Japan’s nuclear crisis shows up the ‘unknown unknowns’

13th May 2011 By: Saliem Fakir

After the Japanese nuclear accident following the tsunami, there has been a lot of chatter by defenders of nuclear power that nuclear is still here to stay. That may be true.

Nuclear technology tends to be presented as a flawless technology by its proponents. But then Fukushima came like a ‘black swan’, casting new doubts on this source of energy and on expert opinion.

The nuclear camp has been ferocious in lobbying and calling in the right people to defend the future of nuclear – they even got to climate-change champion George Monbiot momentarily.

But two things stand out from the latest accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant: the unpredictability of incidents and their scale; and faith in technology is not the same as faith in regulation and oversight over compliance.

What Fukushima teaches us is that we will never know enough. The “unknown unknowns”, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, hang over us like the sword of Damocles.

That always threatens our self-confidence and our ability to predict any incident no matter how sure we are of the performance of the technology.

Nobody really predicted that a tsunami would do so much damage, nor that it would follow soon after an earthquake in a country where things like this are routinely planned for, given that how Japan is so earthquake and tsunami prone.

The reactors and generators were pro- tected by a seawall to withstand a tsunami of 5,7 m. But, instead, Fukushima Dai-ichi was hit by a wall of water 14 m high, or double the predicted size.

Nobody expected the reactor fuel would leak radiation so quickly owing to cool water not being able to get into the reactor after most of it had evaporated in the essential stages. The reactor simply overcooked. This then extended to the spent fuel storage section as cool water was quickly running out of the ponds as well.

The Japanese authorities initially proclaimed an evacuation radius for residents of 20 km2 but this had to be extended to between 30 km2 and 50 km2 after leaks of radioactive iodine and caesium were picked up. The incident initially was rated as a scale four “accident with local consequences” by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Later, this had to be scaled up to six and then seven (Chernobyl Scale) as the nuclear incident’s effects were wider and more lasting in nature.

If the earthquake had not happened, there is no doubt that the Japanese authorities would have been able to deal with the acci- dent quickly and efficiently. But that was the ideal world. An unpredictable scenario prevailed and occurred with multiple risks rising all at once.

The long-term damage is significant. The area around the disaster won’t be habitable for decades, especially where real estate is such a prime commodity. And the Japanese economy lost close to $300-billion in the first few weeks of the disaster.

The figure will most likely exceed this amount owing to loss of production, impacts of the reduction in power supply and restrictions on imports of food and other items from Japan. Besides, nuclear costs are going to go up, given public fears. Regulatory oversight is going to be tightened.

It was clear handbooks and manuals did not work. The Japanese authorities had to adapt quickly to new strategies for containing the nuclear disaster.

The reaction of nuclear enthusiasts was predictable. They watered down the Fukushima disaster as a once-in-a-lifetime event, as they did for all others before. They noted that nuclear technology had moved on from boiling water reactors to much “safer” pressurised water reactors. They laughed off the criticisms.

They have moved on to more superior stuff: “never will it happen again”; or “we have better ways of dealing with disaster”.

I am sure they do. But that wasn’t the point of Fukushima. It had nothing to do with technology but everything to do with human error and flouting regulatory crosschecks.

The company that ran the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor was a private company – the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). Tepco is not some small fry. It’s the fourth-largest power company in the world. It has a history in Japan of falsifying safety records to pass the regulatory system.

Experts have long pointed out that companies aiming for profit would find ways to flout safety standards. The nuclear industry is notorious for corruption and cosy relations with regulatory authorities. These tendencies favour lax rules, lack of oversight or simply the inability to enforce compliance.

But you won’t hear nuclear pundits say much about this.

This is the problem of regulatory capture by companies that have far more resources than State regulatory authorities. Independence does not really exist, other than in name. There is both the problem of the revolving door syndrome and policy bias.

In a recent opinion piece about a simultaneous financial and nuclear disaster, Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote the following on the Project Syndicate website: “A system that socialises losses and privatises gains is doomed to mismanage risk.”

The first involves nuclear experts moving from industry to State or from State to industry with great regularity. The second is that both industry and State are inadvertently on the same side when they have to defend the technology against opponents. This generates an inherent cosy relation and policy bias.

The State and industry see the public as a common enemy. The consequence is that the State falls into the trap of having to defend the nuclear industry rather than allaying the fears of the public and exercising the discipline of independence and scrutiny on behalf of the public.

At least for South Africa, these lessons won’t go unheeded. Any hope that we will see an easy fly-over to the nuclear roadmap will have to be revisited in the light of Japan’s disaster.