Fukushima reflections on the second anniversary of the accident

Statement of Arjun Makhijani for the March 2013 conference commemorating the Fukushima accident
To be read by Helen Caldicott

I appreciate that my friend, Helen Caldicott, one of the two people who inspired my book Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free (the other was S. David Freeman) has agreed to read a brief statement from me on this second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster. I wanted to share two of the new things I have learned as I have followed the consequences of Fukushima unfold.

First, the Japanese government proposed to allow doses as high as 2 rem (20 millisieverts) per year to school children, claiming that the risk was low or at least tolerable. An exposure at this level over five years – 10 rem in all — to a girl, starting at age five, would create a cancer incidence risk of about 3 percent, using the [age- and gender-specific] risk estimates in the National Academies BEIR VII report.

Now imagine that you are a parent in Japan trying to decide whether to send your daughter to such a school. Roughly thirty of every hundred girls would eventually develop cancer at some point in their lives; just one of those would be attributable to Fukushima school exposure, according to the risk numbers. But no one would know if their daughter’s cancer was attributable to the exposure at school and neither would the Japanese government’s radiation bureaucrats. Why is it difficult to understand that while the risk attributable to school contamination would be one in thirty, the proportion of parents stricken with guilt and doubt would be closer to one in three? Would you ever forgive yourself if you made the decision to send your daughter to that school? Or your son, though the risk attributable to Fukushima exposure would be less than that experienced by girls?

Indeed, due to the long latency period of most cancers, you would be fearful even if no cancer had as yet appeared. The Pentagon understood this when a Joint Chiefs of Staff Task Force evaluated the extensive contamination produced by the July 1946 underwater nuclear bomb test (Test Baker) at Bikini for its usefulness in war. Here is a quote from their 1947 report:

“Of the survivors in the contaminated areas , some would be doomed by radiation sickness in hours some in days, some in years. But, these areas, irregular in size and shape, as wind and topography might form them, would have no visible boundaries. No survivor could be certain he was not among the doomed, and so added to every terror of the moment, thousands would be stricken with a fear of death and the uncertainty of the time of its arrival.”

Compare this for yourself with the aftermath of Fukushima and the plight of the parents.

Second, nuclear power’s conceit was that nuclear power is 24/7 electricity supply. Since Fukushima, over sixty of the world’s light water power reactors have been prematurely shut for a variety of reasons, though just four reactors were stricken by the accident: 52 in Japan, eight in Germany, several in the U.S. Even if some are eventually restarted, nuclear power has shown a unique ability to go from 24/7 power supply to 0/365 essentially overnight for long periods– hardly a convincing claim of reliability.

We can do better than making plutonium just to boil water or polluting the Earth with fossil fuel use. When I finished Carbon-Free Nuclear-Free in 2007, I estimated it would take about forty years to get to an affordable, fully renewable energy system in the United States. Today, I think in can be done in twenty-five to thirty years. Are we up to the challenge? Finally, I truly regret I cannot be there to publicly thank and honor my friend Helen for inspiring Carbon-Free, Nuclear-Free, which you can download free from ieer.org, also thanks to her. I wish you a very productive conference.

(Also see IEER’s publication Plutonium: Deadly Gold of the Nuclear Age, June 1992.)

The German Energy Transition

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has created a new site to inform the public about its historic energy transition or “energiewende”: http://www.EnergyTransition.de The aim is the reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. A renewable electricity sector is a principal part of this goal. Germany already produces 26% of its electricity and is set to exceed the target of 40% by 2020. As evidence for severe climate disruption mounts, the German energiewende provides some hope. This kind of transformation was a gleam in my eye when I finished Carbon-Free and Nuclear Free in 2007. It was my hope for the United States. I still hope that action by states, corporations, individuals, and even the federal government (though CO2 rules, efficiency standards, etc.) will get us to a fully renewable energy sector by 2050 in the United States and worldwide.

– Arjun

Bad News on Climate; Good News on Energy

My February 26, 2008 op ed in the Dallas Morning News seems to have excited a great deal of interest, including on this blog. I really enjoyed my speaking tour of Texas, including being on the Dallas PBS TV program named Think, talking about Carbon-Free and Nuclear Free. See the video here.

(Dr. Egghead’s philosophical disclosure: Descartes could have done better than “€œI think therefore I am.” I prefer what the French do rather than what their philosophers say: “€œI eat therefore I am” and also “€œI am therefore I eat.”)

Watch the video anyway. You’€™ll like it. Krys Boyd was a really knowledgeable and gracious host at KERA TV. If you love my mellifluous voice on that, see clips from one of my Dallas area speeches, courtesy of the Dallas Peace Center.

There is bad news on climate and good news on energy.

One of the indicators of a warming Earth is the extent of summer Arctic Ice melting. Last summer’€™s melting was not only the worst since measurements began, but the rate of change increased drastically. Here is a chart showing model projections (the red and the dashed lines) and actual satellite measurements (heavy black line)

Great Arctic Ice Melt of 2007

Chart of IPCC's modelling predictions to the end of the century versus actual satellite measurements.

