tell the public that.
The politics of nuclear safety is hazardous. Japanese and US officials disagreed in the aftermath of Fukushima how far individuals should be evacuated from the plant. The Japanese went for a 20 mile radius. After initially telling US citizens to keep to that official estimate, the White House amended that to 50 miles on the advice from the NRC. White House spokesman Jay Carney was quick to pour water on any suggestions of bad faith on the part of Washington – the Japanese limit was still being respected, despite US assertions to the contrary.
This revelation triggered an FOIA request by Friends of the Earth, the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Nuclear Information Resource Centre in March of 2011. That purpose was to ascertain why Jaczko had told Congress “that he was recommending the 50-mile evacuation radius.” Normal practice regarding US nuclear reactor licensees is to stick to an evacuation limit of 10 miles. Something far more serious was in the making.
Some of the documents revealed then were reiterated in the NBC article that came out on Monday. A few stunners are also worth noting, among them a chronic lack of interest on the part of the NRC to pursue a coherent policy of KI (potassium iodide)  distribution. In 2009, the NRC cancelled the policy on distribution altogether, citing inconvenience and cost as problems.
The almost glib response to a radioactive plume as it headed to the West Coast of the US provides the icing on the cake. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in one email from David Lew (Mar 12, 2011) was “stood down and operating under normal weekend staffing.” This, despite, “Interaction with DHS and federal agencies, including plume plot, possible exposure models, and monitoring on the west coast.”
The acutely shabby approach to the Fukushima meltdown could hardly be approached differently. Regulatory commissions that deal with potentially lethal technologies are not in the business of abolishing their remits, or castigating their quarry. They are, rather, in the business of making it cleaner, more digestible for a public they would rather deceive than enlighten. Little wonder then, that this carnival of appearances took place.
Even after Fukushima, President Obama would make a concerted effort to defend the use of nuclear power. In an interview with KOAT in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he outlined one priority: using such energy in a safe manner. “I think it is very important to make sure that we are doing everything we can to insure the safety and effectiveness of the nuclear facilities that we have” (AP, Mar 16, 2011).
The Mammon of energy needs is certainly a feature that puts officials dealing with nuclear energy in a bind. The dangers of an accident can be catastrophic, but that doesn’t stop defenders of the program flying the flag high for the golden resume of nuclear power. “Despite the fear of catastrophe, we cannot turn our backs on nuclear energy,” claims Maria Teresa Vanikiotis (PolicyMic, Jan 24, 2012). “Its benefits are many and its risks can be mitigated. Unlike its fossil fuel and renewable energy equivalents, the operation costs of nuclear power are comparatively cheap, its supply reliable, and, in terms of its carbon footprint, its emissions negligible.”
The nuclear option – civilian or military – has always been a matter of sales pitch, nationalist prodding and conviction. Science takes second spot – in the tier of powers, nuclear energy is craved and sought. Power is the galloping winner, taking all. The NRC’s role in that quest is to manage the task, rather than enlighten its followers.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org