Indie | Fukushima Reverberations: Politics

Posted on June 12, 2011


Indie | FDL | Sunday June 12, 2011 6:30 pm

Significant daily releases of radiation continue at the Fukushima One nuclear power station, but it is appropriate to examine the initial reverberations of the events that took place there in March nonetheless. Here I will focus mainly on echoes in Europe.

Prologue: The Chernobyl accident fundamentally and permanently damaged the Soviet political system. Because radiation is both invisible and impossible to hide, nuclear accidents have a unique place in modern society. Authorities in the Soviet state tried to cover up the Chernobyl accident but could not. Glasnost was greatly accelerated, followed by the collapse of the authority of the state. On the other hand, nuclear power continued (and continues world-wide) and nuclear weapons remain armed, targeted and on hair-trigger alert in Russia and in the United States. The effect of Chernobyl on political structures was greater than its effect on deployed nuclear technology. Things change slowly.

Now to Fukushima. It is still too early to understand what “Fukushima” will come to mean, but there are already clear signs that it will be a significant addition to the world lexicon.

Switzerland has announced the end of Swiss nuclear power.

The Swiss government has decided to phase out nuclear power, amid growing public hostility to the industry. The government announced it would not replace the country’s five ageing plants after they reached the end of their lifetimes between 2019 and 2034.

Switzerland currently gets 40% of its energy from nuclear. How they will replace the lost capacity is not yet clear. Politically, it is not yet clear what this policy shift signifies, but it is notable that the legislature’s vote was strictly along party lines, in the face of protests involving tens of thousands of Swiss citizens. At least one blogger asks a good question: “Can the decisions be seen as part of a greater political strategy to shore up votes for the upcoming general elections, which will take place later this year?” Time will tell.

Germany has announced the end of nuclear power there by 2022.

[T]he seven oldest reactors – which were taken offline for a safety review immediately after the Japanese crisis – would never be used again. An eighth plant, … which was already offline and has been plagued by technical problems, would also be shut down for good. Six others would go offline by 2021 at the latest and the three newest by 2022.

Until Fukushima, Germany generated one quarter of all its energy from nuclear. To replace this capacity, they will invest heavily in new fossil fuel plants and renewables. [They will also import electricity from nuclear plants in France.] To the extent that Germany turns to natural gas, they will increase their dependence on foreign supplies (specifically Russian natural gas) and likely fail to meet greenhouse gas emission targets. Perhaps more interesting though is the effect of Fukushima on German politics: the Green Party scored a stunning victory in traditionally conservative Baden Wuerttemberg and according to some (admittedly shrill) observers, “Angela Merkel’s government is now collapsing faster than Japan did under it’s 9.0 March 11 earthquake. Rarely does anyone witness ineptitude of this magnitude. She deserved to fail. All of this now clears the way for the SPD socialists and environmental Greens to sweep into power in 2013 in the national elections.” How the Merkel government actually fares remains to be seen, but there are clearly interesting reverberations.

From the WSJ:

Italians began voting [today] in a referendum on whether to indefinitely shelve government plans to revive the country’s nuclear-energy plans, following the nuclear crisis at Japan ‘s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

There is more to the Italian story, which is (naturally) complicated. There are four items on the ballot, including one “on whether to reject a controversial law approved by the conservative government last year that exempts top government officials from appearing in court if they face criminal trials” (WSJ) and two on privatization of water utilities. What makes it complicated is the Italian requirement that 50% of all eligible voters must participate in a referendum for the result to be binding. This has not been achieved in the last 16 years. This time around however, passions are very high because of Fukushima, and voters are turning out. Again from the WSJ:

Opinion polls show, however, that nuclear power remains deeply unpopular among Italians.

“While the moratorium represents a hurdle to the nuclear-energy industry, passage of the referendum would be a much more serious obstacle, all but guaranteeing a long-term setback to Italy’s ambitious plan to bring nuclear reactors online by 2020,” analysts at research group Eurasia Group said.

The referenda have also become a hot political issue. The centre-left opposition has widely campaigned for Italians to go to the polls, saying this is an opportunity to deal another blow to Mr. Berlusconi’s government.


Political experts say that if a quorum is reached and if Italians vote to stop the government’s nuclear plans, repeal the legal law and reject the privatization of water utilities, it would be a clear setback for Mr. Berlusconi’s increasingly wobbly center-right majority.

Of course, there are political ramifications in Japan, too. The prime minister (Kan) has vowed to resign as soon as the current crisis is under control. From Bloomberg:

[Kan] said “it’s my responsibility” to stay on until the situation at a crippled nuclear power plant is stabilized through a cold shutdown of its reactors.

