Fukushima and the Age of Distrust

March 13, 2012 § Leave a comment


It’s been a year since the catastrophic meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants. The stark, dramatic images of the crippled reactors are hulking mountains of splintered shards forming a radioactive tomb. Videos and photographs of the tumultuous ruins are blatant messages about the dangers of nuclear power; the impacts of reported widespread contamination of farmlands and waterways are predicted to last for generations. Destruction from the earthquake and tsunami was biblical in its wake, causing three reactors to eventually melt down. Contaminated radioactive hot spots are still being found some 25 miles from the Daiichi reactors, rendering the area uninhabitable and prohibiting over 90,000 people who lived in the area from returning to their homes.

 The initial bungling of misinformation by the Japanese government to the world and to its citizens about the extent of the danger was a prime example of how national leaders alter the truth to avoid panic, adding to the growing distrust of governments chummy with the nuclear industry. That the Japanese no longer trust their leaders was reported in a recent New York Times article by Martin Fackler, ” Japan’s Nuclear Energy Industry Nears Shutdown, at Least for Now,” ( http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/09/world/asia/japan-shutting-down-its-nuclear-power-indU.S.try.html?_r=1&emc=tnt&tntemail1=y ).   Fackler reports that “all but two of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors have gone offline since the nuclear disaster a year ago,” primarily due to the nationwide loss of faith in a “Japan ‘s once-vaunted nuclear technology but also in the government, which many blame for allowing the accident to happen.”

In the post Fukushima era here in the U.S., the thunderous drone of 104 U.S. nuclear generators roars on. Not only are the feds in denial about Japan ‘s disaster with claims that a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami can’t happen here, but if anything, the Japanese catastrophe has re-energized the U.S. nuclear renaissance.

And, as usual, the industry has time on their side.

The pro-nuclear support by the U.S. government and its untouchable hand maiden, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have dodged post Fukushima bullets aimed at giving nuclear power a bad rep. Even though the NRC quickly threw together a special Fukushimatask force it took them an entire year  – almost on the eve of the first anniversary ofFukushima — to issue safety rules to nuclear plant owners who have until 2016 to comply. According to a Reuter’s report on March 9, 2012  (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/09/U.S.-utilites-nrc-fukU.S.hima-idU.S.BRE8281AC20120309,   “U.S. implements new Fukushima nuclear safety policy by Scott DiSavino) the few safety rules the NRC labeled “urgent” requires plants to beef up protection of their safety equipment installed after the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks, and for plants to install enhanced equipment for monitoring water levels in each reactor’s spent fuel pool. Compliance with these orders is expected to cost utilities each about $100 million, a fraction of what nuclear utilities rake in yearly.

The industry also has another year before they get on the defensive about deleterious affects from Fukushima contamination. The United Nations Scientific Committee says their formal report, due out in mid 2013, hopes to reveal the extent of food contamination from the Fukushima accident.http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-03-05/children-of-fukU.S.hima-wait-for-un-radiation-study.

In the Fukushima aftermath the feds never skipped a beat in their lock-step with the industry. Over a month before issuing a new set of safety rules, the NRC gave a nod to Southern Company in Georgia to fast track two new nuclear plants at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant near Waynesboro,Georgia. The two new reactors will cost $14 billion a piece and the rushed construction plan is unprecedented with completion expected by 2016 and 2017.

Southern Company is using $14 billion of U.S. backed loan guarantees — an outward muscle flexing of this country’s love affair with nuclear power. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, which guaranteed $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for companies building new nuclear plants, not only remained unchallenged after Fukushima but President Obama attempted to gift-wrap an additional $36 billion in loans to jump-start the renaissance — a request that Congress denied and one that didn’t surface in the 2013 budget.

The global galvanization of the anti-nuclear movement since Fukushima has become skeptical of an industry in collusion with it’s government – a disaster-prone dynamic duo. For those seeking to shutter nukes permanently, it’s like swimming upstream against a doomsday trend that, not for the first time, has screamed prophetic warnings: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and now Fukushima (let’s not forget 9-11 when the Indian Point nuclear power plant outside New York City was among the targets considered by Al Qaeda terrorists. http://www.energybulletin.net/node/1243 9/11 Report Reveals Al Qaeda Ringleader Contemplated a NY-area Nuclear Power Plant as Potential Target).

There are countries who have heeded the warnings of Fukushima: Germany, who is boldly phasing out all their nuclear fleets by 2022, Switzerland, where nuclear power produces 40 percent of electricity, plans to shut down its reactors by 2034, Belgium is expected to phase out their two remaining nuclear power plants and stations, and, Kuwait just announced they are terminating a plan to build four reactors by 2022. Italy abandoned nuclear power after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

  In the U.S. however, the priority for this billion dollar industry is the profitable bottom line. In this powerful energy driven market, spending on programs that would lessen risks and increase safety are budget items that trail far behind advertising campaigns and powerful lobbyist strategies.

