Nuclear Fears Growing

Worries about marine life in the Pacific Ocean outside of Japan’s failing Fukushima nuclear plant are escalating. Water samples taken 1,080 feet away from the plant show radioactive iodine-131 levels that are 4,000 times higher than normal and cesium-137 levels that are 527 times higher than normal. The ongoing nuclear crisis at Fukushima took another turn for the worse this past weekend. A crack was discovered next to seawater intake pipes at the plant’s No. 2 reactor that is causing approximately 1,800 gallons of water with 10,000 times the normal levels of radioactive iodine to gush into the Pacific Ocean per hour. After engineers attempted and failed to bond the crack with concrete, they are now trying to seal the leak using a mixture of 120 pounds of sawdust, three garbage bags of shredded newspaper and nine pounds of absorbent powder. So far, the mixture hasn’t worked. “There is still a steady stream of water from the pit,” said Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency spokesman Hidehiko Nishiyama.

Workers are trying to cool the plant’s reactors and spent fuel storage pools by pumping them with hundreds of tons of water. But while much of that water is evaporating, a significant portion is also turning into a dangerous runoff that has been discovered throughout the plant. The radioactive runoff has already injured three workers who accidentally stepped in it. Though the runoff poses an additional risk to plant workers, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) has no other option but to continue to pump more water into the reactors since the normal cooling systems at the plant have been shut down since the tsunami hit March 11, and the event of a full meltdown or nuclear rods catching on fire would cause a much higher release of radioactive material.

Like the BP oil spill that affected the Gulf Coast last summer, Japan’s catastrophic environmental crisis will not be contained for months. “It will take a few months until we finally get things under control and have a better idea about the future” Nishiyama told press this past weekend. An additional similarity to the BP oil crisis is the trial-and-error attempts Japan is making to control an escalating disaster they never prepared for. Like Japan’s attempt to seal reactor No. 2’s crack with a mixture of sawdust, shredded newspaper and powder, BP also implemented unique, spur-of-the-moment methods and mixtures to address the massive oil leak in the Gulf, including shooting golf balls and shredded tires in what they called a “junk shot”.

But despite the nuclear crisis in Japan and the approaching one-year anniversary of the BP oil spill, Obama’s speech on energy last week announced continuing investments in offshore drilling and nuclear to power America’s future. His speech included a proposal to use only a third of the imported oil we do today by 2030, in part by opening more U.S. waters in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas drilling, and lifting a 20-year ban on drilling off the Virginia coastline. “Meeting the goal of cutting our oil dependence depends largely on two things: first, finding and producing more oil at home; second, reducing our overall dependence on oil with cleaner alternative fuels and greater efficiency,” Obama said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) disagrees that domestic drilling is necessary to cut our oil dependence, issuing a report arguing that improved vehicle efficiency will save eight times more oil by 2030 than by opening new areas to drilling. The NRDC study cites an analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation and the California Air Resources Board that calls for an “achievable and cost-effective” fleet average of 60 miles per gallon (mpg) in 2025. Less ambitious fuel-efficiency standards were included in last week’s energy plan. A proposal for all federal vehicles to run on alternative fuels, hybrid or electric by 2015 is hopeful, but new fuel standards for heavy duty trucks will be set back until the summer and fuel standards for passenger vehicles will not be announced until the fall.

Americans can work towards goals like the NRDC calls for by making their homes and vehicles more fuel- and energy-efficient, but Obama remains “determined to ensure” nuclear is safe, and will not “simply take it off the table.” Though the president boasted about the climate benefits of nuclear’s carbon-free power, his speech did not include a plan on how we will permanently store radioactive waste in the future, or whether our nuclear plants are 100% safe from natural disasters like earthquakes.

Amid growing reports of rainfall bringing radiation from Japan into American soil and drinking water and BP executives receiving large bonuses while Gulf fishermen and businesses suffer financial nightmares, the president continues to ask that Americans embrace an energy source fraught with environmental and public health dangers in spite of the availability of safer alternatives.