From Issue Sustainuary 2016: Planning For A Sustainable Future
March 11th, 2016 marks five years since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The scars of the disaster still remain. Though the earthquake and tsunami’s effects were temporary, the destruction of a nuclear plant has led to lasting radiation contamination in the bay area of Fukushima and the neighboring areas.
The nuclear crisis began when the earthquake hit the coastline of Fukushima. The earthquake shut down nuclear plants and cut off other external energy sources. When the tsunami hit the plant, water flooded the emergency generator and washed vital parts such as pumps and fuel tanks away, causing a blackout. Though locals acquired tools to fix the blackout, the flooded ground made repairs impossible, leading to a nuclear meltdown. The meltdown caused a reaction between the water and zircaloy* creating hydrogen gas explosions. The meltdown and the explosion created large amounts of contamination in the air as well as the ocean, leading to the radiation levels that are still present in Fukushima today. Even though traces of Cesium-134–Fukushima’s signature radioactive isotope–can be found moving with the Pacific Ocean currents, radiation is five-hundred times below government safety limits.
Recovery has been fast; the true concern that the accident merely chased out of hiding was the necessity of implementing an alternative energy source. Fukushima crushed the myth of the absolute security of nuclear power. However, finding a suitable alternative energy source for Japan has been filled with obstacles. Japan is mountainous and densely populated; there are few alternative energy sources the nation can draw from. The greatest obstacle to overcome, however, has not been an issue of resources or safety but an issue of costliness.
In the past, the government has considered implementing thermal power plants**. Thermal plants cost only ten billion dollars, which is a third of the cost of nuclear power plants. However, thermal plants emit significant amounts of CO2 and require users to pay 3 cents more for each kWh of energy. The government has proposed the use of thermal plants on a nation-wide level, but people have challenged implementation. The same reason lies in the rejection of other sources such as windmills, water power plants and LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) plants. Even though these alternative sources are notably safer, the people are unwilling to pay steeper prices for their energy. The government has not pushed back nor clarified any future plans, and has even started to use the unaffected nuclear plants as energy sources.
*solid solution of zirconium, a metal
**Thermal plants generate energy by heating vapors (using natural gas/coal) to spin turbines.