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What, If Anything, Will the US Learn From Fukushima? via Truth Out

With climate change concerns on the table, proponents push nuclear power as a “clean” energy. But the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown provides one of many reasons why nuclear energy should be examined more closely.

It’s been nearly three years since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, but its effects are still being felt in Japan and elsewhere in the world. Three hundred thousand Japanese refugees still live in makeshift camps, and on the other side of the Pacific, a forthcoming study quantifies the effects of “low” doses of traveling radioactive contamination on children’s health in California.

According to some experts, Japan is incapable of safely decommissioning the Fukushima nuclear plant alone. Every day, hundreds of tons of radioactively contaminated water leak out of the damaged reactors, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has suggested dumping the toxic water into the Pacific Ocean once the water has been partially decontaminated. But it has been estimated that the process of even partially decontaminating the water already stored will take at least seven years.

In a Climate Reality Check Coalition conference call in December 2013, political activist Ralph Nader and radioactive waste watchdog at Beyond Nuclear Kevin Kamps discussed the problems they’ve identified with nuclear power and the powerful forces behind the industry.

Nuclear Power: A “Clean” Alternative to Fossil Fuel?

With climate change concerns on the table, nuclear proponents are angling for a new hook. Nuclear energy is touted by the industry as “clean” energy, but that discounts the mining impact and the toxic waste byproduct.

“To this day, I’m amazed at how few activists look at nuclear energy in depth and just see it as a technology that doesn’t emit greenhouse gas, but they don’t look at the entire fuel cycle,” Nader said. He continued:

Remember that the nuclear fuel cycle starts with nuclear mining – uranium mining with radioactive-emitting tailings, which are emitting radiation as we speak around these mines. Lots of workers have been contaminated, died. And then you have the fuel rods, and then you have the transportation. … Put yellowcake into form with the fuel rods, and you have the transportation of fuel rods to the nuclear reactors. And then they’re put into place in the reactors, and then you have the spent fuel rods. And then you don’t have a permanent waste disposal site for 3,000-4,000 years. But if you did, you’d have the transportation trucks and the rails to these sites. And what’s the purpose of this entire, complex operation? To boil water. To produce steam.

Nader says that with the huge potential for conservation, nuclear power is unnecessary. “Where are you going to invest your money for the biggest bang for your buck and the least externalities?”

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New Technology and Its Discontents

Industry proponents have claimed that new technology advances in nuclear energy have led to safer designs. In December 2013, the Department of Energy awarded a firm $226 million to develop “small modular reactors.”

Kamps said the “inherently safe” designs actually would pump radioactivity into the environment in an accident if there is a problem like a hole in the radioactive containment structures because of convection currents that are put there by design. He referenced the reactor proposed in Michigan, saying that the Fermi Hitachi reactor was “a supposedly ‘new and improved’ boiling water reactor like the ones that melted down at Fukushima Daiichi.”

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Health and Safety: The Biggest Risk in the Industry Is Not Necessarily a Meltdown

Kamps said uranium mining may have the biggest health impact of any process in the uranium fuel chain and that regulations are essentially nonexistent.

Additionally, nuclear power plants are allowed by permit to release radioactivity on a regular basis, with risk potentials that grow worse as the reactors age. “One of the most shocking statements an official of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said in recent months in the Japanese press was, ‘Hey, what’s the big deal about these oceanic discharges? We would have been releasing 1 percent of this anyway on a normal day if a catastrophe hadn’t happened,’ ” Kamps said.

Kamps said the National Academy of Sciences in the United States has affirmed for decades that any exposure to radioactivity, no matter how low the dose, carries a health risk for cancer.

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The Problem of Nuclear Waste

Michael Keegan from the Coalition for a Nuclear-Free Great Lakes was quoted as saying: “Electricity is but the fleeting byproduct from nuclear reactors. The actual product is forever deadly radioactive waste.”

Kamps says we have 70,000 metric tons of commercial radioactive waste in this country and an additional 15,000 tons of other military-related high-level radioactive waste. “We’re [more than] 50 years past the deployment of nuclear power in this country, and we still haven’t figured out what to do with the first cup-full of high-level radioactive waste.” He said it is in “interim storage,” an Orwellian notion that can mean decades or centuries.

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