A Day in Fukushima

By Massimo Burbi

This article was originally published in Italian here

Prologue

Fukushima is not a city, it’s a Japanese prefecture in the Tōhoku region where nearly two million people live. Fukushima city is its administrative capital, but the name is synonymous with disaster because of what happened about 60 km away from it, where Japan borders with the Pacific Ocean to the east.

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake occurred off the Japanese coast, It was the most powerful ever recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful in the world since 1900.

Magnitude 9.0 might just sound like a number until you have something to compare it to. Italy still remembers the devastation brought by the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila: 309 deaths, 65000 evacuees. That was a magnitude 5.9 (Richter) quake. Logarithmic scale might give the impression the two events were not so different after all, but a difference in magnitude of 3.0 is equivalent to a factor of roughly 30000 in the energy released [1].

And to make matters worse, the earthquake triggered a massive tsunami, with waves in excess of 10 meters that traveled at 700 km/h for up to 10 km inland resulting in 16000 deaths, 6000 injured, 2500 people missing (searches still continue for them, albeit with little hope to cling to), 120000 buildings completely collapsed, entire towns obliterated and 340000 evacuees.

The Fukushima Daiichi (meaning number one) Nuclear Power Plant was built on that coast, it withstood the earthquake and automatically shut down. It was the electricity supply that  failed because of the quake, leaving  the coolant system entirely dependent on the emergency diesel generators.  

A 2008 study (ignored by Tepco, the company running the power plant) warned that a massive tsunami with waves in excess of 10 meters high could occur in that area. In March 2011 the plant’s seawall was just little more than half that height. When a 14 meters high tsunami wave hit the coast it easily overwhelmed the seawall and completely flooded the emergency diesel generators room (culpably located in the basement). This resulted in a total loss of power in the plant, causing the coolant system to become inoperative which started the chain of events leading in the next days to the (chemical, not nuclear) explosions in reactors 1-3 and in the reactor 4’s building, which in turn triggered the release of radioactive material in the atmosphere and into the sea.

The next day more than 150000 people living within 20 km from the nuclear power plant were evacuated [2].

 

Arrival in Namie Town

It’s 11 o’clock in the morning when we arrive in Namie. It’s been more than eight and half years since the earthquake, but in many ways time seems to have stopped here.

Namie town was among the places most affected by the release of radioactive material from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which is just 8 km away as the crow flies. For six years Namie has been a ghost town, only in the spring of 2017 people were allowed to come back, but only few of them did. “20000 people used to live here, only about 5% returned” explains Fumie, from Fukushima City, who acts as a guide and translator for the day.

The evacuation zone was progressively reduced overtime, right now it extends for 2.7% of the area of the Prefecture and about 30000 people still live as evacuees outside its border [2].

We step down the car near the railway station. Trains only go north from here, but works are in progress to restore the railway to Tomioka Town, some 20 km to the south. A cafe has just opened by the station, a taxi service has recently been resumed, and not far away from where we stand the dentist is back. Tentative signs of reconstruction, both material and human, in a scenario full of uncertainties.

Walking the streets of the town radioactivity is extremely low, rarely exceeding 0.15 µSv/h, less than in many areas of Italy. You can measure 0.30 µSv/h in Rome, and here and there in Orvieto city center readings in the region of 0.70 µSv/h are not uncommon.

What used to be one of Namie Town’s busiest streets, where several buildings have been demolished.

But in spite of radioactivity being low fear is still very much an issue here, and it should not be taken for granted that people who spent years settling elsewhere would be willing to go through another difficult transition to return to their native towns.

No radiation-induced deaths have been recorded in Fukushima so far [3], a study estimated the external dose in the first four months after the accident (when the exposure was at its highest) for nearly half a million residents and reported it was below 3 mSv for 99.4% of them [4]. The Italian per capita average dose is about 4.5 mSv per year [5].

However, about 2000 residents still died in a disorganized evacuation, where people were rushed out of hospitals suffering interruption of medical care and evacuation and relocation stress caused depression, alcoholism and suicides [6].

Fear, anxiety and lack of information on radiation killed more people than the tsunami in the prefecture [7].

Some are of the opinion that evacuation lasted for too long anyway. Shunichi Yamashita (Nagasaki University) who spent two years at the head of Fukushima prefecture’s survey to understand the health effects of the accident on population, claims people could have returned after a month [8].

