COMMENT: Fukushima and beyond —Farah Zahra - Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fukushima will go down in history as another tragedy for Japan that led to a lot of technological and safety re-evaluations globally. Sad as it has been, regardless of the magnitude, it was not an incident that could shape strategic nuclear thinking 

Awkward as it is, some
benevolent thinkers and anti-nuclear peace activists seem to have gotten rather carried away by the tragedy in Japan. They expected Fukushima to win where even Hiroshima remained futile: to be that dent in history, which changes thinking on nuclear ‘power’ and all its associated risks in favour of nuclear disarmament. Fukushima is inherently a tragedy for Japan and has not been read as a red alert by all nuclear nations, old, new or to be born.

A bird’s-eye view of the future of what the Fukushima nuclear leak has unleashed for Japan: blackouts in the summer causing recession in the Japanese economy; 200,000 people within 20 km of this plant to leave the area; a contaminated food chain with high levels of radiation (150 km from site) and the death toll of 50 employees from this plant because they attempted to avert a greater human disaster and in the process were exposed to fatal levels of radiation. A few have died already, but most of these deaths will be slow as radiation manifests itself in cancers and other illnesses.

States all around the globe have given tangible reactions to Fukushima — none have made a drastic decision to renounce nuclear power. Most have issued orders for a ‘review’ for their own nuclear programmes and facilities. The Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority has recommended a review of the Karachi and Chashma power plants. Pakistan has also offered to send its scientists to Japan for assistance. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also recommended a review of India’s nuclear installations. Singh is also soliciting “greater openness and transparency ... I would like to see accountability and transparency in the functioning of our nuclear power plants”. Nearly twenty prominent Indian citizens, including Balaram, a top Indian scientist heading the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, have demanded a detailed, autonomous re-examination of India’s nuclear power programme, and a ban on further nuclear projects until the review has been undertaken. Several countries around the globe have issued orders for reviews of their own nuclear programmes including the US, Russia, UK and Switzerland. The death toll should remain less than Chernobyl (approximately 50,000) as the Fukushima evacuation was very early. However, Fukushima reactors contain 40 times the Caesium of Chernobyl and experts warned that if only a tenth of this was released, it would be four times as lethal as Chernobyl. Fukushima reportedly has already released iodine-131 equal to 20 percent of that released from Chernobyl and half as much Caesium-137.

It is indeed important to note that the Fukushima tragedy was not caused by the natural disasters, but malfunctions in the nuclear reactors themselves (sparking off a core meltdown) by the earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese government wants to cover these reactors with concrete, but cannot do so until they have cooled and heat-producing spent fuel removed. Meanwhile, it is challenging to keep the radioactive water from leaking through the cracks continuously into the sea.

A list of ugly admissions has preceded this tragedy, including (in 2002) an admission of the falsification of safety tests by the Japanese Electrical Company to the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency; (2003) acknowledgement of a systematic cover-up of inspection data showing cracks in reactors; (2007) release of radiation into the Sea of Japan after damage by an earthquake to the Japanese electrical plant at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa. Seven of Japan’s 12 public utilities admitted to falsification of records for 30 years. Commentators have felt that the current Japanese head of the IAEA has taken rather too long to visit Japan or make any public comment.

The operation to contain the nuclear crisis, into its fifth week, could last months. Japan’s nuclear board raised the nuclear alert level from four to five. Explosions and reports of nuclear fuel rods melting at the power plant have meant progress on the situation being monitored closely. The Japan Atomic Industrial Forum is currently publishing daily updates on the condition of each reactor. Nonetheless, given this situation it is difficult to understand what impact this has had outside Japan, or in the real world where nuclear power is being pursued at exactly the same pace — for both power and weapons.

US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate that Iran is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons through the pursuit of various nuclear capabilities for nuclear power projects. According to him, the US intelligence community’s opinion is that Tehran has the capacity to produce nuclear weapons eventually, “making the central issue the political will to do so”. The US’s own plans for nuclear power or nuclear weapons remain quite insulated from any nuclear accidents such as Fukushima. President Barack Obama intends to “modernise or replace the triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems...” Towards this end he has a $ 553 billion Defence Department budget request for fiscal year 2012, including funding for maintenance of the nuclear stockpile, modernisation of the weapons production complex, upgrades to strategic delivery systems, and deployment of ballistic missile interceptors.

Fukushima is being used as a case study to utilise several factors that could potentially be replicated in other nuclear reactors around the world. Nuclear energy facilities, symbiotically potentially used for weapons materials, need to be rechecked for safety. After all, Japanese history is a testament also to the parallel theme that there have been cover-ups and enough attention was not paid on the national level to warnings and nuclear safety. Its data will be used to improve nuclear procedures and nuclear safety regulations.

This month representatives from dozens of countries met in Austria to scrutinise safety at each other’s power plants with the aim of avoiding accidents such as the Japanese nuclear crisis. The meeting was hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency and focused on the Convention on Nuclear Safety that came into being in the wake of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters.

Fukushima will go down in history as another tragedy for Japan that led to a lot of technological and safety re-evaluations globally. Sad as it has been, regardless of the magnitude, it was not an incident that could shape strategic nuclear thinking. Accidents or even deliberate detonations in the nuclear realm are stuff that the world today wants itself to be prepared to deal with — well in advance and to the best of its abilities. It is not something that can wipe out nuclear realities as they exist in the world, or turn back the nuclear clock. Whatever the nuclear accident — “All’s well that ends well” because Shakespeare lived long before nuclear power was born.

The writer is a Fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. She can be reached at

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