I will never forget the sleepless nights that began for me on March 11, 2011, endless hours organizing the Greenpeace response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
I was looking for any new information with better clues to what was really happening at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. My mind was in Japan. I worried about everyone in the country, first hit by natural disasters and then exposed to an unfolding nuclear disaster. I could not stop thinking about the heroic efforts of plant workers who risked their lives and fought against time to avoid the worst-case situation under which even Tokyo would have to evacuate.
After living through the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, and Fukushima again last year, I told myself repeatedly that disasters like these must never ever happen again.
To learn from Fukushima, Greenpeace commissioned “Lessons from Fukushima.” This report, by three independent experts (a nuclear physicist, a correspondent for a health publication and a nuclear engineer), documents how the government, regulators and the nuclear industry enabled the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and then failed to protect the people from its impacts. Given that these failures are repeated wherever nuclear power is generated, means that millions who are in the shadow of reactors live with the risks of the next nuclear disaster.
Instead of acknowledging these risks, many politicians and authorities responded to Fukushima by calling for the need to “restore public confidence in nuclear power.”
Something is clearly wrong. A year after the disaster began; governments continue to protect the nuclear industry instead of protecting their citizens.
The “stress tests” on reactors around the globe are also evidence that nothing was learned from past failures. These tests just rubber-stamped existing reactors and justified continued operation. Only Germany decided for safety reasons, to promptly close eight of its 17 reactors. No other reactor in the world was declared unsafe and closed as a result of review following the Fukushima disaster. I bet even Fukushima Daiichi itself would have passed those tests.
But as our report shows, the first crucial lesson is that “nuclear safety” cannot be created. While the nuclear industry wants us to believe that the chance of a major reactor accident is one in million, the real frequency has been one meltdown every decade, on average. Fukushima also showed how quickly the multiple barriers that we were assured would prevent a large release of radioactivity failed. In Japan, all the barriers collapsed during the first day, and a hydrogen blast allowed radiation to directly escape to open air.
The second lesson is that the institutions that we have trusted to protect people from nuclear risks also failed completely.
Our report shows how emergency plans for a nuclear accident were dysfunctional and inadequate. Imagine yourself in Fukushima prefecture. People were left to die in a hospital, abandoned by medical staff. People were sent to areas with higher radiation levels. Others were told to stay indoors but without assistance for days, only to run out of food, water and fuel for their eventual escape. Some were told you are safe where you are, only to hear the government admit weeks later that they weren’t safe at all and needed to evacuate.
This is despite Japan being arguably one of the most experienced and prepared countries for dealing with large-scale disasters. Are we really supposed to believe that evacuation and emergency plans elsewhere would work better? Or believe that emergency crews in other countries could do their jobs much better?
We also show how the nuclear industry gets out of paying the full costs of a nuclear disaster. Imagine the 150,000 Japanese people who had to evacuate and leave everything behind. Imagine their lives now, still without support or compensation for rebuilding their lives. This is despite Japan being one of only three countries that does not cap the liability of a nuclear reactor operator for the damages caused by an accident.
It is staggering to see a system that allows the nuclear industry to harvest large profits, but then, the moment things go wrong, throw the responsibility for losses and damages onto the affected citizens.
I would like to encourage you to read at least the summary of the Lessons from Fukusima report. People need to realize how the whole system is wrong and will screw them again, unless they say no to nuclear power with its inherent problems that can never be really fixed.
It is time to demand modern energy systems based on energy efficiency and renewable energy, thanks to which we can get rid of deadly reactors and get the additional benefits of better energy security, stable energy prices, and millions of quality jobs.