In Namie the earthquake caused such severe damage that many buildings still standing had to be demolished. Several others will be soon. You can tell them by a small red sticker on the windows.

This red sticker identifies buildings about to be demolished.

We keep on walking until we reach the local school, all but abandoned now. Poignantly from one of the windows we see a shoe rack, with dozens of shoes neatly put in it.

“They belong to the school’s kids” Fumie tells me “they took them off in the morning as they always did, and when the earthquake struck, in the early afternoon, they ran away and left them behind”.

The town was evacuated the very next day. Eight and a half years later and they are still there.

The inside of Namie’s school as seen by the nearby street.

In the streets of the city center we walk by a number of buildings looking reasonably good from a distance, but a closer inspection through the broken windows reveals the desolation and the destruction brought by a monster earthquake followed by years of neglect.

So far we didn’t encounter any pedestrian, only cars. A few hundred meters down the road the picture suddenly changes: gazebos, tables, there’s a small festival going on. Apparently this happens every second Saturday of the month to cheer up those who came back. The entertainment doesn’t look exactly memorable, but people seem to enjoy it. The dose rate is less than 0.10 µSv/h.

The area is surrounded by small temporary stores, about to be moved elsewhere in the town. As soon as we enter one of them we are offered tea and biscuits. All products for sale are local and people don’t miss a chance to tell you that. It’s the same in every store we go.

You can tell that those who came back strongly wants to rebuild their communities. Farmers want to farm and sell their products, but it’s easier said than done. People here have very little trust in the government, which didn’t do a particularly good job in dealing with the emergency and the aftermath. Taking it upon themselves schools, markets and local communities independently started to test for radioactivity in meat, fish, vegetables and all sort of food you can put on the table. Probably nowhere else in the world is food as closely monitored as here, and local people know they are not running radiation-related risks by eating it. Some resident goes as far as saying he wouldn’t buy food from anywhere else, not being as tested as the one from Fukushima.

But even if food meets the standard limit of 100 Bq/kg of Cesium (which is more strict than standards in both the EU and the USA [9]), elsewhere in Japan, as well as in foreign countries, many people are too afraid of contamination to eat food from this region, despite there being no real danger.

Entertainment in Namie Town.

The stigma from the name “Fukushima” is among the biggest obstacles to this battered region’s recovery.

“It happens with people too” Fumie tells me. “Local people who went to live outside the Prefecture are often discriminated against for fear of contamination”. Being exposed to radioactivity doesn’t make you radioactive. Radioactivity is not contagious, but fear, particularly when combined with lack of information, is.

We leave Namie Town heading north west.

In the process of decontaminating the area, 5-10 cm of weakly radioactive superficial soil have been removed and put into plastic bags. But what to do with them is yet to be decided, since nobody takes the responsibility. So for the time being they stay where they are. We see hundreds of them along the road. You wonder what happens to them in the typhoon season.

We take a country road. Immediately after the accident at the Nuclear Power Plant the government ordered to kill cattle in the evacuation zone, but here there’s a man who disregarded the order. We arrive at his ranch at lunch time, he’s waiting for us. He tells us his cows can no longer be sold, therefore they’ll die of old age. “They are fat and happy” he adds.

As he tells us his story it doesn’t take long for his anger against the government and Tepco to become apparent, a state of mind that made him very critical of nuclear power. The debate on the matter ends before it even starts, time is ticking away and we still have many stops ahead of us, we must go.

Leaving the farm the dosimeter and the spectrometer come alive for the first time. At the roadside I measure a dose rate of 0.70-0.80 µSv/h, far from worrying, but enough to take the first significant measurement of the day.

Plastic bags full of weakly radioactive soil at roadside in Namie’s area.

I therefore decide to stop in order to record a gamma spectrum to check that what I am detecting is Cesium released from the Power Plant. Gamma spectroscopy is based on the fact that when a radionuclide undergoes alpha or beta decay, its nucleus is left in an excited state, and can only reach its ground state by emitting a gamma ray.

Every different radionuclide emits gamma-rays of a specific energy which become its signature. Analysing a gamma spectrum allows you not just to tell how much radioactivity there is, but what causes it as well.

