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Fukushima and New Zealand - Expert reaction

Fukushima and New Zealand - Expert reaction

10 March 2016

Five years on from the Fukushima meltdown, the SMC asks if we have seen any effects in New Zealand. And have our attitudes towards nuclear power changed?

It was the worst nuclear event since Chernobyl. In the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, a crippled Japanese nuclear powerplant went into meltdown, and the world watched as emergency workers scrambled to shut down and contain the reactors.

Following the disaster there was widespread concern, and sometimes panic, over the spread of radioactive material in the air and water. You can look back over the expert commentary and coverage from the SMC here.

Five years down the track, the Science Media Centre contacted New Zealand scientists and researchers to find out more about how the disaster changed how we look at food, environment and energy in New Zealand.

The SMC gathered the following expert commentary on the anniversary of the Fukushima disaster. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting.

Dr David Krofcheck, Senior Lecturer, Department of Physics, University of Auckland, comments:

"Watching the Fukushima tragedy live on CNN at home with my wife, I had an ominous realization that the events on our TV screen were only the beginning of a multigenerational tragedy for Japan.

"Five years ago Japan was hit with a triple whammy of catastrophes; a magnitude 9 earthquake; a subsequent tsunami ; and then the events with the greatest long term effects, the triple reactor core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

"The meltdowns are actually a 'slow motion' disaster as the damaged reactor cores still require a constant source of cooling water to carry off heat from low level, ongoing nuclear reactions. Today approximately 800,000 tonnes of water are stored in casks near the reactor site, having gone through state-of-the art cleansing. I admire the Japanese technological efforts in collaboration with expertise from France and the USA. The Japanese have done the best they could have done.

"Living in New Zealand one can ask how the Japanese event could affect us. The short answer is that physically we have been only minimally affected.

"Studies sponsored by the Ministry for Primary Industries (June 2013) of tea imports from Japan and fish from the North Atlantic ocean showed no extra health risk from cesium-134, and strontium-90 produced during the reactor meltdowns.

"Additional radiological studies on muttonbird chicks by Landcare Research and Te Papa, in collaboration with the Rakiura TiTi Committee, have also shown no trace of these same isotopes. This is important as the muttonbird winter migration waters are off the coast of Fukushima. My own studies of New Zealand soils have shown no sign of cesium-134, which could only have been produced from Fukushima.

"Our own normal background radiation from uranium decay in our soil, and any medical radiation treatment, are by far the largest contribution to our annual radiation dose."

Dr Rebecca Priestley, Science in Society group, Victoria University of Wellington, is a science historian and co-editor of the recently published bookThe Fukushima Effect. She comments:

"I spent the morning of March 12, 2011 glued to the television set, watching the incredible footage of the tsunami wave breaching sea walls alternating with scenes from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

"The Fukushima nuclear disaster impacted on attitudes to nuclear power around the world – but in different ways in different countries. The disaster led to a freeze on Japan’s nuclear industry and major setbacks to that country’s planned future of nuclear energy development. Germany, Switzerland and Belgium made decisions to phase out nuclear power. Taiwan – which, like Japan, is in a region of high seismic hazard – shut down construction of its fourth nuclear power plant. In contrast, nearby Korea, China and India continued to expand their nuclear fleets. While France planned to reduce its nuclear commitments by 25%, and decommissioned some of its older reactors, other countries, including the US, UK, Finland, and the countries of the former Soviet Union, showed a minimal Fukushima effect.

"New Zealand, as a non-nuclear nation, is different. Green Party Politician Keith Locke probably expressed the immediate sentiment of many New Zealanders with his statement, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, that he was “so glad our country is nuclear-free.” But the Fukushima disaster did little, if anything, to change pre-existing narratives about nuclear power in New Zealand. As recounted in my chapter about New Zealand in The Fukushima Effect, there is still a significant minority – around 30% – who think nuclear power would be a good idea for New Zealand, and preferable to alternatives such as wind farms.

"The World Nuclear Association now says that 'Nuclear power remains an option for New Zealand, using relatively small units of 250–300 MWe each, in power stations located on the coast near the main load centres. New Zealand will find it increasingly difficult to avoid considering nuclear power. Nuclear is a sustainable option, able to enhance the country’s desired image. With minimal aesthetic impact, it would provide the power for Auckland’s continued growth, including energy-intensive industry'.

"When the Fukushima disaster happened five years ago, New Zealand media – me included – found it hard to find scientists who were informed and available to be interviewed. If at some time in the future, in response to a massively growing population or changing economics of nuclear power, a New Zealand government proposes to introduce nuclear power to New Zealand we will need scientists who are permitted to speak out on the issue."

These comments are an abridged version of guest post by Dr Priestley on Sciblogs.co.nz .


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