Most people have heard the name ‘Fukushima’, but not everyone remembers the details of what led to the nuclear meltdown, and not many people continue to follow the story or are aware of the massive after-effects half a decade on.
The combined natural disasters triggered the worst nuclear catastrophe in a generation. While the initiating events were natural tragedies, the nuclear disaster was man-made. As the Japanese government review committee concluded in its final report on the accident[i], the Fukushima accident was largely the result of regulatory capture and a lack of industry safety culture. In fact, it turned out that the operating company, the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (TEPCO), had been providing false information about the safety of its reactors.
The Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe is one of only two International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) Level 7 disasters in world history – the other being Chernobyl, which happened 30 years ago. Both nuclear disasters released enormous amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. In the case of Fukushima, high radiation levels were also released into the ocean.
Five years on, the people of Japan continue to count the costs, despite attempts by the pro-nuclear lobby to downplay the true effects of the disaster. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has stated that no discernable health effects are to be expected due to the exposure of radiation released by the accident. Unfortunately, this is clearly untrue and premature, and Professor Tsuda of Okayama University recently published a peer-reviewed study showing an increase of thyroid cancer in children younger than 18 in the Fukushima prefecture. The workers at the Fukushima Daiichi and the Japanese population are still suffering from the consequences of this nuclear disaster, and denying this reality is both dismissive of their suffering and disrespectful to the victims.
Fukushima should be a lesson to us all that nuclear is never safe, and is an expensive dead-end road to nowhere. But in South Africa, instead of revising the country’s nuclear plans in light of Fukushima and the projected exorbitant costs and long construction times, the South African government has steadfastly stuck by the idea that this country’s nuclear fleet should be substantially increased.
In his recent budget speech, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan hardly mentioned nuclear at all, other than that the Minister of Energy would oversee ‘the preparation stages’, while President Zuma stated in his State of the Nation address that nuclear would be procured at a pace that South Africa can afford, which was a much more cautious tone than last year. However, as they say, the devil is in the details. If one compares the line items of the 2016/17 budget to that of 2015/16, it is clear that there is in fact an additional R209 million allocated to nuclear in this financial year. Most of this money is mysteriously allocated to ‘goods and services’. It would be easy to think that the most significant increase in the budget was (and should be) for socially just areas such as Higher Education, but in fact, the nuclear budget has mysteriously increased yet again.
Fukushima is a terrible reminder of some of the terrifying hidden costs of nuclear that we cannot afford to ignore: a severe nuclear accident can happen anywhere, the impacts of severe nuclear accidents extend over great distances, and the socio-economic consequences of a nuclear disaster are persistent and very significant.
With an economy that seems to be in freefall and massive nation-wide student protests calling for social justice based on free education for all, spending money on nuclear reactors that we don’t need and can’t afford should be the last thing that the South African government pursues[A1] [MS2] , and the additional R209 million for nuclear should clearly have gone to more urgent social issues, like supporting free Higher Education for example.
[A1]I do not have the facts but might be useful to put in context how much the current spend on nuclear could impact on other sectors of the economy or on education. Just juxtaposing the budget allocations of these could work
[MS2]This doesn’t really work, since the Higher Education budget increased by billions, not millions (although still by not enough to solve the issues facing universities). Please see if what I have added at the end works?