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Clouds Over Japan's Nuclear Response

Author: Toni Johnson
March 17, 2011

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A week after Japan's catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, Japanese officials struggle to contain a widening crisis (BBC) at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Officials announced that they were close to restoring power even as workers continued to dump seawater from helicopters to cool reactors at the plant, which has suffered several explosions and fires over the course of the week. But some believe it may be too little, too late (CSMonitor).

In the last two days, a barrage of questions and criticism (Guardian) has arisen from international experts--including those from U.S., French, and EU energy agencies. They have questioned the methods being used to contain the disaster and the lack of progress.

"They don't know what to do," said Yuli Andreyev, former head of the agency tasked with cleaning up after Chernobyl. In an interview, nuclear expert Charles Ferguson also said the Japanese could have been more prepared.

Much about the state of the facility also remains unknown, and some argue the crisis "has been aggravated by the spare, often contradictory, information" (WSJ) issued by the government and the Daiichi plant operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company. "What's missing in all of this is some sort of credible briefing that would tell everyone what's really going on" (NPR), said nuclear expert Harold Denton. International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano said he would like to receive better information from the Japanese and will meet with Japanese officials before convening a special session (Bloomberg) to discuss the crisis.

Japanese officials have defended their nuclear response (IBT), saying the government is doing everything possible. Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa stressed the situation's urgency, saying the decision to address the crisis from the air and ground was made despite concerns about exposing workers to high levels of radiation.

Thousands of Japanese have been evacuated and thousands more are fleeing† (DailyRecord). But, fears of radiation have hampered search and rescue efforts in some places. Residents, trapped in the vicinity of the Fukushima plant, say they haven't been provided with aid or information (LATimes).

Meanwhile, the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami continues to rise and is expected to cross ten thousand. The Economist notes the "nuclear drama" is distracting officials from the relief efforts, including moving supplies to stricken towns in the country's northeast suffering from food, fuel, and power shortages.

Officials in Japan have not released information (USAToday) about radiation levels around the plant. But Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said based on reports from his people on the ground in Japan they believed the "radiation levels are extremely high" (LATimes). Many countries are in the process of evacuating (MSNBC) their citizens or advising them to leave the country.

The accident has caused countries around the world to reevaluate their nuclear programs (NYT). China, where much of the growth in nuclear power has occurred in the last decade, halted projects pending a safety review. CFR's Elizabeth Economy notes the crisis has "afforded China a more concentrated time of introspection and debate" on the country's nuclear expansion.

In the United States, the incident has called attention to aging U.S. reactors (WashPost) twenty-three of which are the same design as the crippled Japanese plant (PDF). CFR's Michael Levi says it is far too early to gauge the effect on U.S. atomic energy's future. U.S. officials have defended plant safety, but some lawmakers are calling for a nuclear moratorium.

Still, support for nuclear power remains strong in other quarters, particularly among some climate policy advocates (Greenwire). "There is literally no way the world can meet both rising demand and the desire to reduce carbon emissions without increasing significantly our stock of nuclear power plants," writes David Rothkopf for Foreign Policy.

Analysis

While many questions remain about the problems at Fukushima nuclear plant, comparisons with the 1986 Chernobyl incident suggest Japan's government is taking the right steps to mitigate radiation damage, says CFR's Laurie Garrett.

A new Union of Concerned Scientists report found that fourteen "near-misses" occurred at U.S. nuclear plants in 2010 because of inadequate training, faulty maintenance, poor design, and failure to investigate problems thoroughly.

Background

This issue guide provides a range of background and analysis on Japan's earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis.

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