The gamma spectrum confirms the presence of Cesium 137 and Cesium 134, the two main radionuclides released in the atmosphere after the accident, together with Iodine 131, the most aggressive of the three in the short term, but long gone by now, its half-life time being just 8 days, and therefore becoming harmless in a month or so.

Cesium 134 halved four times since 2011, and it’s reduced to roughly 6% of its original activity, while Cesium 137, having a 30 years half-life, will take much longer to decay away.

 

Ukedo and the No-Go Zone

We head towards the ocean and to a place called Ukedo, where formerly about 2000 people lived. The tsunami wiped it all out, killing one in ten people. The few remaining buildings were so damaged, they were torn down soon after. Looking around it’s hard to believe there used to be a small town here.

A desolate landscape. This is where Ukedo used to be.

Nothing remained, the only exception being the elementary school. Its clock hasn’t run since the day of the earthquake, it’s still stuck at the time the tsunami hit the coast. About 80 kids were in the school that day, among so much destruction they were all saved by their teachers who took them to the nearby hills after the tsunami warning was issued. From there they watched the town where they lived being erased from existence, together with the lives of many of their parents.

From here we are about 6 km away from the nuclear power plant and, looking south, we can clearly see it. The dose rate is the lowest so far, below 0.05 µSv/h.

Ukedo school’s clock.
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant as seen from Ukedo.

We leave the coast and take the National Route n.6, which goes through the No-Go Zone, where you can drive but you are not allowed to stop or even open the window, let alone stepping down.

The dose rate goes up, but keeps pretty low: for a second or two I read 0.50 µSv/h, but it quickly goes down to 0.30 µSv/h and stays there.

We stop at a gas station. We are still well into the No-Go Zone but inside the service area you can get out of the car without anybody complaining about it. I take the chance to record another gamma spectrum. Our stop is longer than it typically takes to fill the tank, I accumulate data for little more than 15 minutes.

Gas station on the National Route n.6, inside the No-Go Zone.
Dose rate in the service area of a gas station inside the No-Go Zone (Futaba’s area).

“How’s the radioactivity here?” Fumie asks me. I tell her we’re slightly above 0.30 µSv/h, lower than what you get in Saint Peter’s Square in Vatican City. The signature is still the same: Cesium 137 and Cesium 134.

We go back in the car and we move south on the National Route n.6 in the Futaba area. At our closest approach to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant we are about 2 km away from it. We stop on a side street. The power plant is right in front of us but we can’t get any closer than that and we don’t have much time to look around, after a couple of minutes a policeman tells us, kindly but firmly, that we need to move on. The dose rate is below 0.30 µSv/h.

A view of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant from a 2 km distance.

Continuing South, we run into the only real hot spot of the day. I read 3-4 µSv/h, but it’s short-lived, a minute later the dose rate is already reduced by more than a half and it keeps on going down. In order to record a clear spectrum I need more time where radiation is higher (the level is not dangerous) so I ask to turn around and go back north.

You cannot stop the car inside the No-Go Zone, but nothing prevents you from going back and forth. I am not sure the driver understands why we are doing this but he doesn’t complain, we go back towards the power plant.

Our itinerary in the No-Go Zone near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The dosimeter records a datapoint on the GPS map every 30 seconds.

I accumulate data for little less than 20 minutes. Unsurprisingly it’s the smoothest spectrum of the day, but as expected the result doesn’t change: Cesium 137 and Cesium 134. Average dose rate 1.29 µSv/h.

Gamma spectrum recorded in the No-Go Zone, on the National Route n.6, at the closest approach to Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

 

Tomioka Town, divided city.

With a good spectrum finally under the belt we turn around again and we head to Tomioka Town, about 10 km to the south. The city is cut in two by a road which currently is the boundary of the No-Go Zone and this makes for a pretty surreal view: people can live on one side of the road but can’t even set a food on the opposite side. You look to your left and you see a reasonable normality, but if you look to your right there’s nothing but tall grass and total neglect.

The road dividing the habitable zone from the No-Go zone in Tomioka Town.

“I don’t understand why they left the cars behind” Fumie tells me pointing at the cars permanently parked in front of the abandoned houses. “Now they all have broken windows and flat tyres, but a year ago they still looked perfect”.