Nuclear energy lobbyists cozy with both state and federal governments went into overdrive after Fukushima, rushing to assure Capitol Hill that U.S. plants could withstand similar earthquakes and tsunamis like those that happened in Japan. Fukushima aside, the national ticket to pay lobbyists by nuclear reactor owners has doubled from $27 million in 2004 to $54 million in 2010.

Entergy, one of the biggest nuclear utility companies in the U.S. and owner of the aging Indian Point outside of New York City, paid over $1 million to lobbyists Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker, the Vidal Group and Featherstonhaugh Wiley & Cline to work their magic in Albany, New York ‘s state capital. On the federal level, Entergy paid over $8.2 million to lobbyists such as Breaux Lott Leadership Group and Peck, Madigan, Jones and Stewart in 2010 and 2011.

Lobbyists are looking over their shoulder at Fukushima especially in the case of Indian Point, where the NRC is considering renewing Entergy’s operating license for 20 more years. Just 24 miles from densely populated New York City and built on two seismic fault lines, Indian Point spent fuel pools currently hold three times the radioactivity as the spent fuel pools in the four Fukushima reactors . http://www.ips-dc.org/pressroom/expert_cautions_that_30_million_spent_nuclear_fuel_rods_are_unsafely_stored_in_united_states_could_cause_fukushima-like_disaster

Lobbyists, who are the glue that solidifies the incestuous bond between government and nuclear power utilities, can laugh in the face of potential risk with the no-fault backing by the Price Andersen Indemnity Act. Passed in 1957, Price Andersen places a cap on the total amount of liability that each nuclear power plant licensee could potentially face in the event of an accident. The public pays the rest. The Act has been extended several times and is up for renewal in 2025. Price Andersen is what Toledo Blade reporter Tom Henry calls the “mother of all bailouts” and “lets utilities — and their investors — off the hook for all but $12.6 billion of any catastrophe while taxpayers assume all other liability, a figure that could potentially reach hundreds of billions of dollars.” http://www.toledoblade.com/TomHenry/2012/03/01/Nuclear-power-indU.S.try-waits-for-Wall-Street-to-flip-the-switch.html . $12 billion is a drop in the bucket when it comes to costs related to nuclear accidents. According to UPI, FukU.S.hima Daiichi owner Tepco needs at least twice that amount. The Japanese government wants a bigger part in running Tepco before bailing the company out with $13 billion in public funds and Tepco financial backers want assurances that the plants can be restarted before lending the utility $12.4 billion.http://www.upi.com/Business_News/2011/09/17/Damaged-nuke-plant-may-lose-insurance/UPI-59231316292856/

Can we ever undo a liaison that is on automatic, propelled by stock dividends and campaign coffers?  The priority for this billion dollar industry is more profit and less spending on risk management and safety measures. But other budget lines for the industry have spiked, especially for companies like Entergy who is battling an organized opposition to re-licensing, a movement that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has robustly supported. Since 2007 when Entergy first applied for a new license, and because the application garnered more contentions in the history of NRC re-licensing, Entergy has had to pump more into legal defense, ad campaigns and lobbyists. While expenditures rose, stock prices fell. In January, 2012, the company reported a drop in net income to $160 million (87 cents per share) vs. $233.3 million ($1.28 per share) a year earlier — a decline of 31.4% – a dip that most energy investors see as a financial blip, a mere rhythmic slowing of the industry’s forward moving gait. But slowing is tantamount to stopping and with enough political will and more doubt cast on re-licensing, it just may be enough to close down Indian Point. Certainly Governor Cuomo’s leadership tilts the scales in favor of trusting government.

Escalating costs for Entergy and the forecast that the New York metropolitan area may not need Indian Point at all may be the equation that shutters this plant.

Hope has surfaced in new technologies that can replace nuclear generated electricity with renewables – a move that could phase out nuclear power for good. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, in their 2012 Annual Energy Outlook http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=4950 predicts that over the next 25 years, natural gas and renewable fuels will gain a larger share of the United States generating mix of electricity. Renewable energy generation is expected to grow 33% by 2035 using mostly wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and non-hydro renewables.

If our government truly wants to regain our trust, the next move is up to them. Getting behind safe energy policies and unhinging from the practice of corporate welfare for the nuclear industry is one way. Realigning themselves with utilities that invest in renewables is another. Let’s hope they do it before another nuclear plant catastrophe.


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