Chart is courtesy of Dr. A. Sorteberg, Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, University of Bergen, Norway.

The previous worst case estimate for complete summer melting was about 2070. Now it may be less than a decade. We cannot afford to wait for time to tell us whether this worst case will come about. We must act. Two climate scientists, H. Damon Matthews of Concordia University and Ken Caldiera of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, recently published an article in Geophysical Research Letters, analyzing the long-term requirements for protecting climate and concluded as follows:

“We have shown here that stable global temperatures within the next several centuries can be achieved if CO2 emissions are reduced to nearly zero. This means that avoiding future human-induced climate warming may require policies that seek not only to decrease CO2 emissions, but to eliminate them entirely.” [emphasis and color added]Source: H. Damon Matthews and Ken Caldeira, Stabilizing climate requires near-zero emissions, GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 35, XXXX, 2008. (prepublication)

See a New Scientist article about this paper

There is good news to offset the bad news: My book Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free shows that we do no€™t have to go to the poor house to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. We can have a flourishing economy and protect climate. Wind energy in good areas is already cheaper than nuclear or competitive with it. The country needs sensible rules for investment in transmission lines to create more of a boom in wind. It’€™s already happening in Texas, which has such rules; some oilmen like T. Boone Pickens see wind farms as the future of energy. See the New York Times article.

In the United States, the area of parking lots and commercial building rooftops is large enough to supply much or most of its electricity requirements. And Nanosolar, located in Silicon Valley, is all set to make solar panels on a large-scale for less than a dollar watt (plus installation). That means solar electricity is likely to make nuclear energy economically obsolete by the time the first proposed new nuclear plants come on line (if all goes according to the nuclear industry’€™s plans), making for another generation of economic lemons, for which ratepayers and taxpayers will pay a heavy price. Why go there?

New Zealand has announced a goal of zero CO2 emissions without nuclear power by mid-century. Why not the United States? Declaring that to be a goal and enacting the tough policies that will be needed could work wonders for restoring the positive image that most of the world’€™s people once had about the United States, which has fallen into sad disrepute abroad in recent times.

S. David Freeman, former Chairman of the TVA, noted in his Foreword to my book, that it will take “determination and guts …[to] achieve a renewable energy economy.” That means your involvement. Take the message of Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free to the candidates of all parties, independent of those whom you personally support; ask them if they are familiar with Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free, which shows we can live well without fossil fuels or nuclear power.

You can do more. Link to this blog; comment on it; make it the go-to place for energy commentary, discussion, and Q&A about the energy problems of our time. Read my book. Download it free. Discuss it in your book club.

Posts to come: On China and India; on efficiency; on the coming generation of passenger vehicles.

–Arjun

Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free is getting an enthusiastic response, but several new nuclear facilities are planned


I have been going around the country speaking about my new book, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy. (Download it free)

Nothing I have done in 37 years of work on energy, environment, and nuclear weapons and power issues has caught on like this.

As evidence of serious and rapid climate change mounts and a price on carbon emissions looks more and more certain, companies’ coal-fired power plants are hard to justify and harder to finance. So the nuclear industry wants to ride into town as the savior. Having failed to deliver electricity “too cheap to meter” (promised in the 1950s by the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss), it now wants massive new government subsidies in the form of loan guarantees.

But it is a false choice. Those who oppose nuclear power as the “solution” to the global climate crisis are right: a combination of efficiency, renewable energy, combined heat and power, and emerging technologies such as plug-in hybrid cars can allow us to phase out all fossil fuels and nuclear power in 30 to 50 years.

Eight new nuclear reactors are being proposed in Texas alone. The two near Amarillo, in the panhandle, will consume 60 million gallons of water every day—more than what the entire city uses. The company proposing the plant has said there is a lake there in an unidentified location that will supply the water. In Idaho, the CEO of Alternate Energy Holdings, which wants to build a power plant there, implies that nuclear power will cost only 1 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, because capital cost is borne by the investors, as if Wall Street were a kind of charity for electricity consumers. Far from it. Wall Street got burned by nuclear power in the 1980s; it is leery of financing them. That’s why the nuclear industry has the largest hat in hand in Washington, D.C. asking for handouts such as license application subsidies and 100 percent loan guarantees.

But at least some investors are catching on. Mid-American Energy, owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, announced last month (January 2008) that it was abandoning plans to build a nuclear power plant in Idaho because it could not provide economical power to its customers. Austin Energy, the city-owned utility in the capital of Texas, has recommended that the City vote not to buy a share of the two proposed reactors near Bay City Texas. The investment would, at this time, be “unwise” and imprudent” said the utility, because of insufficient time to examine the paperwork and the risk of cost overruns and delays.

Here is a link to a summary of my book (Note: 2.5 MB pdf)

and to an op ed I recently wrote for the Deseret News (Salt Lake City)

I invite you to comment on the analysis in my book, on what you are doing in your neighborhood, city, county, or state regarding energy and climate and to link to my blog.

–Arjun

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