Nuclear Risk in Japan – The Need for Independent Assessment

Read this post in Japanese and German.

Dear Akio Matsumura,

Gordon Thompson, executive director, the Institute of Resource and Security Studies

I write in response to your blog post of 11 June 2012, titled “What is the United States Government Waiting for?”  Your post addressed the radiological risk currently associated with the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear generating station in Japan, especially the risk associated with the spent-fuel pool at Unit 4.

Your concern is appropriate.  The radiological risk at Unit 4 will remain high until all spent fuel in that pool has been removed and transferred to dry storage.  Options are available for reducing the risk in the interim period until transfer of spent fuel to dry storage has been accomplished.  Please note, however, that risk is not unique to the Unit 4 spent-fuel pool.  Various risks are associated with the nuclear-energy sector in Japan, and options are available to reduce those risks.

You have called for an independent assessment of risks and risk-reduction options at the Fukushima Dai-ichi station.  Such an assessment, if properly conducted, could be very useful.  Experience suggests that major Japanese institutions, in industry and government, may not be fully aware of the risks and the risk-reduction options.

At various times and places, there have been independent assessments of risks and risk-reduction options associated with the nuclear-energy sector.  An example is the Gorleben International Review of 1978-1979.  I had the privilege of participating in that Review as one of 20 international scientists.  The Review was commissioned by the government of the state of Lower Saxony, in what was then West Germany, to examine a proposal to construct a nuclear fuel center at Gorleben.  Findings of the Review addressed radiological risk and other matters.  The Review had a substantial effect on nuclear-energy policy in Germany.

You have suggested that the US government could assess risks and risk-reduction options at the Fukushima Dai-ichi station.  I regret to say that the US government is unlikely to provide a truly independent assessment.  Some arms of the US government, such as the national laboratories, have the technical expertise that is required.  However, the US government would probably assign a lead role to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has a poor record of understanding, and acting upon, the risk posed by storage of spent fuel in pools.

Japan could conduct its own independent assessment of risk and risk-reduction options.  Such an assessment could be commissioned by a municipal or prefectural government, or by a private body.  The assessment should involve international experts and experts from Japan.  It is important to note that there are many capable experts in Japan.  The nuclear-related institutions in Japan are deficient in various respects, but there is no lack of capability and objectivity at the individual level.

With best regards,

Gordon Thompson


Gordon Thompson is executive director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies (Cambridge, Massachusetts), and a senior research scientist at the George Perkins Marsh Institute, Clark University (Worcester, Massachusetts).

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