We go ahead on foot from here. Right in front of the no trespassing fence the dose rate measured by the instruments is in the region of 0.35 µSv/h. A sign not far from there tells us inside the No-Go Zone it’s 0.48 µSv/h, slightly higher but far from dangerous, and elsewhere in the town it’s much lower than that. Still, fear of radiation is among the main reasons why many people didn’t come back.

Dose rate measured near the limit of the No-Go Zone in Tomioka Town.
The dose rate measured inside the No-Go Zone is displayed by the street.
.
Beyond the guardrail there’s nothing but tall grass and total neglect.

It’s getting darker as we enter Tomioka’s railway station. “Everything’s being rebuilt from scratch here” explains Fumie, “the tsunami washed out everything away”. Just like in Namie, works are in progress to restore the railway connecting the two towns.

Looking up we see a sign reading “Tomioka will never die!”. We don’t know who put it there. We stare at it for a moment without saying a word. Then I look at my dosimeter, the dose rate is less than 0.10 µSv/h.

The sun has already set and a strong wind is blowing when we reach the coast for the last stop of the day. The other nuclear power plant of Fukushima, the number 2 (Daini), is a km away from where we stand.

The Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant as seen from the coast near Tomioka Town.

We skipped lunch, and Tokyo is more than three hours away. A supermarket just reopened at Tomioka and we decide that having dinner there is the best thing to do.

The supermarket is not exactly crowded, but it works, the shelves are full of products and people have a place in town where they can find what they need. Rebuilding is not just about bricks, it’s about a social and economic fabric that was torn apart.

At the dinner table I take my laptop out and download the GPS map with all the datapoints recorded. We look at it as we finally eat, it’s a way to go through our journey again.

Total accumulated dose during more than seven hours spent in the Fukushima Prefecture, including a couple of stops inside the No-Go Zone: 1.60 µSv. “It means the average dose rate was 0.22 µSv/h, less than what you get walking the streets of Rome’s city center” I say while me and Fumie enjoy a very good sushi.

And now it’s time to go back. 250 km later we are under the Yasukuni Dori’s lights in Tokyo (Shinjuku). In the long journey from Tomioka to Tokyo we talked about many things, but when we finally say goodbye Fumie has one last request: “share what you saw with your friends and family. Your action will support Fukushima people”.

Information is the best antidote to irrational panic and fear.

The accumulated dose in little more than seven hours is 1.60 µSv. The dosimeter shows Italian time, for the Japanese time add 8 hours.
Hourly average dose rate chart of my seven hours stay inside the Fukushima Prefecture. The highest value corresponds to the hour almost entirely spent inside the No-Go Zone and slightly exceeds 0.50 µSv/h.

 

Epilogue

Five days later I take off from Tokyo to go back to Europe. In little more than 11 hours of flight my dosimeter records an accumulated dose of 44.49 µSv, with a peak dose rate of 10 µSv/h and an average dose rate at cruise altitude between 4 and 5 µSv/h.

This is likely an underestimation [11], the dosimeter is designed for terrestrial gamma rays and the cosmic rays you find at 10-12 km altitude are mostly out of its range, but even believing the numbers I read in the display, as I step down the plane, I cannot help wondering how many of the people who shared that flight with me would have been too afraid of radiation to follow me and Fumie for a day in Fukushima, where they would have been exposed to a dose nearly 30 times lower.

Hourly average dose rate chart of the 11 hour flight from Tokyo Haneda to Munich. The increase in cruise altitude from 11500 to 12200 meters, after roughly 7 hours, results in a higher dose rate.

 

Notes

The instruments measure and record the dose and dose rate for external exposure which, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), was “by far the dominant pathway contributing to effective dose” in the most affected regions of Fukushima prefecture.

https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/44877/9789241503662_eng.pdf;jsessionid=B459B0A64292271AF1134F9AF763CCDA?sequence=1 (pages 41 and 51)

Units mentioned are µSv (microsievert) e mSv (millisievert) which measure the equivalent and effective dose, the biological effect of ionizing radiation. 1 millisievert corresponds to 1000 microsieverts.

The margin of error is in the region of 10-20%.

Instruments:

  • Spetcrometer: Mirion PDS 100G
  • Dosimeter: Tracerco PED+
  • Geiger Counter: SE International Radiation Alert Ranger

The dosimeter can be used in “personal dose” mode and in “survey meter” handheld mode. While accumulating the personal dose it’s been worn on the upper body for most of the time.

