New FAS Podcast: One Year Later: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

March 11th marks the one year anniversary of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck the northeast coast of Japan. These natural disasters resulted in the crisis at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant. One year later, there are massive amounts of nuclear waste and high levels of radiation, and those citizens who live near the plant have not been able to return to their homes.

As a result of this crisis, many questions still remain. What is the future of nuclear power usage not only for Japan, but other countries such as the United States, South Korea, Germany and China? How should Japan properly dispose of the radioactive waste as a result of this accident? Finally, what should Japan’s new energy policy look like post-Fukushima?

Click here to download the new edition of the FAS podcast series, “A Conversation With an Expert”, in which FAS President Dr. Charles D. Ferguson answers these questions, and examines the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants post-Fukusima.

The podcast transcript is available here (PDF).

0 thoughts on “New FAS Podcast: One Year Later: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

  1. Dear FAS,

    I have always thought of, and respected, FAS as a much needed sane and humane body which had a clear vision of what constituted the best interests of citizens,. I was therefore desperately disappointed to hear your president Charles Ferguson support nuclear power even as he reaffirmed that future Fukushimas are inevitable if we do not convert to safe renewable energy sources.

    Jim McCluskey BSc, MICE. MIStructE, MIHT, ALI
    .(Author of ‘The Nuclear Threat),
    3 St Margarets Road,
    Middx. TW1 2LN.
    Tel: 020 8892 5704

  2. First, most of your remarks struck me as interesting, informative, and put in language a non-scientist reader or listener could understand. I have strong reservations about the following passages, however.

    When Katie asked you about the reaction to the Fukushima accident in other countries, you said (in part): “The Chinese government decided to put a halt to the construction of nuclear power plants until they could address the safety gap. Last year, they did not order any new reactors. Just a few days ago, on March 5, the government issued a work report emphasizing that safety is a top priority, and emergency response and informing the public is another top priority. So, I think these are very positive signs on the part of the Chinese government; they are still committed to moving aggressively with development of nuclear power.”

    That seems to have been spoken from the standpoint of a nuclear enthusiast, looking on the bright side! You could have said, on the basis of the facts you report, that China is moving quite cautiously since Fukushima, as compared to their previously aggressive development of NP. Especially because it is actually rather easy, and cheap, to take public stands that safety is our first and major concern, that we give top priority to developing the best of emergency response systems and to keeping the public fully informed. My first impression was that there was a kind of non sequitur here: The data cited suggest some retreat from aggressive promotion, but no doubt on the basis of other things they said, you felt confidence that there would be no retreat from the earlier promotion. You know, of course, that our own NRC has said all those good things about their own commitments. So why do I believe that they, too, “are still committed to moving aggressively with development of nuclear power”? Because there is ample evidence that in practice, concern not to put greater burdens of cost and inconvenience on the nuclear industry than it wants to pay takes actual priority over safety; that the emergency response systems it approves are little more than gestures, ignore obvious problems, and are welcomed by the industry as symbolic gestures that cost virtually nothing and make them look good; and that the NRC spends a fair amount of money pursuing public relations but is very reluctant to share with the public what it knows about the industry’s negligence and about the potential dangers of routine practices. I have come to know and trust former working nuclear engineers, like Bob Pollard, Arnie Gunderson, and Dave Lochbaum, who have reported many incidents from their own experience: the NRC can talk tough, but it carries a big eraser instead of a big stick. That is in addition to some more limited experiences of my own in dealing with the NRC staff.

    A little later, you said: “I don’t want to make it seem like everything is gloom and doom in terms of nuclear power developments around the world; there are a few countries that are still interested and going ahead with new nuclear reactors (and in fact, countries that do not even have any commercial nuclear reactors) who are committed to ordering them and having them built. In particular, Vietnam, Jordan and United Arab Emirates (who had signed a deal with South Korea about a year and a half before the accident) are still committed, and say that Fukushima has not deterred them.”

