Shortly after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the environmental community discussed concerns that the crisis could reach the United States. Though Japan has consistently said the situation is under control, concerns recently re-emerged when images like the one below began circulating with the claim that it showed the path of highly radioactive water escaping from the plant:
This image actually shows wave height from the tsunami that followed the earthquake, but it played effectively on fears of a global nuclear disaster.
This past August, the Hawaii Department of Health attempted to alleviate concerns over the summer. They determined that the Fukushima disaster posed “no significant health threat to the Hawaiian Islands at this time.” Both the diluting effects of the Pacific Ocean and the rapid decay of some radioactive isotopes mean they pose no health hazard. But those findings failed to stem a veritable tsunami of fears that began to emerge from around the world, promulgated by eminent scientists as well as doomsayers.
Fukushima reflects a new international danger caused unwittingly and supported by a nation whose goal was to enhance its own economic and social stability. Nuclear power is seen by many as a more environmentally-friendly source of energy than conventional methods (though for others, the recent disaster is proof the risks of nuclear energy outweigh the benefits). Whether Japan was aware of or implemented safeguards available at the time the reactors were built remains a matter of debate. The fact remains that, through ignorance or inertia, Japan is now subjecting the world to substantial liability. Scientist David Suzuki was widely quoted in the press after his comment at a science symposium last October where he said: “Three out of the four plants were destroyed in the earthquake and in the tsunami. The fourth one has been so badly damaged that the fear is, if there’s another earthquake of a seven or above that, that building will go and then all hell breaks loose. And the probability of a seven or above earthquake in the next three years is over 95 per cent… They don’t know what to do.”
Unlike many national energy issues, nuclear incidents do not respect national borders and can seriously affect the health, safety, and well being of people well beyond the boundaries of the state in which they originate. International law tends to encourage environmental policies with positive externalities, but remedies outside of international trade and investment are limited.
Several multilateral conventions contribute to the growing body of customary international law, which today clearly includes the obligation to provide restitution and compensation for injuries caused by nuclear activities. In a disaster of this type and magnitude, questions of both liability and compensation are often unclear. The extent of fallout from radiation may be impossible to determine. Cancer suffered by crew members of the USS Ronald Reagan, which helped with the rescue mission following the Fukushima disaster, is likely connected, but cancer elsewhere may be less clear – especially with unfounded concerns about highly reactive water reaching Hawaii.
While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nominally has oversight over the use of nuclear plants, their focus has been on preventing inappropriate use of nuclear power. Fukushima has triggered renewed interest in safety and may ultimately lead to policies proscribing nuclear plants from being constructed on known fault lines.
The Fukushima disaster seems unlikely to stop the development of nuclear energy but it does demonstrate the need for a meaningful and potent approach to next generation energy solutions, one that maximizes safety and minimizes the dangers.