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Learning From Japan’s Nuclear Disaster via Japan Focus

May. 29, 2011

By Amory Lovins

This article was first published at Rocky Mountain Institute on March 18, 2011.

As heroic workers and soldiers strive to save stricken Japan from a new horror–radioactive fallout–some truths known for 40 years bear repeating.

An earthquake-and-tsunami zone crowded with 127 million people is an unwise place for 54 reactors. The 1960s design of five Fukushima-I reactors has the smallest safety margin and probably can’t contain 90% of meltdowns. The U.S. has 6 identical and 17 very similar plants.

Every currently operating light-water reactor, if deprived of power and cooling water, can melt down. Fukushima had eight-hour battery reserves, but fuel has melted in three reactors. Most U.S. reactors get in trouble after four hours. Some have had shorter blackouts. Much longer ones could happen.

Overheated fuel risks hydrogen or steam explosions that damage equipment and contaminate the whole site–so clustering many reactors together (to save money) can make failure at one reactor cascade to the rest.

Nuclear power is uniquely unforgiving: as Swedish Nobel physicist Hannes Alfvén said, “No acts of God can be permitted.” Fallible people have created its half-century history of a few calamities, a steady stream of worrying incidents, and many near-misses. America has beenlucky so far. Had Three Mile Island’s containment dome not been built double-strength because it was under an airport landing path, it may not have withstood the 1979 accident’s hydrogen explosion. In 2002, Ohio’s Davis-Besse reactor was luckily caught just before its massive pressure-vessel lid rusted through.

Regulators haven’t resolved these or other key safety issues, such as terrorist threats to reactors, lest they disrupt a powerful industry. U.S. regulation is not clearly better than Japanese regulation, nor more transparent: industry-friendly rules bar the American public from meaningful participation. Many presidents’ nuclear boosterism also discourages inquiry and dissent.

Nuclear-promoting regulators inspire even less confidence. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 2005 estimate of about 4,000 Chernobyl deaths contrasts with a rigorous 2009 review of 5,000 mainly Slavic-language scientific papers the IAEA overlooked. It found deaths approaching a million through 2004, nearly 170,000 of them in North America. The total toll now exceeds a million, plus a half-trillion dollars’ economic damage. The fallout reached four continents, just as the jet stream could swiftly carry Fukushima fallout.

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