Nuclear Power: The Thousand Year-Plus Albatross Around Humanity’s Neck

Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Unit 3 after the explosion.

The only sane reaction to Japan’s December debut of its six-story experimental fusion reactor is uh-oh. You thought we had it bad with fission reactors blowing up in places like Fukushima and Chernobyl, spewing radioactivity over land and into the ocean? Well, if lotsa money starts pouring into fusion reactors, mark my words, we’ll have it even worse. Of course, fusion boosters claim there’s no danger or nuclear waste and fusion will be the cleanest energy ever. But rest assured there will be radioactive or other hiccups down the road. Like what happens if something goes wrong and a fusion reactor as hot as the sun blows up? Our species has its hands full with the environmental mess it made with fission power plants, whose waste litters the landscape because no one knows what to do with it. Why not hold the fusion ones till we solve the fission problems first?

Remember it was Japan that not too long ago began dumping radioactive waste water from its infamous Fukushima nuclear power melted-down reactors into the ocean in huge quantities, prompting Beijing to ban the import of Japanese fish. China’s move is all very well and good, but who says the irradiated fish will only remain near Japan’s shores?  Tokyo’s monkey-brained scheme of filling the Pacific with damaging isotopes has no guard rail around northern waters. It can spread – and will. The Pacific is gigantic, you say? Well, so are the quantities of contaminated water from Fukushima.

Japan began dumping this poison in late August, with an initial release of a modest three Olympic swimming pools-worth of water. According to the AP August 24, “The plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power has…reduced the increase in contaminated water to about 100 tons a day, one fifth of the initial amount.” Most of the water is “stored in around 1000 tanks, which are already filled to 98 percent of their 1.37 million-ton capacity.” And that’s the kicker: Tokyo plans to release that 1.37 million tons of radioactive water into the Pacific. If you think that’s kinda a lot, you have a knack for understatement.

Japan says discharging this radioactive water will take 30 years. That’s plenty of time for ocean currents to swill this mess to every coastline of the earth. “China has accused Japan of treating the ocean as its ‘private sewer,” the BBC reported August 25. But this drek won’t stay still, as in a storage pool, nope. There are seven major currents that Fukushima’s garbage will travel through: Oyashio Current, North Pacific Current, California Current, North Equatorial Current, Kuroshio Current, Yellow Sea warm Current and Tsushima warm Current. So this stuff will pour directly throughout the entire Pacific Ocean.

And it doesn’t stop there. Every day Fukushima produces contaminated water. So it’s not as if dumping 1.37 million tons of these atomic dregs over 30 years will be the end of it. After all, 30 years is not set in stone. It could take longer to dismantle the reactors, remove the nuclear fuel and all the buildings. Meanwhile the good news is that some isotopes have half-lives of only 30 years, that is cesium-137 and strontium-90; but the bad news is Plutonium-239 has a half-life of an eye-popping 24,000 years. So yes, you got it, Japan is polluting the ocean for thousands of years.

None of this would have happened had nuclear power plants not been built in tsunami-earthquake zones. But shockingly little care appears to have been taken over the years about locating humanity’s most hubristic creations. Just as common sense rarely prevails in corporate/governmental decisions about whether or not to prolong the life of reactors that are clearly on their last legs. Most decisions about aging reactors are to keep them running, even though that vastly increases the chances of catastrophic accident. This is extremely problematic in the U.S., given that nuclear reactors here are generally not spring chickens. Their average age is 40. Fortunately, so far, this fact has not caused disasters. Let’s hope our luck holds long enough to get some of these rust buckets shut down.

The list of troubled nuclear power plants in the U.S. is long. “Repeated near-disasters at Davis Besse in Ohio include a hole eaten through a critical core component by boric acid that was missed because the owners refused to do required inspections,” wrote Harvey Wasserman in Truthout July 31. “Monticello and Prairie Island in Minnesota threaten the entire Mississippi Valley. Critical intake pipes at South Texas recently froze, as its builders never anticipated the cold weather that hit it unexpectedly in 2021.” Truthout describes numerous nuclear power plants in the U.S. and abroad that are in lousy shape and should be shuttered. The gist of the article is that industry claims that the so-called peaceful atom can help alleviate the climate catastrophe are fictitious.

Because it’s not just accidents and the dilemma of waste storage that menace humanity as we play with nuclear fire. The construction of nuclear power plants and the mining, milling and enrichment of uranium are very carbon intensive, indeed they go a long way toward cancelling out the supposed green benefits of nuclear power. So don’t believe the hype about atomic energy saving our species from the dangers of our fossil fuel addiction. Nuclear power is not the answer. Wind farms and solar panels on every building on the planet are.

But don’t’ tell Joe “So-Called Climate President” Biden. His infrastructure bill contained $6 billion for nuclear power. That’s just for starters. “A billion in federal dollars has been promised,” according to Truthout, “to keep California’s Diablo Canyon running along with another billion from the state.” That’s the same power plant that a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector said should be closed “because of the danger posed by seismic activity.” What danger? This rusty old thing lies just 45 miles from the San Andreas Fault. Needless to say, the NRC inspector was ignored. With any luck, someone with a brain will decide that yes, this plant should be shut down.

Sadly, our Climate President not only goes all out for oil and gas, he’s a multi-billion- dollar nuclear booster, too. This is puzzling, because at the start of his term, Biden showed environmental promise. But then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine, suicidal western sanctions on Moscow’s energy, wild inflation of gasoline prices and the predictable terror of homo politicus at voter fury over paying through the nose at the pump. So then Biden’s hunt was on for cheap oil and gas, as the Climate President’s lofty goals went out the window and bad ideas like nuclear power came in. So Biden did this to himself – and all the rest of us. Thus the wretched results of one imperial politician’s lust to settle a score with another superpower, half way around the globe.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Lizard People. She can be reached at her website.