When a massive tsunami struck Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex last March, it set off a chain reaction of explosions and potentially lethal radiation leaks that would permanently displace 160,000 people from their homes. While the long-term health effects of the accident remain to be seen, its impact on the global conversation about nuclear power has been swift and decisive. Tonight’s comprehensive and sobering Frontline episode, “Nuclear Aftershocks,” suggests that, while concerns about the safety of nuclear power are more than justified, the reactionary rush to abandon the technology may also be dangerously premature.
Correspondent Miles O’Brien begins his report at the controversial Indian Point nuclear facility, located just up the Hudson River from New York City—35 miles from Times Square, he tells us ominously. The plant’s license is currently up for a 20-year renewal, and the Fukushima disaster has only intensified the long-stirring debate over the plant, which houses two 40-year-old reactors and is within a 50-mile radius of some 17 million people. Not surprisingly, the relicensing of Indian Point has become a political issue, with former mayor Rudy Giuliani hired as a spokesperson by Entergy, the plant’s owner, to tout the benefits of nuclear energy. Meanwhile New York governor Andrew Cuomo insists that the plant, which is built on a fault line, is inherently too risky to be sustainable.
Having established the local relevance of the issue, O’Brien then travels thousands of miles to Japan to see first-hand the effects of the Fukushima meltdown. He begins by recounting the chain of events that led to the accident—a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, followed shortly thereafter by a tsunami three times higher than the plant’s sea wall, a power blackout, three massive explosions and, finally, the spewing of radioactive contaminants into the atmosphere. The Japanese government ordered the permanent evacuation of all people within a 20-kilometer radius, instantaneously uprooting thousands of families and tearing apart long-standing communities. The clean-up of the plant and outlying areas could take decades.
Fukushima represented a kind of worst-case scenario yet, as O’Brien learns, it might also have been avoided. Tepco, the energy company that owns Fukushima, ignored warnings about the vulnerability of the plant’s sea wall as well as geological evidence suggesting a historical pattern of massive flooding in the region. “Overconfidence was a big mistake,” says one Japanese nuclear expert, rather diplomatically.
The accident had an immediate and dramatic effect on Japanese public opinion, which quickly turned against nuclear power. At the moment, only 6 of the country’s 54 nuclear plants remain open, and all are expected to be shut down by May 2012. For those who lived in the communities surrounding the plant, life will never be the same again. Somewhat provocatively, “Nuclear Aftershocks” suggests that public fear of radiation is out of proportion to the actual danger it poses; the cancer risk in the evacuated zone is 30.2 percent, exactly .2% higher than that of the general population. In a tactful and even-handed manner, the report shows how fear of another accident like Fukushima has led to reactionary behavior—behavior that could have devastating implications for the world power grid.
Like Japan, Germany is currently in the process of phasing out nuclear power entirely. Their goal is to switch to renewable sources of energy like wind and solar, but until these methods become efficient enough to support the country’s baseload power needs, a “bridge” form of energy will be required. In Germany, this is likely to be coal—one of the dirtiest fossil fuels around. It’s a situation rich with irony: fears of one environmental disaster are likely to exacerbate the problem of global climate change. As NASA scientist James Hansen puts it bluntly, “Fukushima is really extremely bad timing. We have not yet found a base-load electric power without carbon emissions, other than nuclear power.” Or, to put it another way, radiation is terrifying, sure, but so is global warming. O’Brien’s report is assiduously balanced, neither portraying anti-nuclear activists as alarmist kooks, nor its advocates as corporate shills, and the lack of easy answers and obvious enemies might be the scariest thing about it.
In the final third of the report, O’Brien returns to the domestic situation, asking whether a Fukushima-like disaster could happen here. The answer, in short, is yes. (Start stockpiling your canned food now, people!) Nuclear safety is the responsibility of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a federal agency headed by political appointees—never a condition that ought to instill much confidence. In the past year alone, two of the nation’s 104 reactors have come under threat by natural phenomena—flooding in the Midwest and an unusually large earthquake on the East Coast. In both cases, disaster was averted because of forward thinking and preparation on the part of the NRC and plant operators. This may be heartening, but there’s still plenty to worry about: nearly half the reactors in the US don’t meet fire regulations established over 30 years ago, and many are so old they will have to be shut down in the next two decades regardless of their safety record. Then there’s Indian Point, built right on top of a recently discovered fault line, one that may or may not be active and, in either case, is a ripe target for a terrorist attack. It almost makes the melting of the polar ice caps seem desirable by comparison. Almost.