Recently, Forum on Energy partnered with Pulse Point Group to produce a series of video interviews with nuclear energy industry experts, identifying the most important lessons learned from the Fukushima accident. In an excellent bookend to this series, Pulse Point Group collaborated with the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) to organize an event on Wednesday, February 24, with an elite set of speakers to evaluate the same topic.
Moderated by former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy and longtime proponent of U.S.-Japan relations William Martin, the three-hour symposium assembled an impressive panel, comprised of:
- NEI Chief Operating Officer (COO) Maria Korsnick
- Award-winning journalist and documentarian of “Return to Fukushima” Miles O’Brien
- Professor and Head of the Oregon State University School of Nuclear Science and Engineering Kathryn Higley
- Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) Chief Nuclear Officer (CNO) Takafumi Anegawa
- Former Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and current Chairman of Tepco’s Nuclear Reform Monitoring Committee Dale Klein
The audience was of equally high caliber, including NEI President and CEO Marvin Fertel, former Department of Energy official and NRC Site Director at the Three Mile Island accident Lake Barrett, and even one of the renowned “Fukushima 50,” Mr. Takashi Hara, among others.
Each speaker afforded a unique and significant perspective to the topic, with pointed audience engagement that further elevated the conversation.
As the first featured speaker, Ms. Korsnick provided a comprehensive view of the direct influence that the Fukushima accident has had on the U.S. nuclear energy industry, with emphasis on safety enhancements. Active reactor fuel cooling and controlled venting, she asserted, is the best way to prevent radiation release, and improved training programs have been implemented to educate workers about these safety protocols.
Above all, she stressed, Fukushima taught the industry that no matter what happens, a plant needs water to ensure cooling capacity, and power must always be available to move that water around to maintain stability. To ensure that all U.S. plants can withstand any hypothetical incident, approximately $4 billion is being spent on the implementation of “post-Fukushima learnings,” and CNOs from both the U.S. and Japan have strengthened their relationships and exchanges to maximize this impact.
Representatives from the Department of Energy, Damian Peko and Julia Bisconti, were invited to comment following Ms. Korsnick’s remarks, and offered a particularly salient point: As the NRC is seen as the global standard for nuclear operation, the most important lesson after Fukushima was that every plant needs to be ready for a “site-devastating event.” This means that American plants facing zero threat of a tsunami still could not simply turn their heads from the events at Fukushima. Rather, every single plant must account for the possibility that something- natural or caused by human interference- could result in similar levels of distress.
As a prolific reporter and documentarian, Miles O’Brien contributed vital insight into the relationship between the media and the Fukushima disaster. Mr. O’Brien is well-known for his coverage of the disaster, and purported that he has spent more time in the reactors than any other reporter, emphasizing his endeavor to ensure accuracy and balance in his reports.
Even with this reputation, he described his experience as a “case study in communication and how to deal and NOT to deal with the media.”
After outlining his initial difficulties getting access to the site, Mr. O’Brien explained that the top tiers of Tepco and the Japanese government seemed to understand the importance of telling their story globally, but that daily interaction with lower-ranking individuals made this incredibly difficult. Site operators and supervisors would put restrictions on the crews, which he asserted was a real detriment to effectively portraying the issues at hand. He also highlighted that nuclear power is very technical; it is difficult for the media to understand, even when there are no language and cultural barriers. Clearly, in this instance, reporters faced both.
Mr. O’Brien described Tepco as “a company that had to learn how to communicate on a global stage, in an instant, in a crisis.” He stressed that there is already so much misunderstanding about nuclear power, so much fear, that it is hard to distill it to something palatable for the public while still remaining accurate. To this end, he believes that Tepco is actively pursuing public trust, but still has progress to be made, especially as it seeks to restart Kashiwazaki-Kariwa.
Finally, Mr. O’Brien underscored the importance of continuing to increase U.S.-Japan cooperation. He asserted, with support from his fellow panelists, that if exchange had been better, Japan may have adopted post-9/11 measures established in the U.S., such as B.5.b, which would have made the turn events on March 11, 2011 unlikely.
