“Will we survive ourselves?” That’s the question Japan’s former prime minister, who resigned after the nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima, posed during an unprecedented visit to Southern California this week to oppose nuclear power.
In San Diego for a panel discussion on Tuesday, Naoto Kan admitted he favored nuclear power as a source of clean energy before the March 11, 2011, nuclear disaster, which was precipitated by a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Resigning five months later, Kan said he was “terribly embarrassed” by his stance, which reflected the position of regulators that nuclear power could be controlled, and couldn’t be farther from that belief today.
“There is only one way to effectively, 100 percent deal with this risk of mass destruction,” Kan said through an interpreter, “…and the most important thing that I realized was we need a society that has no nuclear power.”
Kan skipped a planned pit stop Monday in Laguna Beach organized for him by Friends of the Earth, the Berkeley group that has intervened with Southern California Edison’s efforts to restart the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station south of San Clemente. The plant was shut in January 2012 due to premature wear on tubes that led to the release of radioactive steam.
Other nuclear power experts, now also voicing dissent, joined Kan. The former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, said he resigned last July because the commission refused to consider the damaging ramifications of natural disasters that Fukushima demonstrated.
He said that most U.S. reactors cannot meet modern safety standards that could prevent a disaster like Fukushima and should no longer be licensed to operate.
Jaczko said he was shocked the U.S. failed to impose a moratorium on nuclear reactors after Fukushima, the world’s largest nuclear disaster. He said Edison’s plan to restart one San Onofre generator at 70 percent power does not instill confidence.
“It indicates that there are still areas of challenge with those steam generators at high power rates,” he said. “It’s a novel idea within the NRC to look at allowing a plant to operate at reduced power because of a safety issue and licensing matter. It would create doubt in my mind that there’s a complete understanding of the situation.”
Jaczko has since been appointed to a congressional advisory panel that oversees the Energy Department’s management of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and nonproliferation plan.
Kan strongly suggested that the 8.5 million people living within a 50-mile radius of San Onofre would be wise to jump ship with him and shift their support to safe and sustainable energy sources.
This can be done, he said, by devoting more resources to renewable energy. In the past six months Japan, he said has harnessed enough solar power to equal 2.5 nuclear power generators and has plans to install floating windmills in the ocean near Fukushima.
Kan said even containing spent nuclear fuel at a power plant, regardless if generators are operating, is enough risk for alarm. “The radiation exposure is so terrible in this area,” he said, “that if a human being comes anywhere near this area, in two minutes they would be killed.” So far, 160,000 people have been evacuated from Fukushima, he said.
Kan said that the disaster in Fukushima is not over. “As long as time goes by, it just gets worse and worse and the heat continues to rise,” he said. “The biggest problem there with the continuing heating of the reactors is that the steam from the remaining water there to cool it down completely evaporates.”
That complication caused another meltdown in a second reactor at Dai-chi, which contains six reactors and seven spent-fuel pools and is one of four nuclear power plants in Fukushima. A 6.5-foot thick concrete containment vessel also started leaking spent radioactive fuel, he said, and, two years later, efforts are ongoing to cool the spent fuel. In the worst case, if reactors continue to meltdown, Tokyo and its 13.23 billion people 190 miles away would need to be evacuated.
Another concern, he added, is plutonium, a contaminant in spent fuel that has a half-life of 24,000 years. It’s “our progeny,” he said, who will be charged with preventing the risk of exposure as well as bearing the financial costs for as much as 100,000 years in the future. He urged humankind to stop manipulating the environment. “Will we be able to survive?” he posited.
Also on the panel were former NRC commissioner Peter Bradford, nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson and Friends of the Earth’s Kendra Ulrich. Bradford said nuclear power has dropped as an attractive investment and the U.S. government is finding less political support to subsidize it.
Two Japanese-Americans pointedly and poignantly questioned Kan. They asked why he waited to evacuate residents within an 18-mile radius of the Fukushima plant when U.S. authorities immediately evacuated nationals within a 50-mile radius and warned travelers to avoid the area. Kan said he was waiting to see the extent of the damage and the radioactive exposure.
In hindsight, the former prime minister said the disaster’s disruptive economic toll on people is disregarded while supporters claim atomic energy is economically efficient. Kan said the answer is concentrating resources on taking care of these people while changing to a nuclear-free Japan.
The three-hour panel and question-and-answer discussion was hosted by San Diego Supervisor Dave Roberts from Solana Beach and moderated by Santa Ana’s Mayor Miguel Pulido. The live webcast went out to 1,000 registered listeners and is available in part on youtube under sanclementegreensd.
Related links: Fukuskima plant continues to leak.
An earlier Indy story about San Onofre.