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Friday, April 29, 2011

Rot in my backyard: The importance of engaging with communities hosting nuclear power plants

Sophia Peters, MPA

More than a month after the devastating earthquake and near meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, on April 22nd the Japanese government finally imposed a mandatory evacuation zone of 12 miles surrounding the plant. Those who lived near the damaged plant flocked to the area before the midnight deadline, collecting whatever they could to bring into their new lives.[1] Some remain, refusing to change the way they have lived for decades.

As the cleanup begins, now is a good time to reflect on the relationship between communities and the nuclear power plants they host.

It was only on April 12th that Japanese officials raised the severity rating of the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant to the highest level possible on the international nuclear disaster scale – on par with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. An official from Tokyo Electric Power Company stated that “the amount of leakage could eventually reach that of Chernobyl or exceed it.”[2] This reality check reinforced the sense that this nuclear emergency will persist longer and cause more problems than first predicted by the government, which had consistently downplayed long-term safety concerns. The Japanese government’s hesitation to be clear about their level of knowledge of what was occurring at the Fukushima plant has troubling implications for the area’s residents and sets a dangerous precedent for how nuclear energy agencies engage with host communities.

The Japanese government owes the local community a rational and reasoned assessment of the impacts of the destabilized reactors and spent fuel storage containers. Yet while the US and Australian governments advised their citizens to remain 50 miles away from the plant and the IAEA issued repeated warnings to expand the evacuation zone, Japan had had consistently refused to do so.[3] Furthermore, officials refuse to admit their confusion as to how much nuclear fuel was released in the initial hydrogen explosions and whether radioactive fuel is leaking into the containment structures.[4] When government officials do engage with the community to share facts about the situation at the plant, they do so by presenting raw data without any explanation of its practical relevance.[5] This has serious and dangerous consequences for the community surrounding the plant.

This behavior is consistent with a larger pattern on the part of the international nuclear industry and its supporters to shield the full truth from communities that host nuclear power plants and a refusal to talk candidly about the risks, costs, and implications of living near a nuclear facility. This originates from the belief of nuclear engineers and utility managers that the less the community knows, the more likely it is to accept the siting of a nuclear facility. Unfortunately, this could not be farther from the truth. From Yucca Mountain in Nevada to Anmyeon Island in South Korea, history has shown repeatedly that this is not the case.

But it does not have to be this way. In fact, recent events show that engaging with the community facilitates the construction of the nuclear power plant or the spent fuel repository. In South Korea, the government was able to site a low and intermediate nuclear waste repository in Wolsong province with a near-90% local approval rate.[6] In Finland, the government entered into an extended dialogue and candid negotiation with several communities in order to find a host for its spent fuel final repository. It was eventually sited in Eurajoki, where it was met with widespread community support and a 20-7 vote in favor of its construction by the local council. Together with Sweden, these two Nordic countries are the only ones that have been able to site final waste repositories.

Barring any major breakthroughs, we will have to heavily utilize nuclear power if we want to avert the unjust and unequal consequences of global climate change. There is no other energy technology that can compete economically with coal as a base load power substitute. But in the world of nuclear physicists and mechanical engineers, conversations about Fukushima still center on the location of the liquid storage pool and the technical specifications of the reactor casing. We need to remember that the reason we care about these important scientific details is because of the impact that they have on the community that houses the nuclear power plant and the people throughout the country that depend on nuclear energy as a source of power. Helping ensure that these communities benefit from hosting power plants, mitigating the risks they could potentially suffer from being close to radioactive waste, and prioritizing their needs in the rare case of a terrible accident should be the focus of policymakers hoping to expand nuclear power in the future.

Editor’s Note: You can read more about this subject in “A Proposal for Spent-fuel Management Policy in East Asia,” a WWS graduate policy workshop final report on current and future spent-fuel management policy in China, Japan, and South Korea. Unfortunately, this work has become more relevant today than when the project began. Available here.

[1] Andrew Pollack, “Japanese Visit the Nuclear Zone While They Can,” New York Times, April 21, 2011.

[2] Chico Harlan, “Japan Rates Nuclear Crisis at Highest Severity Level,” Washington Post, April 12, 2011.
[3] Hiroko Tabuchi and Keith Bradsher, “Japan Put on Par with Chernobyl,” New York Times, April 12, 2011.
[4] Hiroko Tabuchi and Keith Bradsher, “Lack of Data Heightens Japan’s Nuclear Crisis,” New York Times, April 8, 2011.
[5] Ibid.
[6] “Nuclear Power in South Korea,” World Nuclear Association, March 2011.

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