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Lessons from Fukushima: A Greenpeace Report

On February 28, Greenpeace released a new report, “Lessons from Fukushima”, which showed that it was not a natural disaster which led to the radioactive fallout and resulting contamination at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and surrounding areas on Japan’s east coast, but the failures of the Japanese Government, regulators and the nuclear industry. 

Greenpeace had commissioned Dr. David Boilley, a nuclear physicist with the French independent radiation laboratory ACRO; Dr. David McNeill, Japan correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications; and Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with Fairewinds Associates, to write the report, which was peer reviewed by Dr. Helmut Hirsch, an expert in nuclear safety. 

The report addresses what lessons can be taken away from this catastrophe and draws the key conclusion that this human-made nuclear disaster could be repeated at any nuclear plant in the world, putting millions at risk. 

Here, we give a brief on the report along with the key findings. 

It has been almost 12 months since the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster began. Although the Great East Japan earthquake and the following tsunami triggered it, the key causes of the nuclear accident lie in the institutional failures of political influence and industry-led regulation. It was a failure of human institutions to acknowledge real reactor risks, a failure to establish and enforce appropriate nuclear safety standards, and a failure to ultimately protect the public and the environment.

Greenpeace International commissioned a report that addresses what lessons can be taken away from this catastrophe. The one-year memorial of the Fukushima accident offers a unique opportunity to ask ourselves what the tragedy – which is far from being over for hundreds of thousands of Japanese people – has taught us. And it also raises the question, are we prepared to learn?

There are broader issues and essential questions that still deserve our attention:

  • How it is possible that – despite all assurances – a major nuclear accident on the scale of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 happened again, in one of the world’s most industrially advanced countries?
  • Why did emergency and evacuation plans not work to protect people from excessive exposure to the radioactive fallout and resulting contamination? Why is the government still failing to better protect its citizens from radiation one year later?
  • Why are the over 100,000 people who suffer the most from the impacts of the nuclear accident still not receiving adequate financial and social support to help them rebuild their homes, lives and communities?

These are the fundamental questions that we need to ask to be able to learn from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

This report looks into them and draws some important conclusions:

  1. The Fukushima nuclear accident marks the end of the ‘nuclear safety’ paradigm.
  2. The Fukushima nuclear accident exposes the deep and systemic failure of the very institutions that are supposed to control nuclear power and protect people from its accidents.

The End of the Nuclear Safety Paradigm

Why do we talk about the end of a paradigm? After what we have seen of the failures in Fukushima, we can conclude that ‘nuclear safety’ does not exist in reality. There are only nuclear risks, inherent to every reactor, and these risks are unpredictable. At any time, an unforeseen combination of technological failures, human errors or natural disasters at any one of the world’s reactors could lead to a reactor quickly getting out of control.

In Fukushima, the multiple barriers that were engineered to keep radiation away from the environment and people failed rapidly. In less than 24 hours following the loss of cooling at the first Fukushima reactor, a major hydrogen explosion blew apart the last remaining barrier between massive amounts of radiation and the open air.

The nuclear industry kept saying that the probability of a major accident like Fukushima was very low. With more than 400 reactors operating worldwide, the probability of a reactor core meltdown would be in the order of one in 250 years.

This assumption proves to be wrong. In fact, an observed frequency based on experience is higher: a significant nuclear accident has occurred approximately once every decade.

One of the principles of modern science is that when observations do not match the calculated predictions, the model and theory need to be revised. This is clearly the case for probabilistic risk assessments used in nuclear safety regulations. However, the nuclear industry continues to rely on the same risk models and supposedly extremely low probabilities of disasters, justifying the continued operation of reactors in Japan and worldwide.

This report exposes the systemic failures in the nuclear sector, specifically looking into three issues:

  • emergency and evacuation planning;
  • liability and compensation for damages; and
  • nuclear regulators. 

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant RadiationHuman Rights

In the introduction, Tessa-Morris Suzuki, Professor of Japanese History in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University – who is also a member of the International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP) – concentrates on the human rights angle of the Fukushima tragedy. She details how disasters tend to reveal a whole range of cracks or weak points in social, economic and political institutions, not only in the Japanese but also in an international context.

What becomes clear in her text is that the weaknesses in the regulation and management of Japan’s nuclear power industry have not been ‘hidden’ faults in the system. To the contrary, people had been aware of, written and warned about them for decades.

Emergency Planning Failed

In the first chapter, Professor David Boilley, Chairman of the French Association ACRO, documents how even Japan, one of the most experienced and equipped countries when it comes to handling large-scale disasters, found that its emergency planning for a nuclear accident was not functional, and its evacuation process became chaotic, which lead to many people being unnecessarily exposed to radiation.

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