References and Suggestions for Further Readings

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/details-of-japan-earthquake/

http://www.protezionecivile.gov.it/attivita-rischi/rischio-sismico/emergenze/abruzzo-2009

http://www.tg1.rai.it/dl/tg1/2010/articoli/ContentItem-4836d49a-370b-4179-ac82-4160dce61984.html

[2] http://www.pref.fukushima.lg.jp/site/portal-english/en03-08.html?fbclid=IwAR3dFVamEFNd93lVUo_EaDmfztSBlAqiKsUL5WvgNbxaHfjOOvZ-CVJZ4Fc

[3] https://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/a_e/fukushima/faqs-fukushima/en/

The first, and so far only, deaths that could be radiation-related was recorded in 2018.

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-45423575

[4] https://www.niph.go.jp/journal/data/67-1/201867010003.pdf

[5] http://www.fisicaweb.org/doc/radioattivita/geiger%20muller/taratura.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2GMarmxt093hTPJWUvygCtjiTePRl6OEadUXyhTMUC1LEFsxYWawO713c

[6] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0936655516000054

https://www.ft.com/content/000f864e-22ba-11e8-add1-0e8958b189ea

[7] https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/02/20/national/post-quake-illnesses-kill-more-in-fukushima-than-2011-disaster#.Xe-D3Rt7m02

[8] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2125805-a-nuclear-ghost-town-in-japan-welcomes-back-residents-this-week/

[9] https://www.pref.fukushima.lg.jp/site/portal-it/it01-03.html

[10] https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/05/09/national/fukushima-activist-fights-fear-and-discrimination-based-on-radiation/#.XezovBt7lNA

[11] http://www.unscear.org/docs/reports/annexb.pdf

Nuclear Days 2019: some pictures about a successful two-day event

header

On November 15th, a group of 26 people visited the Slovenian Nuclear Power Plant, located in Krško, about 100 km from Ljubljana. People had the opportunity to visit the non-radiologically controlled areas of the plant, such as generators and transformers, turbine hall and secondary circuit, control room and tertiary cooling circuit. It was also possible to have a first hand experience of the control room simulator, in which crews that operate power plants are trained.
In the afternoon,
people visited the World of Energy Exhibition. In addition to a model of the nuclear power plant with digital information panels, the exhibition shows several installations on the various forms of energy production, on radioactivity and nuclear fuel cycle, interactive activities to simulate the electricity Slovenian daily load curve with different energy mixes, and experiments on electricity and magnetism.

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 15th 2019
VISIT TO KRSKO NPP AND TO THE WORLD OF ENERGY EXHIBITION

 

On November 16th the conference “Nuclear for Climate: opportunities and challenges took place at Istituto Tecnico Statale “Alessandro Volta”, in Trieste. The conference was structured in a morning and an afternoon session, with speakers from Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, Poland and France, and the special participation of Michael Shellenberger in video-conference from California. The morning session focused on current state and future perspectives of nuclear technology, while the afternoon session focused on public acceptance and policy.

Parallel to the afternoon session took place the “Nuclear Science and Technology exhibition”, with informative desks and interactive experiments about radiation physics and energy production.

A special thanks to our partners and sponsors and to all the participants, we look forward to see you again in 2020!

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 16th 2019
CONFERENCE @ ISTITUTO TECNICO A.VOLTA, TRIESTE

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 16th 2019
NUCLEAR SCIENCE&TECHNOLOGY EXHIBITION
@ ISTITUTO TECNICO A.VOLTA, TRIESTE

Locandina Nuclear Days poster

The Nuclear Pride Fest in Brussels will be a groundbreaking event for Belgium

[Original post, by Paul Bossens, published here.]

nuclear_pride_festOur Belgian team, Henri Marenne, Jacques Marlot and me, Paul Bossens, are convinced the Nuclear Pride Fest in Brussels on April 28th is very important and will be a success.

Why?

  • Nuclear is a  hot issue in Belgium today as the government decided to phase out nuclear power in 2025. This is the law.
  • However, as up to 70% of our electricity is coming from nuclear, phasing out in just five years is technically almost unfeasible. Belgium does not have any specific alternative power production in construction or at least planned. You can imagine that this creates a lot of tensions and discussions. This makes Belgium one of the most critical countries now, concerning the future of nuclear energy.
  • Only one political party, NVA, dares to say that we need to keep at least a few nuclear reactors running to avoid blackouts. However, they have no support from the other parties.

