Blair Horner: Fukushima Anniversary And NY’s Subsidies Of Nuclear Power

Mar 12, 2018

Last weekend was the seventh anniversary of the disaster at the Japanese nuclear power plant located in Fukushima.  On March 11, 2011, an earthquake occurred in the Pacific Ocean that spawned a huge tsunami.  The quake itself caused considerable damage to the Japanese islands near the center of the quake, but the tsunami’s impact was catastrophic.

The waves caused by the earthquake hit the Fukushima area with such force that over one million buildings were partially or completely destroyed and about 19,000 residents were killed. 

At the same time, eleven reactors at four nuclear power plants in the region were forced to shut down.  However, the tsunami disabled the emergency generators that would have provided power to control and operate the pumps necessary to cool the superheated reactors.  The insufficient cooling led to three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen-air explosions, and the release of radioactive material during the next few days after the tsunami hit.

The result of this disaster forced tens of thousands of Japanese to relocate from the area and the uncontrolled release of radioactive materials into the area and the Pacific Ocean.

The power plants in Fukushima are of the same design as some in New York State, which are located on Lake Ontario.  While no one would expect the same scenario to occur, those plants have been the focus of state policies in recent years.

The plants, built in the 1960s, have exceeded their expected useful lifetimes.  Generally, plants of that design and era are expected to be used for roughly 40 or so years.  Yet those plants continue to operate under a deal negotiated largely outside of public view.

In the summer of 2016, negotiators from the Cuomo Administration and the plant owners agreed to a multi-billion dollar bailout of the plants – which were slated for closure.  At that time, the state did not reveal the estimated costs, but subsequent analyses estimated that the costs could run anywhere from $2.9 billion to $7.6 billion over a 12-year period.  The negotiation contained no new safety requirements for the plants, just a guarantee that virtually all New Yorkers would be required to pay to make the nuke plants profitable – whether they received power from the plants or not – to keep them open.

The safety records of the plants came under new scrutiny in a report issued last week by the Alliance for a Green Economy, an upstate New York nuclear watchdog organization.  The report analyzed recent inspection reports and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) documents and identified three issues of concern:

  • The group identified regulatory violations without penalties: 18 violations of Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations were reported between March 2017 and February 2018 for the four Upstate reactors, but no penalties or fines were assessed.
  • The group identified examples of weakened regulations at the request of nuclear operators. For example, at the request of one of the plant’s owners, the National Regulatory Commission changed the requirement for what constitutes an “unusual event” regarding Lake Ontario flooding.  As we all know, there had been extensive flooding last year in the Lake Ontario area.
  • Lastly, the group identified missed deadlines for fixing known safety and maintenance issues: one plant near Oswego does not have a containment vessel likely to be able to contain the pressure and radiation released by a meltdown and installation of a required vent has been delayed; the plant’s owner is behind schedule for fixing numerous maintenance issues.

New York State should learn the lessons of the dangers of relying on nuclear power and follow the path set by California: move to shut down these aging facilities, and instead move toward greater reliance on solar, wind and geothermal power.  Those power generators have been starved of adequate support since so much of the state’s wealth is tied up in propping up the Lake Ontario plants.  New York energy efficiency programs are anemic and lag far behind neighboring states and currently solar only generates about 1 percent of the power for the state.  Instead of mandating that New Yorkers subsidize aging, inefficient, 20th century nuclear plants, that money should be redirected to 21st century conservation and renewable energy programs. 

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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