It’s no coincidence that the U.S. has never suffered a catastrophic nuclear accident, despite decades of clean nuclear energy. The strong track record is thanks to lots of hard engineering work, sound management, and strong regulatory work by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Together, American engineers and the NRC have worked to identify at risk plants and add extra failsafes to them, preventing natural disasters like floods or earthquakes from triggering an even worse (and preventable) nuclear disaster.
I. Greed and Incompetence on Full Display in Japanese Fukushima Mess
Across the Pacific Ocean sits one of America’s top trading partners, Japan. The country was recently left reeling by a tsunami, which in turn triggered a nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, a disaster that left miles of countryside abandoned and contaminated with dangerously radioactive Caesium-137, a “sticky” radioisotope with a half life of 30 years.
The tragic accident is a frustrating summation of business managers’ incompetence and reckless negligence. Published documents reveal that Tokyo Electric Power Comp.’s (TEPCO) (TPE:9501) engineers warned that there was a 10 percent chance per decade of a tsunami sweeping over the 6-foot flood wall. Yet the company’s greedy managers and their incompetent/corrupt bureaucratic peers refused to listen to their technical superiors and purposefully chose to skimp on the extra expense of waterproofing their backup generators and/or including module cabling for quick reconnections.
TEPCO’s greedy/incompetent managers, like VP Sakae Muto rejected engineers’ safety advice and purposefully maintained a dangerously unsafe design to pad their profits.
[Image Source: Reuters/Toru Hanai]
The Japanese government and TEPCO brought deep dishonor upon themselves with their greed and negligence. They created an utterly avoidable mess that proved a blight upon nuclear efforts of more respectable institutions all around the world.
The tsunami hit Fukushima’s nuclear plant hard, just as experts had warned.
[Image Source: Google (left); GreenPeace (right)]
At the same time the government merrily allowed incompetent managers to override the safety advice of veteran engineers. Under their regulations TEPCO was allowed to create (almost literally) a ticking time bomb. The net result is that the Japanese government TEPCO essentially created the inevitability of a catastrophic meltdown through pure incompetence and negligence. Yet, surprisingly many in the Japanese public don’t blame the obvious villains for this mess — the Japanese government and TEPCO. They blame nuclear power.
II. Japan Moves to Shutdown ALL its Plants
Now, I can understand the people of Japan being a bit hothead and emotional after such a terrible tragedy. After all, you can’t take the “nuclear” out of nuclear negligence. But blaming nuclear power for the tragedy is sort of like blaming handguns for creating crime — “Nuclear power doesn’t endanger people, people endanger people.”
The damage has been done and Fukushima. [Image Source: Reuters]
It’s times like these that a competent government is supposed to calm the public’s emotional mistrust and work towards a logical solution. Instead the nation’s leadership is further proving their incompetence and lack of foresight by allowing nuclear power to languish in a shutdown purgatory.
The shutdowns are not entirely without merit — they include a two-phase stress test that (finally) contains flood testing in tsunami-prone regions. But the key element that threatens to make the shutdowns a permanent phase-out, rather than wise upgrade is the fact that Japanese regulators have moved to make it so plants can only restart with local approval.
Recall, this is the same government that helped create mass nuclear hysteria via its incompetence. Now it is handing over the keys to the public it has whipped into a frenzy of mistrust. Superb.
Currently 52 out of Japan’s 54 reactors are offline. The final two online reactors are expected to enter the “maintenance” purgatory shortly.
Japan has committed to a mass shutdown of its nuclear reactors. [Image Source: AFP]
New Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda enthuses that Japan needs to “slowly” reduce its reliance on nuclear power, yet he has thus far been content to letting a paranoid public make that shutdown “immediate” and “permanent”.
III. Shutdown Takes its Toll on Japanese Economy
The lone hope that the situation improves for the better, is in the fact that the PM is reportedly being pushed hard by industry leaders to restart reactors. In a nation already hit hard by currency fluctuation and the cost of the tsunami, the nuclear shutdown has led to an industry-killing power shortfall. Reportedly PM Noda is looking to bring some of the shutdown reactors online shortly — though the question remains whether he’s willing to wrest the power to restart away from the mistrusting locals.
Approximately 30 percent of Japan’s power demands had been fulfilled by nuclear reactors at the time of the tsunami. Now Japan is left footing the bill for $30B USD in extra fossil fuel consumption to try to make up for the power shortfall.
In other words, Japan’s self-created nuclear disaster has led to a second self-created disaster — an economic one.
The real question is the long-term fate of nuclear power in Japan. While 48 percent of people in a Nikkei media group survey voiced support to restarting some reactors to fulfill short-term power needs, another NHK public broadcast poll revealed 70 percent supported a phase out of the energy source.
A protester calls for a permanent shutdown at a recent rally. [Image: AFP/Getty Images]
Top Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun threw its weight behind pushing for a phase-out, writing, “The illusion of nuclear power safety has been torn out by the root. The Fukushima nuclear disaster that followed the great waves of 11 March last year made sure of that.”
Even PM Noda has voiced support for a gradual phase-out.
And worse yet he continues to perpetuate the bald-faced lie that the accident was the work of nature — denying the reality that it was flatly manmade incompetence. He stated to reporters this week, “We can no longer make the excuse that what happened was unpredictable and outside our imagination. Crisis management requires us to imagine what may be outside our imagination.”
“Outside” his government and TEPCO’s “imagination”? Hardly. They knew of the risks and documented them. Yet they chose to sacrifice public safety and the future of nuclear power for their profit bottom line.
IV. Japanese Public Pushing for Nation to Surrender, Become Second Class Tech Power
As the rest of the world races towards wholly safe designs that are physically incapable of melting down, even in the case of a power loss, Japan seems content to surrender to failure.
The Japanese government and TEPCO are to blame for this dishonorable action. But the Japanese public is to blame for allowing this debacle to continue. The Japanese public and government appear to be content to be the laughing stock of the world in terms of energy. At the end of the day the message is loud and clear — the Japanese public believes that its government and businesses are too lazy and incompetent to keep up with the rest of the world.
While the uneduacted anathema of this Japanese activist is amusing, it is disappointing that the public is not singling out the true culprits — TEPCO’s management and government regulators. [Image Source: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images]
That said, before being too harsh on the Japanese people; recall that the U.S. has fallen silent about its own nuclear plans in the wake of Fukushima. President Obama — once a vocal proponent of nuclear power — has shied away from any plans of expansion, of late.
If you want to find a world leader — a truly brave player that understands the risks, yet rather than falling to cowardice and laziness takes the necessary steps to mitigate them — look at France. Despite all that has happened at Fukushima and lukewarm sentiments in the U.S., the French plan to continue to rely heavily on nuclear power. After all, they’re not incompetent, lazy, and cowardly like some of their foreign peers.
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