Energy is a hot topic in Belgium

A few weeks ago, Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress was speaking pro-nuclear in an ecology event of this party, NVA. The days after, the media went crazy about his story.

Therefore, we are convinced that our Nuclear Pride Fest will make a major contribution to the debate on nuclear energy in Belgium.

The venue of our event, Carrefour de l’Europe in Brussels, also has a symbolic value:  It is the place of the students on school strike, asking the government for more action to safe the climate. We’ll present them a solution in the very same place.

Most political parties in Belgium are against nuclear power. However, those people seem to be at least willing to listen to pro nuclear arguments.

On May 26th, there will be general elections. Most political parties avoid any discussion on nuclear now to not disturb their elections campaigns. We expect that they want to start the real discussion on security of power supply after the elections. So the timing of the Nuclear Pride Fest is perfect.

Come and celebrate the Nuclear Pride Fest together with us!

So, were are we in the preparations for the Nuclear Pride Fest?

  • We have got the permission of the authorities.
  • Tents will be hired.
  • We will not be allowed to use music instruments or amplifiers, but we can sing  loud.
  • People from Belgium are already enthusiastic to come. By the way, the place is easy to reach by train. Carrefour de l’Europe is in front of the Brussels Central Station (not to be confused with the long-distance station Bruxelles-Midi, though). The famous Brussels Grand Place is 500 m away.
  • Some politicians indicated they would come to visit our event.

So, please come to Brussels and show Belgium and Europe that we want more nuclear energy, because it is the best thing for the environment and for humanity!

What we need now, is your participation, expressing your nuclear pride: singing our songs, showing posters and signs, explaining what we are doing, just like we did in Munich last year. Oh, and of course we need our polar bear mascot Melty!

Nuclear Pride dates 2019

Nuclear Pride Fest 06

PRESS RELEASE

Nuclear power enthusiasts in Europe should book two important dates this year:

  • Sunday, April 28th, 2019 in Brussels, Belgium
  • Sunday, October 20th, 2019 in Paris, France

These events will build on the success of the Nuclear Pride Fest in Munich in October 2018. In Paris, in particular, we will again have a Nuclear Pride Fest, which will offer a colorful program of different actions around nuclear energy.

Our aim, as ever, is to convey the importance of this clean, stable, cost-effective and practically CO2-free form of power generation. We are proud to support and promote it – for the benefit of people and the environment.

Detailed planning of both events will take place in the coming weeks and months.

 

For more information about the Nuclear Pride Coalition: here.
The report of the 2018 edition of the Nuclear Pride Fest (in Italian): here

 

Letter to Spanish Leaders

Idom_Nuclear_Services_ANAV_CNAT_NUCLENOR_Lifetime_Management_projects_Asco_Vandellos_Almaraz_Trillo_Garo_a_nuclear_power_plants_Gestion_Vida_AlfonsoCalza.jpg


This open letter was originally published on Environmentalprogess.org


June 20, 2018

Dear Sr. Sánchez,

We are writing as environmentalists, conservationists and climate scientists to applaud your country’s commitment to fighting climate change through energy policy. Spain has been at the forefront of generations of low-carbon energy technologies, from nuclear plants in the 1960s to the world’s most advanced and ambitious solar energy plants in the 1990s and 2000s.

In light of these achievements, we are also writing to express our alarm at your decision to close a nuclear plant and to urge you to keep and expand your remaining nuclear plants.

The Spanish nuclear program was once rapidly displacing fossil fuels in the country’s energy mix. Spain demonstrated in the 1970s and 80s that decarbonization with growth is possible. However, the nuclear moratorium enacted in 1983 halted the creation of enough nuclear power to replace all of the coal it now burns for electricity.

Few nations have done more than Spain to explore the possibilities and limitations of various types of low-carbon energy. Spain boasts an unusually mixed set of technologies supplying its electricity, with more than 10 percent of its electricity coming from low-carbon wind, hydro, and nuclear. Solar contributes another 5 percent. However, over 40 percent of Spain’s electricity last year was provided by coal and natural gas.

