Learning from Japan’s Nuclear Disaster: Lessons for Hawaii

The nuclear tragedy unfolding in Japan has many lessons for us here in Hawaii. Although our state constitution forbids construction of civilian nuclear power plants, we need to remind ourselves that if a Fukushima-like accident occurred on Oahu, we would have nowhere to evacuate.

While we want to stress that no catastrophic meltdown has yet occurred, and, if it did, we do not know how the atmospheric conditions would effect Hawaii, it is important for our citizens to understand the magnitude of what is unfolding.

Chernobyl released 2 Mci (million curies) of radioactive Cesium 137 (Cs-137) material from the reactor which caused the permanent evacuation zone. The Fukushima-I complex has three active reactors, seven spent fuel ponds, one of which at Unit 4 already has damaged fuel emitting intense radiation, while the battle to control the spent fuel in Unit 3 is ongoing. Union of Concern Scientists tabulated that there are 800 tons of fuel in all of Fukushima’s reactions, though some is safely stored in casks. Of fuel stored in the reactor itself, UCS estimates 250 tons in Unit 4, which was under maintenance and 90 tons in Unit 3. The Belfer Center at Harvard estimated that a 400 ton spent fuel pool would contain 33 Mci of Cs-137. A full nuclear meltdown and fire in the zirconium cladding of spent fuel rods could not be stopped as temperatures would reach over 900 degrees Celsius. The vast majority, 50-100 percent of the radioactive Cs-137 material would be released. (see http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/364/radiological_terrorism.html) The scale of the potential disaster could rival and might even exceed Chernobyl by an order of magnitude.

The resulting heat and likely steam explosions as the fissile materials sinks into the earth and water table could spew radiation into the upper atmosphere. While the majority would be deposited in a 50-60 mile radius, some would enter the jet stream. In Chernobyl, the materials followed upper-atmosphere wind patterns and deposited radiation thousands of miles away, with very large accumulations in northern Europe and the high Arctic. Just because we are far from Japan does not mean that Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast will not receive fallout if radioactivity reaches the upper atmosphere and jet stream. However, it is likely that the plume will be diffuse, so the issue will not be direct inhalation as much as bioaccumulation in the food chain. The forecast of the plume can be viewed at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/03/16/science/plume-graphic.html?ref=science. The question we cannot answer is how much the U.S. will receive, and what will reach Hawaii. That depends on how much is emitted, under what local weather conditions, and then what gets blown where by the wind.

While the likelihood of this scenario is low, it is no lower than the probability that a 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami would cause simultaneous failures of the double redundancy system of a nuclear power facility designed for both (though not to that degree). Despite their heroic efforts, the Japanese may be losing the battle to control and stabilize the Fukushima-1 nuclear complex. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_I_Nuclear_Power_Plant)

The implications of the potential fallout raise three important questions for all of us in Hawaii: How do we protect the health of our keiki, and the most vulnerable? How secure is our food and water supply? Should we accelerate our efforts to wean ourselves off fossil fuels?

Civil Beat will be addressing the health issues in future op-eds. The security of our water supply is proportional to the amount of water that is drawn from underground reservoirs, which will not be affected by the fallout for a considerable time. The above ground/underground mix varies within each county.

The security of our food supply is worthy of discussion. We import 85 percent of our total food, and roughly 55 percent of our vegetables, 90 percent of our beef, 90 percent of our milk. Some of these imports will be from areas that are likely to be hit harder than us by the fallout. For example, the majority of our milk comes from California’s dairies. The first fallout has already reached northern California in detectable quantities. Strontium-90 accumulates in the milk supply. Cesium-137 bio-accumulates across the food chain as long as it remains in the soil root zone. All of this leads to the increased importance of supporting the development of a vibrant local agricultural base.

Will local food itself be safe? That depends on how much of the fallout reaches Hawaii. We are fortunate that our volcanic soils are porous, so the radioactive particles will wash out of the soil zone faster than the mainland agricultural base on which we rely. We may have a spike of bio-accumulation in our food that we should monitor. We need to monitor the bio-accumulation in pelagic fish as the fallout in the ocean moves up the food chain over time. In the near term and long run, our local food may well be the safest food we eat.

Our energy security is moving in the right direction, but at a painfully slow pace. The initial drop in oil prices due to the slowdown of the Japanese economy is a temporary effect. We need to understand that as Japan turns off its nuclear power plants and its economy recovers it will place immediate demands on new energy, some from renewables, and sadly, some from more traditional fossil fuels. We need to be prepared for this implication.

The U.S. needs to turn off its Mark 1 nuclear power plants until they can be proven safe from natural or man-made (terrorist) disasters (see 2003 article on Radiological Terrorism: Sabotage of Spent Fuel Pools in INESAP, issue 22, p75-78). But some are concerned that we cannot replace the power they provide at reasonable cost. Hawaii can lead the way for the country by showing how an entire energy system can produce baseload power from renewables and efficiency. We are blessed with the mix of renewable power, geothermal, wind, solar, ocean, and biofuels that together could make our energy system 70 percent independent within the next two decades (2030). Despite our high prices, we do not invest enough in energy efficiency, the cheapest and fastest way to lower our energy demand.

What can you do to help accelerate our local agriculture and energy security? Buy local. Demand local products from your supermarkets and restaurants. Make good policy choices in the Land and Water Commissions to balance the interests between environment, agriculture, indigenous rights, and human needs for housing and infrastructure. Mobilize societal investment to support our farmers, ranchers, and dairies. Every business and citizen should be more active in lowering energy use: it will save you money and make you safer.

The most important action we can take as a society to adapt to this unfolding global crisis is to collaborate on solutions. We need to call a ceasefire in the escalating tensions that exist between the utility and renewables industries; we need recognition from all the different agricultural interests, large, small, ranchers, farmers, organic, chemical, that they have only one interest: providing affordable, safe food for our people and making a decent living doing so. A sustainable farmer is one who is in business the next year. We need our government regulatory bodies, the Public Utility Commission, the Land Use Commission, the Water Commission to make smart decisions that will increase and accelerate our path to security. We need to act together. We need to act now.


About the author: Kyle Datta is a senior fellow of the Rocky Mountain Institute, where he was formerly managing director. He co-authored with Amory Lovins "Winning the Oil Endgame" and "Small Is Profitable." Kyle was head of Booz Allen & Hamilton’s U.S. Power Practice and Asia Energy Practice, and CEO of U.S. Biodiesel Group. He is contributing to RMI’s autumn 2011 book, "Reinventing Fire," describing business-led pathways for a vibrant U.S. economy that by 2050 needs no oil, coal, or nuclear power to provide clean and resilient energy with superior economics.

The views expressed here are his own and as a representative of Rocky Mountain Institute, and do not represent the views of the Ulupono Initiative, where Kyle currently serves as a general partner. Ulupono Initiative is a Honolulu-based social investment firm established by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre Omidyar is publisher of Civil Beat.

Loading
Have feedback? Suggestions?
Discussion
Loading