Dr. Kathryn Higley
Dr. Higley served as the radiation expert of the esteemed panel. She opened her remarks by specifying that she is an expert specifically on how emitted radiation will be taken up by the environment, addressing questions such as “Where does it go?” and “How bad will it be?”
She presented detailed data, broken down into easily-understood comparisons that she could relay to the audience. For example, she addressed annual radiation exposures as follows:
- Average dose in the U.S. = 6 mSv/yr
- Target dose in Japan = 1 mSv/yr
- Highest Fukushima evacuee dose = 50 mSv/yr
She identified populated sites worldwide that experience even higher levels of radiation annually with no perceptible effect on health, acknowledging that the concentrated nature of evacuees’ exposure changes the perception, but not necessarily the reality of their health risk.
In response to questions regarding recent reports of a spike in thyroid cancer rates around Fukushima, Dr. Higley strongly advised discernment when faced with causation versus correlation. She cited contradicting studies, noting that over-monitoring a population is likely to result in over-reporting of cancer rates, as more sensitive analysis catches symptoms that would otherwise be overlooked. Ultimately, she pointed out that no matter what the truth is, it is only just emerging, so “we must keep an eye on it.”
Mr. Anegawa has, according to moderator William Martin, “the hardest job in the world.” At a time when Tepco faces immense scrutiny, he is at the forefront, pursuing Japan’s nuclear restart, and came to the U.S. to present his company’s report five years after the accident.
Mr. Anegawa identified in particular the importance of cooperation and communication with the local fishermen at Fukushima during the cleanup, especially concerning water contamination issues. With the approval of the fishermen finally attained, he expects that Tepco will get approval to begin operation of the ice wall “very soon,” which will significantly reduce the daily rate of groundwater contamination.
He touted the successful sealant of the Fukushima units, acknowledging that two years ago they were experiencing leaks every week or two, which caused “turmoil” for the world, for which he apologized profusely on behalf of Tepco.
On the positive side, Mr. Anegawa noted that there has been significant global interest in new decommissioning technologies that have emerged in the wake of Fukushima, particularly innovations in robotics. He expects that by the end of this year, advancement in such technologies will allow Tepco to see the state of the melted core under the reactor vessel, which is a vital step in pursuing cleanup.
To close, Mr. Anegawa announced that Tepco is taking measures to make Kashiwazaki-Kariwa the “safest nuclear power plant in the world,” as well as to continue improving communication with the local community.
Dr. Dale Klein
To close out an eventful session, Dr. Klein, one of the most recognized and respected figures in nuclear energy, took the podium to offer his insight. He emoted on the progress that has emerged as a result of the U.S.-Japan relationship, re-emphasizing advancements in communication. Dr. Klein addressed in particular the shift in Japanese business dynamics, wherein U.S. counterparts are increasingly encouraging subordinates to question their superiors, rather than blindly implement directives.
In a similar vein, he addressed the safety culture in nuclear energy globally, asserting that safety must always supersede schedule. He also tackled a common misconception surrounding nuclear energy, clarifying that fatalities in the sector are exclusively industrial, not due to radiation or anything inherently “nuclear.” When comparing numbers, coal mining causes many more deaths than nuclear energy generation annually, but the stigma is entirely different. As he put it, ultimately, “There is no perfect way to generate electricity.”
To close his address, Dr. Klein highlighted bilateral accomplishments. For one thing, Tepco has decidedly moved from stabilization of the site to decommissioning and cleanup, which is a major step. He also underscored the relationship between the NRC and the Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) moving forward. As the NRA develops into its own autonomous institution, Dr. Klein lauded the guidance it will receive from the NRC, while noting that both should continue to serve as technical rather than political regulators. To his knowledge, the NRA has indicated that it intends to adopt all existing NRC requirements, which guarantees a continued relationship between the two for the foreseeable future.
Ultimately, the tone of the event was very fraternal. Though the Fukushima disaster left an indelible mark on the Japanese and global nuclear industries, the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Japan emerged arguably stronger. The timeliness and caliber of this event set the tone for the wider conversation surrounding the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster.
Find the full “Lessons from Fukushima” video series here.