    Plainly, what one person construes as “gloom and doom” another might greet as good news. And apparently you did not read the New York Times story (Mar. 2, by Norimitsu Onishi) about Vietnam’s plans, or thought that the bases for doubts reported there were groundless. Have you no qualms about the desirability of encouraging these third world countries to forge ahead with the most complex and dangerous technologies despite their lack of cultural and intellectual infrastructure, not to mention the possible masked interest of some in developing nuclear weapons capability? I should think that Jordan and the UAE would be such excellent sites for solar power that they would not be attracted to nuclear on cost considerations alone. I urge you to read that story again, and reflect on what it says about the cultural prerequisites for a safe nuclear industry, to which I would add one not mentioned: a strong and sophisticated anti-nuclear movement of citizens, prepared to do their homework and hold the regulators to their promises and watch guard over the inevitable safety-degrading process of “regulatory capture.”

    You go on to say: “Soon after the accident last year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission formed a task force to assess what happened at Fukushima, to develop lessons learned and to make recommendations for U.S. nuclear power reactors. That report was given to the NRC Commissioners last summer and by large, it was met with a lot of receptivity on the part of the commissioners.”

    Can you cite any data to back up that rather extraordinary statement, for any of them except the chairman? I would say that they showed very cautious and gingerly receptivity, with an emphasis on moving slowly and not before all danger to profits of the operators had been warded off. Perhaps it is cynical of me to mention money; I doubt that any of the commissioners gave the industry’s profits much conscious consideration, just as I would be very reluctant to suggest that any of them were in any sense bribed.

    You continued: “Although, not all of the recommendations were going to be implemented; [I would say, not any of them were to be adopted immediately, as advised] that had led to some intense discussions within the commissioners and within other parts of the U.S. government. [A nice understatement for bitter disagreement between a safety-minded Jaczko and clearly reluctant, industry-protective other four, who reacted to him rebelliously.] Now that we are here a year after the accident, it looks as if the nuclear industry is working with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to implement most, if not all, of the major recommendations to U.S. nuclear power plants.”

    I hope that you are right, on the basis of inside information, and that my views are wrong, based as they are on an attempt to follow closely what is known to the public. To me, it looks as if the industry is not waiting for the commission to make up its mind but is moving fast to install some of the needed equipment as inexpensively as possible. They will have looked responsible and will have a fait accompli by the time the commission and their staff have decided on just what hardware is needed and of what grade. And the explicit time line of the majority of NRC sees some changes, not nearly all, and not necessarily the most important ones, in place by 2022! Today, as has been true for decades, NRC shows very little willingness to mandate even the most important changes or to require vigorous monitoring to make sure the industry does what it claims it is doing and does it right. Let me only remind you of Brown’s Ferry and its fire with unexpected serious consequences, and the fact that the protective measures to prevent other such fires are still not mandated and, to the best of my knowledge, still not acted on at Brown’s Ferry itself. So much for self-monitoring and voluntary compliance with regs., even though many operators did take corrective action.

    You went on to say: “one of the recommendations that has been around for many years is to make sure that there is a harden[ed] ventilation system at these reactors, to make sure that flammable hydrogen gas does not build up inside the reactor vessel in the event of loss of cooling. One recommendation that is being implemented both in Japan and the United States is to ensure that this ventilation system is properly in place.”

    If the recommendation “has been around for many years” and never taken seriously or really enforced, it seems that something has to be done to the general culture of the NRC to make sure that, at last, the agency really is going to put protection of the public first, as they proclaim. When you say that the reform “is being implemented,” is it that you are taking statements of intention at face value, whether or not any such work has actually begun?

    “In general,” you said, “to answer your other question regarding ‘are we safer now than we were before the Fukushima accident’—it is a work in progress. I think, by and large, the signs are positive that approved safety measures are going to be implemented in the United States.” You might have added: “Well, some of them at least, and after some years, a prudent delay the length of which cannot at this time be predicted with confidence.” I notice that you slipped in a qualifier there, “approved safety measures,” which in practice means those that the majority of the commissioners are willing to require. I find it hard to believe that a judicious and defensible answer would be more optimistic than this: that we will probably be somewhat safer, but how much safer than before, and whether soon enough, is impossible to predict.

    When asked what you would recommend to the Japanese government, you replied: “. . . my advice would be to bring back some of the nuclear power plants back into operation (at least the ones that are the safest and in the least hazardous areas), and by doing so, the government can start to build trust with the public again. . . .”