The loss of the Santa Maria de Garoña nuclear plant was a significant step backwards for Spain’s climate goals. The fossil fuels used to replace the plant’s power will put about 2 million tonnes of carbon emissions into the atmosphere each year, the carbon equivalent of almost a million new cars on the road in Spain. Despite former minister Álvaro Nadal’s claim that closing the plant would have no effect on the nation’s power grid, closing the plant eliminates clean power that could have fueled 1.8 million electric vehicles.

Any further reduction in Spain’s nuclear generation will likewise increase fossil fuel generation and pollution given the low capacity factors and intermittency of solar and wind. Germany is a case in point: its emissions have been largely unchanged since 2009 due to nuclear plant closures, with increases in 2015, 2016, and 2017. If the electricity from Spain’s surviving nuclear fleet is replaced by its abundant natural gas and coal plant capacity, carbon emissions will increase by about 32 million tonnes CO₂ per year, or the equivalent of adding 14.5 million new cars to Spanish roads.

In addition to making its emissions reduction goals more difficult to meet, Spain also risks further increasing its electricity prices as nuclear closes. Though Spain’s electricity costs are now among the highest in Europe, they were below average before 2009. The need to pay for tens of billions of dollars for renewable energy caused this rapid rise in cost. This experience is shared by other countries in Europe that are eliminating nuclear. For example, Germany spent 24.3 billion euros above market price in 2017 for its renewable energy feed-in tariffs yet will widely miss its 2020 emission reduction goals. Spain can learn from Germany’s failure to keep nuclear plants in operation.

For Spain’s future, the next step to combat climate change and improve air quality is to increase clean electricity from non-fossil sources and massively reduce fossil fuels used in heating and the transportation sector. If Spain is to achieve these goals, nuclear power must play a central role once again.

Signed,

James Hansen, Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions Program, Columbia University, Earth Institute, Columbia University

Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Steven Pinker, Harvard University, Better Angels of Our Nature

Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize recipient, author of Nuclear Renewal and The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Michael Shellenberger, President of Environmental Progress, Time Magazine’s “Hero of the Environment”

Peter H. Raven, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden. Winner of the National Medal of Science, 2001

John Lavine, Professor and Medill Dean Emeritus, Northwestern University

Erle C. Ellis, Ph.D, Professor, Geography & Environmental Systems, University of Maryland

Richard Muller, Professor of Physics, UC Berkeley, Co-Founder, Berkeley Earth

Tom Wigley, Climate and Energy Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado

David W. Lea, Professor of Earth Science, University of California Santa Barbara

Joe Lassiter, Professor, Harvard Business School

Gwyneth Cravens, author of Power to Save the World

Mark Lynas, author, The God Species, Six Degrees

Martin Lewis, Department of History, Stanford University

Michelle Marvier, Santa Clara University

Steve Kirsch,  CEO, Token

Norris McDonald, President, Environmental Hope and Justice

Kirsty Gogan, Executive Director, Energy for Humanity

Alan Medsker, Coordinator, Environmental Progress – Illinois

Praise be to Coal

[The dark side of Energiewende: St. Lambert church in Immerath the last victim offered to Mammon*]

In AD 2018, coal (or better lignite) keeps causing “casualties” [1] even in the heart of Europe. The small village of Immerath, suburb of Erkelenz, municipality in the German region of North Rheine-Westphalia, was the last to be grounded by Garzweiler II. Garzweiler II is not a mutant monster from Japanese manga, but an equally dangerous open-cast lignite mine, expansion of Garzweiler I.

garzweilerII
Fig. 1 Garzweiler II mine (source RWE)

It happens again and again in this tormented land, whose rich subsoil – that made it contended during the past century world wars – represents its very own damnation: environmental and historical-cultural devastation and depopulation.

First mines were opened in the early 1900 and they move to the north as new reservoirs are discovered. They devour houses, churches and personal histories on their path. Now, in the 21st century, fostered by Energiewende – the political reform that should turn German energy system green – they find new impulse.

Ongoing nuclear phase-out and massive – as well as expensive and intermittent – use of renewables make lignite an abundant, reliable and cheap source to balance the grid.

