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Joe Sugiyama: One year after Fukushima

By Joe Sugiyama, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published March 26, 2012

A year after a tsunami ravaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, Japan still struggles to clean up the aftermath of one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.

The Fukushima incident is an ugly reminder that despite the overwhelming benefits nuclear energy has to offer, the repercussions of a meltdown can quickly outweigh them. That being said, it would be foolhardy to suggest that nuclear facilities around the world should be disassembled and abandoned as a viable energy source. Countries can use Fukushima as motivation to implement more stringent laws to protect their citizens from falling victim to a nuclear disaster.

By the estimates of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, owner of the plant, the remediation of Fukushima won’t be complete for nearly four decades — a process that will cost Japan billions of dollars. This doesn’t include the cost of displacing more than 300,000 people and quarantining a sizable chunk of acreage in a country where land is at a premium.

Some may suggest that a 9.0 earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami are circumstances that simply couldn’t have been planned for. This mindset would render the Fukushima accident unavoidable as well, but according to a March 9 article in The New York Times, that might not be the whole story.

It seems that the risk of a devastating tsunami had been brought to the attention of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. However, the agency and Tepco failed to take proper precautions that adhere to international nuclear regulations.

Implementing an emergency energy system could have prevented the plant meltdown altogether. Such systems have been utilized in Europe for several years now, and Tepco was “well aware” of Europe’s strides toward safer nuclear energy. The entire event may have been avoided with a little forward thinking.

Such forward thinking has been the catalyst for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s recent policy changes. The NRC has put in place provisions that will require nuclear plants to have extra monitoring systems in their spent-fuel pools. They have also required containment structures, which would “help prevent or mitigate core damage in the event of a serious accident.”

Each of these orders has addressed one of the shortcomings that led to the plant meltdown in Japan. Such a proactive approach by the NRC will hopefully alleviate the concerns surrounding nuclear energy, but it should be noted that no amount of precautionary measures can totally eliminate the risks involved with nuclear power.

That leads to an important question: Is nuclear power worth it? Right now, 65 nuclear power plants account for approximately 20 percent of the United States’ total energy market. From an energy standpoint, our country needs nuclear power to avoid becoming even more dependent on fossil fuels. However, there’s no way to quantify the cost of human lives that are put at risk by these facilities. So what should we do?

The solution that the NRC has created plans to lower these risks of nuclear meltdowns to an acceptable level. There is practically no man-made infrastructural item that doesn’t carry some risk of harming humans. Everything from bridges to buildings is designed with a certain degree of uncertainty that can be accounted for but not eliminated.

Engineers are trained to do everything in their power to lower these risk factors, but an ‘Act of God’ — a term commonly used in construction contracts — must always remain as a possibility in the minds of the designers.

With this, we must understand that there will never be a totally safe solution to nuclear power. We must trust that the NRC standards have lowered the risk of a nuclear accident to an acceptable level. The United States can’t afford to lose such a large contributor to its energy supply if it ever hopes to lower its dependence on coal-fired power plants, but the safety of American lives must always be at the forefront of the nuclear conversation. It isn’t too much to ask that the NRC and their recent policy changes reflect such a mindset.

Unfortunately, learning from mistakes is a necessary step in preventing future disasters — see Hurricane Katrina. Yet, as devastating as the Fukushima meltdown has been to Japan, it has provided the rest of the world with a warning of the dangers of nuclear energy. Hopefully, Fukushima will be the last disastrous lesson needed in the world of nuclear power.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu or on Twitter at @JoeSugiyama.