    On reflection, do you really think they would succeed in building confidence that way? For good reasons–because they know that the government has lied to them about nuclear safety before–the Japanese people would need more and other confidence-building measures before they could accept what you propose.

    I commend you for volunteering: “Even the most severe natural events will happen- there is no way of avoiding it. . . .these are inevitable events and nuclear power is a very complex technology. [Well said! really.] Faced with these realities, we need to be humble, we have to be honest with ourselves and those who run nuclear power plants, [but for the reasons stated above you appear to have persuaded yourself that it is not necessary to be completely forthcoming about risks] and those who have leadership roles in government and industry need to say to the public, ‘we know that nothing is inherently safe, but here are the benefits and here are the risks’ and on balance, they believe the benefits of nuclear power generally outweigh the risks.”

    That clearly is your own point of view: that the benefits do exceed the costs/risks, and that therefore it is OK to cover up the embarrassing failures of the NRC to do its job, or at least to omit mentioning facts of which you are aware but which might make the audience nervous about continuing, let alone expanding, nuclear power. Have you actually made a serious attempt during the past year to redo your own cost/benefit analysis? I wonder whether you have factored in all the costs and risks of which I am aware.

    Still speaking about the Japanese government, you added: “They need to keep the public fully informed and engaged in the debate and be very transparent when safety concerns arise. Specifically, the lesson learned is that each country that has nuclear power must ensure it has a strong independent regulatory agency—this is a national responsibility. Such agency would have the authority to order the shutdown of the reactor if they believe that something could be unsafe.”

    I would have felt more confidence in your judgment if you had said that the same is true for the United States. Those are good standards; and here would have been a good opportunity to give a dispassionate, objective analysis of how well the NRC stacks up against those criteria. Is it strong? Is it independent of the industry and of political pressures? It does have the authority to order shut-downs, but does it have the will and guts to do it? especially when dealing with issues calling for expensive preventive actions to avoid statistically rare but extremely costly and dangerous consequences.

    That is the heart of the matter! Nuclear power is unique among energy sources in demonstrably being prone to far more disastrous accidents or other incidents, and in imposing great and costly burdens on people who get no benefit from it, both now and for many future generations.

    Your words again: “there used [misprint for ‘needs’?] to be instilled a safety culture mentality, from the very bottom to the very top in any nuclear plant. Every day that people are at work at a nuclear facility, they need to be thinking, ‘what if.’ What if something goes wrong, is there something unsafe, and if there is, they should not hesitate to bring it to the attention of their superiors and it should be taken care of as soon as possible.”

    Unfortunately, in our contemporary world such whistle-blowers are increasingly important for society at large, but the culture has not yet changed to support and reward them. They are shunned as snitches by even their friends—as in Daniel Ellsberg’s personal story—and all too often have lost their jobs.

    Continuing: “I know it was a tragic accident; it may not be avoided to have similar accidents in the future. [You deserve thanks and congratulations for being so honest. It is virtually certain that there will be dreadful accidents.] We need to be realistic and not have necessarily a zero tolerance policy about nuclear power accidents, but know that if we can take the right steps, we could mitigate these accidents.”

    I won’t quote the rest of your final words, which were meant to be reassuring. They don’t give me much comfort with continuing nuclear power–and surely none with expanding it!–under the conditions you stipulate. If we can learn the lessons we should learn from Japan’s bitter experience (the final total cost of which cannot be foreseen for years), if our regulators completely abandon their old permissiveness and take on a perpetually sustained vigilance and decisiveness, and if we can develop satisfactory ways of restraining harmful emissions and of cleaning up those we can’t restrain and finding satisfactory ways of storing the radioactive detritus–then further such “beyond-design-basis” accidents may be tolerable? Even to the many people who suffer the consequences but never got any of the benefits? You would need a lot of luck to sell such a package in Japan, or even here.

    It must be obvious that I do consider it necessary to have a zero-tolerance policy about nuclear power accidents, and thus about nuclear power and nuclear weapons. And we haven’t even begun to consider Amory Lovins’s powerful economic argument and his detailed showing that with a major effort at increasing energy efficiency and developing renewable sources of electricity (mostly), we and all other countries could gradually abandon nuclear power without “freezing in the dark.”

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