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Fig. 2 The empty tabernacle in St. lambert church, after deconsecration Mass held on 13th October 2013 (source Gerzweiler.com, ©Arne Müseler –  arne-mueseler.com)

Nor public protests nor religious authorities [2] or environmentalist concerns succeeded to stop the mine. Villages are evacuated and off-limited. Thousands of people fled, alive and dead, no exceptions. Then everything is grounded.

Ten days ago the Immerath “Cathedral”, actually a simple parish church although dating back to the 12th century [3], but so called since it was way too big for the number of parishioners, recently reduced to few tens. Communities receive money compensation and new infrastructures where to settle, maybe not of comparable aesthetic value.

demolition Immerath_(neu)_Kapelle_St._Lambertus,_Ansicht

Fig. 3 Left: the grounding of St Lambert church, 8th January 2018 (photo ©Arne Müseler –  arne-mueseler.com). Right: the New Immerath church (photo: Käthe und Bernd Limburg)

Once completed, Garzweiler II mine will cover 70 square kilometres (27 square miles) and through 1.3 billion tons of estimated lignite reserves (40% of the Rheine region resources) will provide fuel to the power plants till 2045, when it will be covered again.

Lignite directly supplies numerous local plants, casting another dark shadow on the life – or at least on the lungs – of local communities.

Epprath Tollhaus, Morken-Harff, Königs-Hoven, Reisdorf, Belmen, Elfegen, Garzweiler, Stolzen-berg, Prieste-rath, Pesh, Otzenrath/Spenrath, Holz, Immerath have been already devoured. Next towns to fall will be Lützerath, Holzweiler, Keyen-berg, Berverath, Westrich, Kuckum – unless something changes. Finally, the monster will stop at the doors of New Immerath.

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Fig. 4 Coal reservoirs in the region (source Wikipedia)

We have already and extensively written, with facts and numbers, about the failure of Energiewende and about the nonsense of nuclear phase out in the context of fighting carbon emissions [4].

The facts that we are reporting now, reveal more than any number the fool injustice and the blind gluttony unveiled of any hypocritical good intention.

Let’s just think for a moment to how that cultural heritage (like it or not, de gustibus…) could have been promoted in ecological and sustainable ways, if just Germany were not phasing out nuclear to rely on … coal!

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Fig. 5 View of Keyenberg, one of the next towns to be grounded (source Facebook)

At least oblivion will not cover these villages and their communities. They will survive thanks to a nice project by Arne Müseler, a photographer from Salzburg, who created a virtual community where St Lambert bells will keep sounding, as a reminder to humanity, who never learns from past mistakes.

Notes:

* Mammon is a New Testament term to personify money and material wealth

[1] Coal and lignite are the deadliest energy sources: 0.24 deaths/TWh for accidents and 57.1 deaths/TWh for pollution. Considering that combined total production from these sources in 2016 was 44000 TWh, we obtain an estimate of 2.5 millions fatalities per year. (Sources: Markandya, A., & Wilkinson, P. (2007). Electricity generation and health. The Lancet370(9591), 979-990; Vaclav Smil (2017). Energy Transitions: Global and National Perspectives. & BP Statistical Review of World Energy)

[2] The Roman-Catholic Bishop of Aachen, Heinrich Mussinghoff, before Pope Francis Laudato si’ encyclical letter on the environment stewardship, criticized the project for being ecologically and socially incompatible.

(http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/gesellschaft/braunkohle-warum-der-immerather-dom-abgerissen-wird-a-916853.html)

[3] Probably the first church was a Romanesque complex dating back to the 12th century. (“Die wahrscheinlich erste Kirche war eine einschiffige romanische Anlage aus dem 12. Jahrhundert”, source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Lambertus_(Immerath)

A renovation followed in the 14th century and the church was totally rebuilt in the 19th century.

http://www.erkelenz.de/pdf/Tourismus/Stadtportrait/Bau-_und_Kunstwerke/17_-_St__Lambertus_Immerath.pdf

[4] Our articles on Energiewende (in Italian):

07/11/2016 La lignite del vicino è sempre più verde

20/12/2016 La vittoria di Pirro delle rinnovabili tedesche

23/02/2017 Energiewende dove vai?

Recent news reports that new government coalition in Germany will scrap the 2020 emission reduction goals.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-politics/german-coalition-negotiators-agree-to-scrap-2020-climate-target-sources-idUSKBN1EX0OU