Energy Analysis

Memo to Dutton: Fukushima's lessons must be learned, not forgotten

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Cartoon by Mark David/@markdavidcartoons

It is 13 years since the world held its breath, crossed its fingers and learned of a place called Fukushima, which Peter Dutton and the Coalition seem to have forgotten, writes Dave Sweeney.

ON MARCH 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami smashed into Japan’s east coast causing widespread death and destruction.

It also resulted in a catastrophic loss of power and control at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima nuclear plant.

The reactors melted down leading to mass evacuations, hundreds of billions of dollars in economic loss and the release of large amounts of radioactive contamination to the air and ocean.

Over $125 billion has already been spent stabilising the stricken site and the crisis continues today.

Japanese nuclear authorities have confirmed that active on-site intervention will be required for the next 40 years and there are mounting waste management concerns, especially around the contested release of radioactive wastewater to the Pacific.

In the shadow of Fukushima, the current domestic pro-nuclear push is even more inappropriate, especially as Australia has a direct Fukushima connection.

In October 2011, it was formally confirmed to the Australian Parliament that Australian uranium was fuelling the Fukushima complex at the time of the disaster.

The head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office – a unit of DFAT charged with tracking Australian uranium – told a Senate Committee that,

“…we can confirm that Australian obligated nuclear material [uranium] was at the Fukushima Daiichi site and in each of the reactors.”

Australian radioactive rocks are the source of Fukushima’s fallout and waste.

And large volumes of this waste are now being directly released into the Pacific Ocean.

Between 100 and 300 tonnes of water are collected and stored at the stricken reactor complex each day, where there are over one thousand large tanks holding around 1.3 million tonnes of contaminated water on site.

This includes water used to cool nuclear fuel rods along with ground, rain and seepage water — all with elevated levels of radioactive contaminants.

TEPCO has started directly discharging this waste to the Pacific and intends to do so for decades, despite deep community concern and scientific uncertainty.

Ocean dumping is actively opposed by coastal and fishing communities in Japan and is highly controversial in both Korea and China.

It is also a cause for deep concern and heartache among the wider Pacific community, given adverse environmental and cultural impacts and the tension between this action and the prohibition of radioactive waste dumping in the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty.

Fukushima was and remains a profound environmental, economic and human disaster that continues to negatively impact lives in Japan and far beyond. It also starkly highlights the costs and risks of the nuclear energy option and the complexity of managing nuclear waste.

Japan is a mature and technically sophisticated nation and the world’s fourth largest economy; despite this, the best that it can do in relation to radioactive waste –13 years after a nuclear disaster – is to pump and dump.

Closer to home, the Fukushima lesson is clear: nuclear power has no role in Australia and we should stop fuelling global nuclear risks and insecurity by ending uranium exports.

Against the backdrop of this anniversary, nuclear conversations are heating up as the Coalition promotes nuclear power. Many of the pro-nuclear claims are exaggerated or false and this needs to be contested. We need to prioritise public interest over public relations.

Existing nuclear technology is high cost and high risk, while the heavily publicised "new" nuclear is unproven and not in commercial use anywhere in the world.

We cannot change the past, but we can shape the future. Our energy future is renewable, not radioactive.

Fukushima is a warning we should not ignore and a radioactive reality we must not repeat.

Dave Sweeney is the Australian Conservation Foundation's nuclear-free campaigner and was a founding member of ICAN. You can follow him on Twitter @nukedavesweeney.

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