Today marks the second anniversary of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Along with the Chernobyl accident in 1986, it is designated as a level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The amount of radioactive contaminants released during Japan’s accident is, however, far less than in Russia’s. Also, recent predictions for health consequences suggest that the rise in cancer rates and deaths in Japan may be less than initially expected, according to the World Health Organization, in part because the accident occurred over time and many people had fled the tsunami and thereby avoided early and extended exposure. The uptick in cancer rates—thyroid cancer, breast cancer, leukemia—is most likely for the children of the area. The Japanese government predicts that the cleanup effort will take forty years.
Please read our regular post from last Wednesday—“The Second Anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident”—for some of our reflections on the accident and our unfolding thinking.
Here in the United States—in our backyard in Southern California—the San Onofre nuclear power plant sits idle for the time being. The San Onofre license is good through 2022, but more than a year ago, a leak forced the plant to shut down. During maintenance, unexpected wear in metal tubes and one leak that resulted from this wear was discovered. A redacted report released Friday indicates that changes to the problematic generators were proposed before installation, but some of those changes required regulatory approval and, therefore, weren’t made. Mitsubishi, the company that manufactured the generators, claims that the changes would not have prevented the wear that was discovered.
Presumably—now in hindsight after inspection, rather than predicted as part of normal operation—the extensive wear resulted from the vibrations of parts that occurs when the plant runs at full power. The steam in the system was very dry, a known problem, but the kind of damage that occurred hadn’t been seen before. Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, the companies that own the nuclear power plant, have proposed repairs and running at less than full power.
Southern California, of course, is earthquake prone, so the Fukushima Daiichi accident casts a long shadow across the Pacific Ocean on whether the San Onofre plant should start up again, even if it’s running at 70% power. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station—yes, SONGS—lies five miles from the nearest fault and is designed to withstand a 7.0 earthquake. Risk analysis at the time the San Onofre plant was designed indicated that the largest tsunami wave likely to hit the area would be 25 feet high, so the wall protecting the plant reaches 30 feet.
Also in the news lately and somewhat related, since nuclear power emerged from nuclear weapons research, is the problem at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Hanford produced plutonium as part of the Manhattan Project and is now home to 177 tanks of nuclear waste, six of which are leaking, possibly releasing hundreds of gallons of radioactive material per year. Tanks at Hanford have been stabilized before, in 2005, after leaking millions of gallons, so this news about leaking now wasn’t unexpected. This place remains the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States. Cleanup is underway, riddled by delays and changes of plans, and will take decades and billions of dollars.
Our parents were children when the nuclear age began, when the first chain reaction was achieved by Enrico Fermi in Chicago and the first atomic bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert. The world’s first experimental nuclear power plant went online in Idaho in 1951, Russia started using a nuclear plant to power a grid in 1954, and England turned on the first commercial nuclear plant in 1956. All of this occurred before we were born.
We were born into an existing nuclear age. The Three Mile Island accident occurred on March 28, 1979, when we were in grade school and less than two weeks after the movie The China Syndrome—a film about a nuclear power plant accident—was released. The Chernobyl accident occurred on April 26, 1986, when we were in college and just months before Anna did a short study abroad course in the Soviet Union that had to be rescheduled to avoid the stop in Kiev, a couple of hours away from the disaster area. The Fukushima Daiichi accident occurred two years ago today, on March 11, 2011, as we went about our adult lives across the expanse of an ocean.