The Fourth Reactor and the Destiny of Japan

By Akio Matsumura

This article is available in Japanese.

Since the accident at the Fukuhsima Daichi nuclear power plants, I have presented the opinions of several eminent scientists on the Fukushima disaster and we have received many insightful responses.  I as a layman am learning new terminologies and of potential problems that could continue to affect the area for hundreds of years.

The Fourth Reactor at Fukushima

From population to democracy, the issues I have studied in four decades of international work seem rather shortsighted when compared to a potential nuclear disaster that would affect our descendants for perhaps twenty thousand years.

As you are well aware, in January 2011 I began a campaign for the global survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The strong supporting articles several experts have contributed have encouraged me, and many political friends assure me that the message will not go unheard. They concur that my proposal is timely and would help increase the public awareness of risks associated with nuclear weapons.

However, the Fukushima nuclear disaster has convinced me that this campaign does not fully address the nuclear issue. I am now worried that nuclear power plants present a comparable risk to that of nuclear weapons—leaked radiation can make large areas uninhabitable for centuries. The area around Fukushima may come to be one. Thinking of the possible magnitude of such a disaster has led me to consider the balance between world energy needs and safety for human civilization.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened a high-level meeting on Nuclear Safety and Security on September 22, 2011, during the 66th UN General Assembly. The meeting built upon action by the international community to enhance nuclear safety and the international emergency preparedness and response framework in the wake of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Ban said “The effects of nuclear accidents respect no borders. To adequately safeguard our people, we must have strong international consensus and action. We must have strong international safety standards, The message has been clear and unified: we cannot accept business as usual — and we all have a stake in getting it right, Clearly, there is a compelling need for greater transparency and open accountability. We must rebuild public trust.”

The Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) were widely criticized as hardly reliable adjudicators in the controversy of the actual timing of the meltdown of the reactors and other information relating to the crisis. These transparency and accountability are tightly linked to nuclear energy and are cause for concern.

Although inexcusable and in need of repair, these deficiencies are partially due to the complexity of the nuclear issue and its place at the top of the national security agenda.

  1. Nuclear related terrorist issues (proliferation) present the largest existential threat to a country. The nuclear issue may lead to vast and varied consequences, but always begins with the construction of a nuclear power plant.
  2. A nuclear accident would require a large, immediate evacuation of a huge area.
  3. Decision makers fear a large accident could trigger societal and thus political backlash.
  4. Government and the nuclear power industry are both responsible for and have a large stake in finding plausible solutions to nuclear crises.

Any loss incurred from nuclear war or a dirty bomb would be incalculable, but even a single mistake at any one of the 440 nuclear power plants worldwide would cause a tremendous human and environmental loss for many years. We have to remember that our technology is powerless before the power of nature.

Government and industry transparency is vital, especially after a nuclear accident has occurred. In order to ease the public’s tension, politicians should always prepare for the worst case scenario. With a well prepared response, people will be more likely to react practically and adapt to a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, Japan has not done this.

In the last weeks, I have been speaking constantly with Japanese government and party leaders on this urgent issue. Surprisingly, most of them were not aware of the dangerous situation. I, along with many eminent scientists, are emphasizing the precarious situation of the fourth reactor that contains 1,535 nuclear fuel rods in the pool and is balanced on the second floor, outside of the reactor containment vessel. If the fuel rods spill onto the ground, disaster will ensue and force Tokyo and Yokohama to close, creating a gigantic evacuation zone. All scientists I have talked with say that if the structure collapses we will be in a situation well beyond where science has ever gone. The destiny of Japan will be changed and the disaster will certainly compromise the security of neighboring countries and the rest of the world in terms of health, migration and geopolitics.  The Japanese government should immediately create an independent assessment team to determine the structural integrity of the spent fuel pool and its supporting structure. This is of the highest importance: the structure’s security is critical to the country’s future.

Before March 11, I had never imagined that the destiny of Japan or any country could be altered so quickly, so drastically.

Nuclear power plants present many new challenges with consequences we have never faced. We need to reconsider, in a practical and moral lens, their worth in regard to possible negative consequences for future generations.

Sir Brian Flowers, a prominent British nuclear physicist pointed out that if nuclear power plants had been built and deployed in Europe before WWII, then large parts of Europe would be uninhabitable today because of conventional warfare and conventional sabotage directed against those nuclear plants. An insufficient power supply to the plant would deliver the same end.

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