06 August 2011

The nuclear world of Montgomery Burns, Waylon Smithers and Homer Simpson

‘The nuclear industry is indebted to the Montgomery Burns School of Economics, the Waylon Smithers School of Management and the Homer Simpson Employment Agency’

Revd Canon Patrick Comerford,
President, Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Irish CND),
Hiroshima Day, 6 August 2011

It is both a pleasure and a moment tinged with poignancy as I welcome the new Ambassador of Japan, Mr Chihiro Atsumi, to our commemorations this afternoon, along with the First Secretary in his embassy’s culture department, Mr Yamanouchi.

Already Ambassador Atsumi has spoken of how he has been overwhelmed by the warm support from all over Ireland at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake last March, and how he sincerely appreciates “the kindness of Irish people.”

It was my privilege – yet sad duty – to be chaplain to the Ambassador’s immediate predecessor, Mr Toshinao Urabe, at a memorial service in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in March for the victims of the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on 11 March, between the organisation of the service and the actual service itself. And so, I sat beside the ambassador that Sunday afternoon as we also prayed for and remembered the victims of the earthquake, the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster that followed immediately after.

But we should not talk about the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the singular. It was not just one nuclear disaster but a series of disasters, involving equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns and multiple leaks of radioactive materials at Fukushima.

Fukushima is not one but six separate nuclear reactors. Nor was it the only nuclear accident in Japan this year. We are aware of Fukushima because it was the largest nuclear accident this year – indeed the largest nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear power industry executive and an expert witness at the investigation into the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, says: “Fukushima is the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind.”

At the time of the Fukushima earthquake, Reactor 4 had been defueled and Reactors 5 and 6 were shutdown for maintenance. The remaining reactors shut down automatically after the earthquake, with emergency generators running the control electronics and water pumps needed to cool reactors.

The operators believed the plant was protected by a seawall designed to withstand a 5.7 metre tsunami. But the height of the tsunami that hit Fukushima less than an hour after the earthquake was 13.1 metres – two or three times higher than anyone allowed for – either because they were totally unscientific in their predictions, or totally cavalier in the calculations when it came to costs and profits.

Worldwide it appears the nuclear industry is indebted to the Montgomery Burns School of Economics, the Waylon Smithers School of Management and the Homer Simpson Employment Agency.

At Fukushima, the entire plant was flooded, including low-lying generators and electrical switchgear in reactor basements and external pumps for supplying cooling seawater. The connection to the electrical grid was broken as the tsunami destroyed the power lines.

All power for cooling was lost and the reactors began to overheat because of the natural decay of the fission products created before shutdown.

Then, in the hours and days that followed there was a rapid succession of one disaster after another:

● Reactors 1, 2 and 3 experienced full meltdown.
● Hydrogen explosions destroyed the upper cladding of the buildings housing Reactors 1, 3, and 4.
● An explosion damaged the containment of Reactor 2.
● Multiple fires broke out at Reactor 4.
● Reactor 1 continues to leak cooling water, and the same is probably true of the other two melted-down reactors.
● Despite being shut down, Reactors 5 and 6 began to overheat when the fuel rods stored in pools in each building began to overheat as water levels dropped.

Because of the dangers of radioactivity leaks, a 20 km radius evacuation zone was declared around the plant.

And the disaster continues: machinery in Reactors 1, 2, 3 and 4 has been so badly damaged by floods, fires and explosions, they remain inoperable. Flooding with radioactive water continues to prevent access to basement areas where repairs are needed.

In areas of northern Japan 30–50 km from the plant, measured radioactive caesium levels are so high as to cause grave concern. Food grown in the area has been banned from sale. In Tokyo, people were told not to use tap water to prepare food.

The levels of iodine-131 and caesium-137 released from Fukushima are as frightening as those emitted from Chernobyl 25 years ago. Plutonium contamination has been detected in the soil at two sites in the plant at a density similar to the fallout generated from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. And, let us remember – there is no safe level of plutonium.

