Friday, 19 October 2012


Scribe, 2012, 273 pages, $27.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

The Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in 2011 was no accident, says Richard Broinowski in Fallout from Fukushima.  Siting a nuclear reactor on an “active geological fault line where two of the earth’s tectonic plates collide” was courting catastrophe from an earthquake and tsunami like the one that duly happened in the Pacific in March that year.

As official Japanese reports added after the disaster, the powerful Japanese nuclear industry, immunised from critical scrutiny by the “cozy ranks of politicians, bureaucrats, academics, corporate players and their media acolytes”, ensured that the Fukushima plant was under-prepared for foreseeable risks.  The reactor core meltdowns in Units 1, 2 and 3, and damage to Units 4, 5 and 6, which all released a “toxic stew of radioactive isotopes”, were therefore no accident.

Before the tsunami swept aside inadequate protective concrete walls and knocked out the emergency generators, the earthquake itself had resulted in radiation leaks and critical damage to reactor core cooling systems.  The desperate attempt to cool the cores by pumping in millions of litres of seawater was unsuccessful and the freshly irradiated seawater wound up back in the sea, contaminating fish stocks.  Dangerous levels of radiation were detected as far away as Tokyo.

All of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors pose the risks of Fukushima.  In an earthquake and tsunami prone country, they share the same “supposedly quake-resistant design” of Fukushima and human error in complex technological systems is almost inevitable.  Nuclear calamity is the predictable consequence.

Also predictable was the response to Fukushima by the nuclear establishment - denial of meltdown or radiation release, delay in providing information, suppression of bad news, and downplaying of the health risks.

When the Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, eventually cancelled plans to build an extra 14 reactors (taking nuclear from 29% to 50% of total energy supply) and announced a policy to subsidise renewables (which comprise just 1%), his own “apparently progressive” Democratic Party of Japan forced his resignation and replacement by a more nuclear-compliant Yoshihido Noda.

Whilst the ostrich response, head-in-sand, may have been the preferred position of Fukushima’s Tokyo Electric Power Company (the largest energy company in the world), and of the other nine big Japanese energy companies and their government protectors, the Japanese people spoke up.  Huge anti-nuclear rallies forced the shutting down of all Japan’s existing reactors for safety checks and few have come back on line against strong local opposition.

Construction of new reactors has also been suspended in response to “deep public suspicion and concern” (80% of Japanese voters support ending nuclear power) coupled with the financial realities of escalating capital costs, wary insurance providers, and repair, clean-up and compensation costs (compensation alone from Fukushima is estimated at between US$74-260 billion).

Broinowski sees a future of “terminal decline” for the nuclear industry in Japan, and an increasingly fragile official pro-nuclear consensus in the rest of the world, with at least some states, such as Germany, keen to steal a march on emerging renewable energy business opportunities.  Broinowski’s solution, however, also depends on “commercial engagement” with a renewables future rather than the publicly-owned and run renewables enterprise needed to switch from nuclear and fossil fuels to clean, green energy.

If some of Broinowski’s book has the measured tone of a diplomatic briefing (Broinowski was a long-time Australian government diplomat) it makes for a very handy pocket reference guide to the déjà vu history of nuclear folly, including the long saga of official denialism and myopia about the health dangers of the nuclear cycle.

Here Broinowski sheds his bureaucratic cool, especially when he turns his gaze on Australian uranium mining.  Japan is the second largest market for Australia’s uranium (which comprises 40% of the world’s uranium deposits) and Australian uranium mining companies including the big two, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, and their Labor and Liberal government flunkeys, must wear some moral stain for Fukushima, for the global nuclear energy industry, and, courtesy of colander-like ‘safeguards’, nuclear weapons proliferation.

The conservative, pro-nuclear media, in particular, goad Broinowski.  In response to Fukushima, the Murdoch press supplied the sneering Andrew Bolt and a bizarre Greg Sheridan, who accuses nuclear opponents of being ‘Greens/Taliban fundamentalists seeking to de-industrialise the West’.  With the less rabid but equally pro-nuclear think-tank, the Lowy Institute, providing ‘respectable’ cover, this cheer squad provided the vocal accompaniment to the main game - making nuclear energy someone else’s problem whilst selling them the deadly raw material and cashing the cheques.  Ethics never has been the strong suit for Australian capitalism.

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