The completion of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s fact-finding mission to Japan, and the release of excerpts from these findings, was just one of the Fukushima-related news stories this past week worth mentioning.
The report is to be presented to the Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety at IAEA headquarters later this month, but some information has come out ahead of then. Among other things, the mission apparently found no contingency plan in place at Fukushima after the tsunami overran the 5.7-metre break wall and disabled back-up generators. This was ‘despite multiple forecasts from a government agency and Tokyo Electric Power Co's own scientists that such a risk was looming.’
The mission also found that the tsunami hazard for several sites had been underestimated, something that seems inexcusable considering two basic facts: 1) Japan is prone to tsunamis and 2) all 54 of Japan's nuclear power plants are located on the coast. In some cases, Japan even outright ignored previous recommendations. The response from Tatsujiro Suzuki, a nuclear expert and vice chairman of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission, that ‘we had a playbook, but it didn't work,’ was hardly inspiring.
Potentially equally troubling was the video posted by Youtube user ‘yuunosato’ of a litter of rabbits, purportedly born in Namie Tsushima, around 30 kilometres from Fukushima. It’s important to remember that as of the time of writing, this footage is unverified. Still, the implications if it’s genuine make it worth mentioning.
In the video, one albino rabbit was born earless, prompting speculation about possible nuclear-related mutation. The poster asserts that the earlessness of the rabbit is related to the release of radioactive materials from the troubled Fukushima power plant. Now, earless rabbits aren’t unheard of, and can occur either because of a genetic defect or through the mother rabbit biting off the ears if she is distressed. But if the rabbits were indeed born near Fukushima Daiichi, the fact that rabbits have a short gestation period (roughly 30 days) will certainly be seen as foreshadowing some of the possible radiation-related problems to come. Such concerns will only have been bolstered by studies such as one released by the European Committee on Radiation Risk, which projects 200,000 people living within a 100 kilometre radius of the Fukushima plant could end up being afflicted with cancer within the next 50 years if they continue living in the area for at least one year.
Meanwhile, late last month, Japan's science ministry MEXT took seafloor samples from 12 locations along a 300-kilometre stretch of Fukushima prefecture's coast. Analysis of the samples found radioactive substances in all 12 locations, and ‘extraordinarily high levels of radioactive caesium’ in the samples from Miyagi and Ibaraki prefectures. In a seabed sample taken 30 kilometres from Sendai City in Miyagi, radioactive caesium 137 was measured at 110 becquerels per kilogram, which is 100 times the normal level. Similarly, in a seabed sample taken 10 kilometres from Mito City in Ibaraki, the reading came back as 50 becquerels, or 50 times the normal level.
It’s no surprise that radioactive substances were found on the seabed. Even without the emergency dumping of radioactive cooling water, radioactive substances could have made their way to the seabed anyway. In addition, according to Prof. Takashi Ishimaru of Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, plankton near the surface probably absorbed radioactive substances near the sea surface, and thereafter sank to the seabed. The plankton are then ingested by shrimp and crab who are in turn consumed by larger fish. The radioactive substances then travel up the food chain in a process known as bioaccumulation. All this means that because radioactive substances are easily moved through this process, the monitoring area of Fukushima’s fallout will need to continue into the future, and the monitoring radius will need to be expanded.
In a rather more uplifting piece of news, a group of retirees aged 60 and over have formed the Skilled Veterans Corps in the hopes that they might be able to help restore the cooling systems at Fukushima and bring about a resolution to the current crisis. The group is roughly 250-members strong and made up of retired engineers and other professionals. One of the reasons cited for the offer by Yasuteru Yamada, the founder of the group, is that the cells of an older person's body divide more slowly than a younger individual, thus bestowing these retirees with less sensitivity to radiation. The group also feels that younger people have more to live for and that it would therefore be unjust to burden the younger generation with the cleanup. The Skilled Veterans Corps' selfless offer to help hasn't yet been accepted by the government or TEPCO, though it has been noted with appreciation.
Finally, last month, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced that Japan would scrap plans for new nuclear reactors, saying that the nation would need to ‘start from scratch’ and create a new energy policy. The original plan was to build 14 additional nuclear reactors by 2030, effectively raising Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy to 50 percent. Without these plants, Kan laid down new ambitious goals for the country to develop renewable energy and also conservation efforts.
But Japan isn’t the only country that has reassessed nuclear power as a result of Fukushima. Switzerland is the second European country to announce plans to exit from nuclear energy use. Germany was the first, and after reassessing the safety of its own nuclear power plants, it announced plans to shut down all its reactors by 2022 at the latest.
Despite generating roughly 40 percent of its energy from nuclear sources, the Swiss government announced that it’s determined to abandon nuclear power, ‘convinced that this is the right step and it will pay off in the long term.’ Unlike Germany, no definite date has been set for the last Swiss reactor to go offline, though experts have projected a possible 2040 target. Both Switzerland and Germany have indicated renewable energy as one source that will be developed in lieu of their respective nuclear exits. This is good news. Support for renewable energy is the first step in weaning ourselves off of less desirable sources of energy. According to a landmark study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change under the United Nations, renewable energy could provide 80 percent of the world's energy supply within four decades, but only if governments actively pursue policies that foster the development of renewable sources.
According to Ramon Pichs, co-chair of one of the IPCC working groups, ‘it is not the availability of (renewable) resources but the public policies that will either expand or constrain renewable energy development over the coming decades.’
Although the nuclear crisis has been tragic, it may have been necessary to bring renewable energy to the forefront of policymakers minds.