But this was not the only nuclear accident in Japan this year. So far this year, there has been a long catalogue of disasters at Japanese nuclear plants:

● The Onagawa Nuclear Plant, the most quickly-built nuclear plant in the world, had a fire in the turbine section of the plant following the earthquake and tsunami in March.
● The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant was forced to run on emergency power from back-up diesel generators. But those emergency generators were never intended for long-term use.
● Then, on 13 March, 600 litres of water leaked at the Rokkasho spent fuel pool. It is estimated that 3,000 tons of highly radioactive used nuclear fuel is stored there. Should the cooling systems at Rokkasho ever fail, then this radioactive waste is likely to overheat and catch fire.
● At the Tōkai Nuclear Plant, a cooling system pump at the No 2 reactor stopped working on 14 March and two of the three diesel generators powering the cooling system were put out of order.
● The Higashidōri Nuclear Plant was shut for maintenance at the time of the tsunami. But the aftershock on 7 April caused the loss of all external power and the plant had to switch to backup power for cooling the spent fuel pool.
● On 7 April, once again at Rokkasho, the aftershock caused the loss of grid power until the next day.
● A day later, at Onagawa again, a leak of radioactive water on 8 April spilled from pools holding spent nuclear fuel rods.
● Then, on 2 May, higher levels of radioactivity were found in the cooling water at the Tsuruga Nuclear Plant. Only then – almost two months after Fukushima – did the operating company decide to check for radioactivity on a daily basis, which it had been doing merely on a weekly basis.

No wonder Montgomery Burns, Waylon Smithers and Homer Simpson come to mind when I think of the nuclear industry, no matter what part of the world I am in.

Looking out to Bradwell from the monastery orchard in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Last week, I stood in the peace and tranquillity of an orchard garden in a monastery in rural Essex, looking out towards the sea. Below, the estuary of the River Blackwater spread out on its way to join the North Sea. But standing out as an ugly carbuncle, just miles away on the shore below, was the hulk of the Bradwell nuclear power station, a disused Magnox power station at Hinkley Point.

The history of Bradwell, like every nuclear plant, has been one of disaster after disaster – from the theft of 20 uranium fuel rods for their scrap value by workers in 1966, to the discovery of cracks in welds shown up only after electronic scans in 1980, to a fire as recently as January as the disused plant was still in the process of being decommissioned.

Decommissioning began when Bradwell was closed in March 2002. But, despite yet another catalogue of disasters, despite Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, despite the catalogue of disasters throughout Japan alone this year, the British Government has gone ahead full steam and on 23 June named Bradwell as one of the eight sites to be opened as new nuclear facilities by 2025.

It appears we learn nothing from our past mistakes. Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Bradwell, Sellafield … the list of disasters is endless, yet governments continue to build, to build and to build.

And if they build as if there were no tomorrow, we can be assured there will be no tomorrow.

Nuclear waste never goes away. We may forget about it, we may bury it, we may think we have forgotten about it. But it remains, for thousands, and thousands, and thousands of years.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the nuclear power industry and the nuclear weapons industry that is both insidious and nefarious.

There is an unbreakable chain between nuclear weapons and nuclear power … one pays for the other.

There is an unbreakable chain between Hiroshima 1945 and Bradwell 2025.

And Fukushima is a warning call to us all. Now is the time to recommit ourselves to a nuclear-free world, a world free of nuclear energy and a world free of nuclear weapons.

With a new government in Ireland, the best commitment it can make to our future and the future of generations to come, the best hope it can offer, is to provide a renewed and a reinvigorated Irish leadership working proactively and taking initiatives for a world free of nuclear weapons.

It is a challenge that I hope our government takes up so that once again we can restore the moral and ethical image of Ireland that has been lost in recent decades. Is that too much to hope for?

Canon Patrick Comerford is President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This address was delivered at Irish CND’s annual Hiroshima Day commemoration in Merrion Square, Dublin, on Saturday 6 August 2011.

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