Three years ago--2:49 p.m. March 11, 2011, Tokyo time, or late on the night of March 10 in continental U.S. time zones--what may be history's worst, most enduring nuclear power plant disaster began in Japan. It's a baleful anniversary that bears object lessons for the entire nuclear power industry in the U.S. and around the world.
The Fukushima Daiichi power complex, largely destroyed by the earthquake that struck Japan at that hour and the two tsunami waves that followed starting about 40 minutes later, is almost certain never to operate again. Only two of Japan's 50 power reactors have received permits to restart in the wake of the disaster. Communities for miles around Fukushima have been rendered uninhabitable for decades to come. Cleaning up the site itself will cost tens of billions of dollars and take almost a half-century.
That's the state of affairs for now. For more details, we urge you to read "Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster" by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman and Susan Q. Stranahan of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which we reviewed in these pages last month. But the authors of that book did not stop with a meticulous reconstruction of the events; they made clear how the events arose from the careless regulation of nuclear technology in Japan and the lax management of Fukushima's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co.
Make no mistake: The same flaws exist among the regulatory agencies and nuclear utilities of the U.S. As Lyman observed in congressional testimony, "We have plants that are just as old…. We have a regulatory system that is not clearly superior to that of the Japanese. We have had extreme weather events that exceeded our expectations and defeated our emergency planning."
The history of nuclear power in the U.S. is one of hasty, sloppy engineering overseen by indulgent regulators who took their duty to promote nuclear power more seriously than their duty to make it safe.
The industry was born out of the Eisenhower-era "atoms for peace" campaign that aimed to strip nuclear technology of its Hiroshima-born image as an instrument of destruction. Its proselytizer-in-chief was Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who coined the come-on that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter." Within a few years it became clear that nuke plants would more expensive than coal- and oil-fueled generation; by then an international juggernaut had been launched, spurred by U.S. trade credits to sell American-made reactors overseas and by manufacturers such as GE and Westinghouse offering domestic utilities power reactors at loss-leader prices.
The implications of handing over to utilities a technology far more complex than anything they had ever dealt with became clear only later. The implications are still before us--witness San Onofre on the Southern California coast, a nuclear plant now consigned to mothballs because its owner, Southern California Edison, screwed up an important refurbishment so badly they can't afford to repair the damage.
Fukushima is yet another reminder of a lesson that the nuclear power industry has had to learn over and over again--that one must prepare even for occurrences you think are safely out of the range of probability, like earthquakes and tsunamis. The heart of the disaster at Fukushima was a dreaded "station blackout" caused by flooding, in which the complete absence of electrical power made the entire array of safety valves and emergency cooling systems inoperable and rendered the plant operators effectively blind to what was happening inside the reactor containment vessels. A station blackout, as the authors of "Fukushima" observe, is a race against time to restore power before the emergency batteries run down; at that point cooling ceases and the reactor core begins to melt down.
In the U.S., regulators require most nuclear plants to have an emergency plan to deal with a station blackout of no more than four hours. The station blackout at Fukushima lasted for 10 days.
What makes the lessons of Fukushima so relevant today is that interest in nuclear power has been on the upswing. Handled safely and properly, nuclear generation could be relatively "green." It contributes nothing to climate change and lacks some of the more obvious drawbacks of fossil fuel generation--no atmospheric pollution, no acid rain. But managed improperly, its drawbacks might be even worse.
Can nuclear power be managed properly if the lessons of Fukushima are ignored? The answer is no. The problem is that lessons very much like those of Fukushima have been ignored consistently in the past. Moreover, the instincts of U.S. regulators in the days, months and years after Fukushima have shown the same pattern of minimizing the risks and telling the public about all the reasons that such an accident couldn't happen here. But it can, and unless we take the responsibilities of managing and regulating nuclear power much more seriously than we have in the past, it very well might.