Nuclear Power Industry Has Melted in Japan and France
There are zero commercial reactors operating in Japan today. On March 10, 2011, there were 54 licensed to operate, well over 10 percent percent of the global fleet.
But for the first time in 42 years, a country at the core of global reactor electricity is producing none of its own.
Worldwide, there are fewer than 400 operating reactors for the first time since Chernobyl, a quarter-century ago.
And France has replaced a vehemently pro-nuclear premier with the Socialist Francois Hollande, who will almost certainly build no new reactors. For decades France has been the “poster child” of atomic power. But Hollande is likely to follow the major shift in French national opinion away from nuclear power and toward the kind of green-powered transition now redefining German energy supply.
In the U.S., a national grassroots movement to stop federal loan guarantees could end new nuclear construction altogether.
New official cost estimates of $9.5 to $12 billion per reactor put the technology off-scale for any meaningful competition with renewables and efficiency.
In India, more than 500 women have joined an on-going hunger strike against construction of reactors at Koodankulam. And in China, more than 30 reactors hang in the balance of a full assessment of the true toll of the Fukushima disaster.
But it seems to have no end. Three melted cores still smolder. New reports from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), confirm that at least one spent fuel pool suspended 100 feet in the air, bearing tons of hugely toxic rods, could crash to the ground with another strong earthquake—a virtual certainty by most calculations.
Those uncovered fuel rods contain radioactive cesium and other isotopes far beyond what was released at Chernobyl. A fire could render vast stretches of Japan permanently uninhabitable (if they are not already). The impacts could harm millions worldwide, including many of us here, where the cloud would come down within a week.
Japan’s total shut-down cuts to the core of the historic industry. The globe’s primary reactor designers, General Electric and Westinghouse, are now primarily Japanese-owned. Pressure vessels, steam generators and much more of the industry’s vital hardware have long been manufactured in Japan.
But the archipelago’s antinuclear movement also has deep roots. In 1975-6, large, angry crowds I spoke to were already demanding the end of Fukushima and other reactor projects. They warned that all Japanese reactors were vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis, and that disasters on par with what happened at Fukushima were essentially inevitable. Now that it’s happened, the public rage in what has been a traditionally conservative, authoritarian society is almost unfathomable.
Along the way, local governments did win the right (not enjoyed in the U.S.) to keep shut nearby reactors that were closed for repairs and refueling. On Saturday, May 5, a deep-rooted, highly focussed grassroots movement shut the archipelago’s last operating nuke. It’s bound and determined to keep them that way.
As summer air conditioning demand skyrockets, Japan’s Prime Minister will try to prove that atomic power is essential. But an efficiency-oriented public has dealt very well with cutbacks in supply since Fukushima. Each potential re-start will have its own dynamic.
Japan’s stunning reality is that its gargantuan capital investment in more than 50 commercial reactors is now dead in the water…. and being irradiated by its own deadly fallout. That can only drag the global industry closer to oblivion at a moment when the public’s financial and political commitments to renewables and efficiency are deepening daily.
Likewise the demise of Nikolas Sarkozy. His allies at France’s nuclear-commited utility, EDF, have been Europe’s primary pushers of the “Peaceful Atom.” Now his Socialist rival is running the country, backed by a constituency largely supportive of a green conversion to parallel the one in neighboring Germany.
America’s green activists also want atomic power ended. In Vermont, New Jersey, New York, Florida, Ohio, Texas and elsewhere, escalating grassroots campaigns have put the future of 104 licensed reactors in doubt. The confrontation may be most immediate at San Onofre, on the Pacific shore between Los Angeles and San Diego. Faulty steam generator tubes have forced two reactors shut. As in Japan, the industry loudly warns of shortages when summer hits. It wants at least one reactor back by June. But experts warn that San Onofre’s design deficiencies threaten the public safety, as does its uninsured vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis.
The battle parallels the one over new construction. Already plagued with faulty concrete and design-deficient rebar steel, two reactors at Georgia’s Vogtle still await final agreement on federal loan guarantees granted by President Obama last year. But Progress Energy’s guess that its own double-reactor proposal for Florida’s Levy County could cost a staggering $24 billion casts a long shadow over Vogtle, where tax/ratepayers are already being stuck with huge bills for a project that could be vastly underfunded. A national petition drive has been fired up to stop the guarantees from going through.
And while India’s growing non-violent army of nuclear opponents vow to fast to the death, the global reactor industry awaits word from China on how many new reactors it thinks it will build. The world will then watch with bated breath as the Middle Kingdom’s own nascent anti-nuclear movement gathers strength in the inevitable race to shut the local reactor before it melts.
But for now, this weekend’s message from Japan and France could not be more clear: at nuclear power’s historic core, the collapse has come. Humankind is running ever-faster toward a green-powered Earth, desperate to win before the next Fukushima strikes.
A grim new assessment of the world's flora and fungi has found that two-fifths of its species are at risk of extinction as humans encroach on the natural world, as The Guardian reported. That puts the number of species at risk near 140,000.
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By Sharon Zhang
Back in March, when the pandemic had just planted its roots in the U.S., President Donald Trump directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do something devastating: The agency was to indefinitely and cruelly suspend environmental rule enforcement. The EPA complied, and for just under half a year, it provided over 3,000 waivers that granted facilities clemency from state-level environmental rule compliance.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>