It is highly likely that this vow will be overtaken by events, as control could be years away, but the already turbulent Japanese political scene is now even more chaotic. On the bright side, maybe Kan has actually found the invisible bond vigilantes: “Japanese bonds posted the biggest weekly drop in two months on prospects the political turmoil will delay rebuilding from the disaster. ” (Bloomberg)

I’m sure there are more examples to be found. What is surprising to me is how governments both weak and strong have been caught up in the currents. In the long run, we cannot afford to replace nuclear with fossil fuels. The costs to the climate are too great. I don’t have any answers, but it is clear that renewables deserve serious consideration. Maybe if Obama hadn’t sacrificed Van Jones to try to appease Republicans, the US would be a little further down that particular road. Probably not, though; the media consensus in the US regarding Fukushima has been unbelievably strong. It is hard to imagine how the most complex nuclear accident in history can continue for months without coverage here…

Some facts that don’t fit the TEPCO narrative:

– Strontium-90 was detected on May 16 in the ocean adjacent to the power plant, at levels as high as 240 times the legal limit (NHK; see archived report here as Earthquake Report 111

– For the first time, strontium-90 was detected in the groundwater on site. (NHK)

– June 15 deployment of filtration system for water is already delayed by at least 3 days b/c of pump failures. Equipment made by US company and Areva (French) [NHK ER 111]

– Important May 31 deadline from Fukushima roadmap missed: Primary and secondary cooling loops for Unit 1 were supposed to be completed. (IAEA)

– SFP 4 remains near boiling temperature despite periodic addition of fresh water. (IAEA) [A new cooling loop is needed here b/c the pipes that were going to be used for this purpose were found (this week) to be destroyed by the hydrogen explosion.]

– Sharp rise in I-131 observed in offshore monitoring at the end of May. Hard to understand this because of the short half-life of I-131. (IAEA)

– Overall structural integrity of containments (RPC, primary containment buildings, secondary containment) has not yet been credibly assessed. Every few days there is a new finding of major deficiency. E.g., leaks, busted pipes, cracked walls, RPV holes, etc)

Reverberations in Venezuela:

Just last October, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez inked a deal with Russia to build a pair of atomic power plants. Under the controversial accord, Russian state power company Rosatom was to help the South American oil giant build two 1,300-megawatt nuclear reactors.

But after the Fukushima accident, Chávez–who had previously defended the nuclear project–suddenly changed his tune, saying that nuclear power plants are “extremely risky and dangerous for the whole world,” and adding, “Despite Japan’s great technology and advances, look at what is happening with some of its nuclear reactors.”

And in Chile:

In January, French energy giant GDF Suez revealed it has already entered into talks with Chilean officials to eventually build the county’s first nuclear power plant. A month later, on Feb. 24, Chile’s Mining and Energy Minister Laurence Golborne signed another nuclear deal with France. Among other things, the cooperative agreement focuses on extracting Chilean uranium and sharing nuclear technology.

Signed just three days before the one-year anniversary of the 2010 quake, the accord with France offered further evidence that as far as the Piñera government is concerned, earthquakes and nuclear power plants are not mutually exclusive. Part of that confidence might be because Chile actually has two tiny research reactors. In operation since the 1970s, the facilities–used mostly for medical studies–survived major earthquakes in both 2010 and 1985 (magnitude 8.0).

“Chile’s seismic activity is not an impediment,” Vergara, a board member with the government’s Comisión Chilena de Energía Nuclear (CCHEN), explained in an article published March 1 (just 10 days before the Japanese quake) by the Global Post. “It can raise the cost of building the reactors, to make them more robust or design them to adapt to particular geological conditions, but it doesn’t make them unviable.”

That’s an argument Vergara and others who favor the nuclear option are now finding a lot more difficult to sell. With memories of last year’s quake still very much fresh in the many people’s minds, events in Japan have made the potential risks of nuclear power that much more real for many Chileans. An April survey by the polling firm IPSOS suggested that more than 84% of Chileans now oppose developing nuclear power plants.

comment from me: Chile clearly has a seismic profile similar to Japan. The focus on nuclear in Chile is reportedly due to concern about global warming. There are no nuclear plants in Chile now. Going nuclear seems like a status thing IMO.

Saudi Arabia fully committed to nuclear:

Saudi Arabia plans to build 16 nuclear power reactors by 2030 which could cost more than $100 billion, a Saudi-based newspaper reported on Wednesday, citing a top official.

The goal is to meet 20% of their energy needs with nuclear.

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