March 11 marks five years since the devastating nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan. In 2011, a 9.0 earthquake unleashed a tsunami that devastated the seaboard and claimed the lives of 15 893 people. Another 6 152 people were injured and about 2 500 are still listed as missing.
The combined natural disasters triggered the worst nuclear catastrophe in a generation. Although the initiating events were natural tragedies, the nuclear disaster was man-made. As the Japanese government review committee concluded, the accident was largely the result of regulatory capture and a lack of an industry safety culture. It turned out that the operating company, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, had been providing false information about the safety of its reactors.
The Fukushima catastrophe is one of only two disasters in world history set at level seven on the international nuclear event scale – the other being Chernobyl in Russia, 30 years ago. Both disasters released enormous amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. In the case of Fukushima, high radiation levels were also released into the ocean.
Five years later, the people of Japan continue to count the cost, despite attempts by the pronuclear lobby to downplay the true effects of the disaster. The International Atomic Energy Agency said no discernable health effects are expected as a result of radiation exposure in the accident.
Yet this is clearly untrue and premature. Professor Toshihide Tsuda of Okayama University recently published a peer-reviewed study showing an increase of thyroid cancer in children younger than 18 in the Fukushima prefecture.
Fukushima workers and Japanese people are still suffering the consequences of the disaster; denying this is dismissive of their suffering and disrespectful to the victims.
Fukushima should be a lesson that nuclear is never safe – it is an expensive dead end. But in South Africa the government has steadfastly stuck to the idea that this country’s nuclear fleet should be substantially increased.
In his recent budget speech, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan barely mentioned nuclear power – only that the energy minister would oversee the “preparation stages”. President Jacob Zuma, in his State of the Nation address, said nuclear energy would be procured at a pace South Africa can afford – a much more cautious tone than last year.
Yet, as they say, the devil is in the detail. Compare the line items of the 2016-2017 budget with those of 2015-2016 and it is clear that there is an additional R209-million allocated to nuclear in this financial year, most of which is for “goods and services”.
Fukushima is a terrible reminder of some of the terrifying hidden costs of nuclear power. A severe nuclear accident can happen anywhere, and its impact extends over great distances. The socioeconomic consequences of a nuclear disaster are significant.
With an economy that seems to be in freefall and student protests calling for free education, spending money on nuclear reactors that we don’t need and can’t afford should be the last thing the government pursues. The additional R209-million for nuclear power in the budget should have gone to more urgent social issues, such as supporting free higher education.
Melita Steele is Greenpeace Africa’s senior climate and energy campaign manager