Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When the Tōhoku earthquake hit off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, no one could have predicted the enormous ripple effect it would have on the island nation and the world.
The Tōhoku quake -- the fifth-strongest earthquake ever recorded, measuring a 9.0 on the Richter scale -- triggered a massive tsunami that reached inland up to six miles in some places and reached heights upward of 130 feet. The tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, below, causing half of its nuclear reactors to melt down and releasing radioactive materials into the air, water, and surrounding landscape.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
An estimated 300,000 people evacuated the area, and residential and commercial areas around the power plant are still largely unoccupied three years later out of fear of radiation exposure and contamination.
That's because the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is the largest nuclear incident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. Since then, many countries have taken further action to reduce their use of nuclear energy. For example, the German government has mandated that nuclear power plants be phased out by 2022. The Swiss have announced similar plans.
But despite the obvious environmental risks and public health problems that nuclear power creates, the United States is undergoing a period of renewed interest in nuclear energy. If the U.S. experiences a resurgence of the nuclear industry, it poses a threat to our environment, our public health, and our safety. We must use the anniversary of Fukushima to remind ourselves that nuclear energy is still not -- and never will be -- the answer to our energy problems.
Every step of nuclear power generation -- from uranium mining, to building a plant, to disposing of waste -- is riddled with problems.
For example, each nuclear reactor produces an estimated 2,300 metric tons of waste each year. This radioactive waste is hazardous for all aspects of the environment, and long-term storage is still being negotiated. In addition, the transportation of nuclear waste to a long-term site brings its own set of public health and environmental risks. Mechanical failure and accidents have been compounded with threats presented by vandalism and terrorism. Beyond the susceptibility of nuclear facilities to natural catastrophe and environmental burdens, it would be globally negligent to overlook their use as terrorist targets in a post-9/11 era.
From a financial perspective, the nuclear industry has a long and expensive history of taxpayer subsidies and excessive charges to utility ratepayers. The cost of electricity generated by a new nuclear plant is estimated to be about 60 percent greater than the cost of electricity from wind energy. Consequently, nuclear power companies must rely on several types of government subsidies for everything from startup capital to decommissioning and waste disposal.
These extra costs, which will be borne by American ratepayers, can be avoided if the United States focuses on a clean energy future. By investing in wind and solar power, the U.S. will create more jobs without risking public health or the environment. By moving away from our nuclear past, we can ensure a cleaner, brighter, healthier America in the years to come.
In the case of Fukushima, the problems stemming from nuclear power were catastrophic. The people of Japan are still coping with the effects of radiation and contamination, as they will be for years to come. The safest way to power our world is to move away from hazardous nuclear energy and toward a clean energy future.
-- Radha Adhar, Sierra Club Associate Washington Representative