Two years ago, Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda painfully admitted to his nation that the government had let its people down in not taking nuclear plant safety seriously enough.
Noda spoke on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that took more than 20,000 lives and led to the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Today, three years after that disaster, his words haven’t lost any of their power.
“The government, operator and the academic world were all too steeped in a safety myth,” Noda said, according to press report. “Everybody must share the pain of responsibility.”
In the U.S., that lesson has yet to be learned.
Just a few days ago, one of the nation’s very first nuclear waste sites was reported to have new leaks.
The Hanford Site in southeastern Washington state began producing plutonium for nuclear weapons in 1943. Two years later, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb named Fat Man on Nagasaki, Japan, effectively ending World War II, its destructive power came from Hanford.
For decades, the Hanford Site would continue to produce nuclear material in the buildup of the Cold War. Some of that nuclear waste would later leak, creating massive environmental damage and expensive cleanups that continue to this day.
Nuclear regulators in the U.S. have learned a lot since they stored the Hanford waste into “double-shelled tanks” that weren’t strong enough to do their job. In fact, were it not for the lack of political will, the nation might be on its way to a nuclear renaissance, with new waste entombed beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Politics, though, has stopped Yucca from becoming a reality, meaning that potentially dangerous nuclear waste is still stored on site, in pools and concrete casks at various nuclear plants across the nation.
Politics, too, has limited lawmakers in this country from making sure that everybody shares what Noda called the “pain of responsibility.”
Hence the situation in Florida where consumers are bearing billions of dollars in costs for a nuclear plant that Duke Energy planned to build but never did.
Nearly every year in Missouri, for example, Ameren pitches its nuclear ambitions to lawmakers, with the most recent plan being to create a small, modular nuclear reactor that the utility claims could spur a manufacturing hub for less-expensive designs. Theoretically, “baby nukes” would be shipped all around the world from Missouri. The state, though, has lost two rounds of Department of Energy funding competitions for the SMRs, putting their future in doubt.
But the debate, at least how the government, business and academic leaders portray it, too often ignores the real costs. Safety is brushed off as an insignificant concern. The waste is safe, they say in three-part harmony. Missouri is not Florida. Missouri is not Fukushima.
Reality says this: Nuclear power might well be one of the best options for keeping the lights on decades from now as climate change makes coal obsolete and other sources of energy less reliable.
But reality also says you can’t plan for a nuclear future without properly preparing for the earthquakes and floods (and droughts) that are yet to come. You can’t have a nuclear future without finding a place for the waste. You can’t plan for the future without dealing with the actual costs, which are substantial.
Three years later, the lesson of Fukushima should still be what it was on that devastating day: What happened there could happen here. Pretending otherwise offends the memory of the dead.
-- By The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, another Lee Enterprises newspaper.