Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Energy

Image courtesy American Geosciences Institute

Image courtesy American Geosciences Institute

Last year, the United States generated 4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity, over 60% of which coming from the combustion of fossil fuels. And in the past 30 years, natural gas has steadily risen to become the largest source of energy in the U.S; the future of the climate remains bleak. As we bear witness to unprecedented climate disasters, it becomes increasingly clear that nuclear power is the only solution to supplement this high demand for energy. Renewables- solar and wind- are without question needed to produce sustainable, clean energy; private sector investments guarantee this as much. Hesitation with nuclear is rife in the energy private sector, in 2015, the annual nuclear budget had yet to cross $1 billion, paltry numbers for an expensive industry. The magnitude of its generating capabilities is reason enough for nuclear to be pushed to the foreground in this era of clean energy. Though since its inception, the stigma surrounding nuclear power plants inhibit its growth as a replacement of fossil fuels.

Looming cement cooling towers invoke memories of nuclear energy’s checkered past, and to some, cancer and contamination are the only fruit that the reactors bear. While some of this fear is based in popular depictions of radioactivity; three-eyed rabbits or bright green sludge, reality is not too far off in the extent of harmful, though not as anomalous, effects.

Arguably the most notorious contemporary nuclear disaster occurred on March 11, 2011. Solemnly referred to as 3/11, the date coincides with the 9.1 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck off the coast of Japan’s Tohoku region. Following the seismic activity, a 15m (49ft) tall tsunami reached Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma. As homes and businesses washed away, the tsunami disabled the reactors’ power supply and rendered the maintenance of reactor cooling and water circulation moot. Water is essential in the functioning of a nuclear reactor. Not only do they have reserved cooling water in case of emergency, but the GE boiling water reactors at Fukushima Daichi relied on a steam-water mixture to ferry heat for energy generation. Over the course of several days, backup maintenance systems progressively failed, and the three cores, not sufficiently cooled with a controlled flow of water, melted.

As radiation leaked from the plant, 150,000 people were evacuated to safe zones. Ten years later, few have returned. The Fukushima government encourages tourism to Japan’s third largest prefecture, noting that the exclusion zone makes up only 3% of the prefecture itself. “Wide areas of western Fukushima… escaped much contamination” their website boasts. Is this enough of a reassurance? For interested tourists, perhaps, but of the 13,000 who lived in Okuma, as of March 2021, only 3,650 have returned. Farmers who have come back to make a living see profit by striving for premium crop, Geiger counters in hand. Bus tours into the worst effected areas shuttle morbidly curious foreigners.

April of this year saw Japan’s announce that 1.25 million tons of treated wastewater from Fukushima Daichi would be released into the Pacific Ocean. Despite nuclear scientists’ assurances of water cleanliness, the announcement sparked concern amongst environmental groups and neighboring countries. How sure is it that the water is still not minutely contaminated? What will happen to marine life? Nuclear is frightening to the uninitiated, an underfunded (at least, in the US) medium of energy that frankly earns the stigma that surrounds it. However, when thrust against the titans of oil and natural gas, the polluters of air, water, and soil, the catalysts of climate change, the pitfalls of clean nuclear energy are miniscule in comparison. The undertaking of nay large industry come regulations and new guidelines set in place. Were nuclear fully embraced, your average person would not have to be so fearful for their safety in the presence of those grey cooling towers. The likelihood of another Fukushima is slim. So, let us hope for a nuclear future.