Three Years Later, Fukushima Continues to Change the Nuclear Industry

Today marks three years since the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan sparked changes in the nuclear industry worldwide and changes in how people view nuclear power as a whole. While many countries looked for ways to make sure their power plants could withstand acts of nature and terrorism, other countries decided to completely do away with nuclear power in the wake of the tragedy. There is no doubt that the industry is not the same as it was three years ago.

One thing is for certain: industry experts have fought to regain public opinion. Unfortunately, the problems that continue at the Fukushima plant have not helped the situation here or abroad. For starters, contaminated water is still leaking from storage tanks on site and into the Pacific Ocean, sparking concerns that the radioactive water is floating this way to Hawaii and the West Coast. Workers are also unable to get inside the heavily damaged reactors to begin cleanup. According to news reports, workers need to pour water into the reactors to clear out radiation, but water continues to leak, so they are unable to lower radiation levels and get inside. On top of all of that, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said in February that they need to retest water samples because radiation levels were undercounted due to errors in its testing of beta radiation. Add to that their problems with rats chewing wires and causing loss of power and you literally have a comedy of errors that are not the least bit funny.

Many have voiced opinions that other countries need to go to Japan and help TEPCO with the cleanup. Even the Japanese nuclear regulator said TEPCO’s safety culture has “serious problems,” and that workers had been mishandling fuel rods and fuel assemblies at Fukushima until 1998, and the same problems were seen at another plant the company operates.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that the commission and the industry as a whole have made strides in enhancing the safety of U.S. nuclear plants by applying lessons learned from the accident, including requiring that the 31 reactors in the U.S. that are similar to those at the Fukushima plant install pressure-relieving vents that can be operated under any condition.

“The NRC staff’s work has focused on better positioning the reactor fleet to respond to future ‘unknown unknowns.’ We’ve learned and accomplished a great deal,” said Dr. Allison Macfarlane, chairman of the NRC. “There are some who may feel we’ve done too much, and some who’d argue we haven’t done enough. But, as the most safety-significant changes draw nearer to completion, we’re confident that the requirements we’ve imposed, and the actions the industry has taken, supplement an already rigorous oversight program.”

That may be, but it’s obvious that what happened three years ago – and what is happening today at Fukushima – is still influencing people’s thoughts of nuclear.