Was it not just last summer that BP’s engineers were working desperately around the clock to find a way to plug a three month leak from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that spilled 205 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico? Now, engineers and plant operators are braving potentially lethal radiation to avert a catastrophe in the crippled Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan.
There are many disturbingly parallels between the two events. Both involve industries, nuclear power and deepwater oil, that are seen as technological answers to conventional oil depletion. And both involve companies that were giants in their respective energy industries.
But the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), like BP, is no angel. Between 1977 and 2002, it was found to have falsified nuclear safety data on at least 200 separate occasions. Public disclosure of the TEPCO’s numerous nuclear indiscretions forced the resignation of the company’s president, Nobuya Minami, and a number of board members in 2005.
Safety concerns were of sufficient magnitude that the Japanese government forced TEPCO to shut down all 17 of the company’s boiling water reactors for inspection after evidence surfaced that Japan’s largest utility and nuclear operator had failed to report numerous incidents at their nuclear plants.
But the firm’s problems didn’t end there. Only two years after TEPCO was allowed to restart its boiling water reactors, an earthquake in 2007 forced the company to admit its reactor in the Niigata Chuetsu-Oki region was not built to withstand such tremors. The plant was immediately shut down and has not been reopened since.
So much for the Japanese nuclear industry’s “world-leading earthquake resistant construction standards”.
Radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power station is now entering the food chain, just as oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak soiled the Gulf of Mexico’s oyster beds and shrimp fishery. Radioactive iodine has already been found in milk 20 kilometers from the crippled power plant and in spinach 100 kilometers away. And trace elements of radioactive iodine are now showing up 220 kilometers in tap water in the Greater Tokyo area, which is home to 35 million residents.
Is the close timing between the Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima disasters just coincidence or is nature trying to tell us something?
Of course, it’s not a message many of us want to hear. The Japanese nuclear power station, like the Deepwater Horizon rig, are both products of our insatiable demand for energy, which compels us to harness ever more costly and problematic sources of energy supply.
As the Japanese assess the growing environmental impact of their nuclear disaster, the country is already making plans to burn more diesel oil, coal and liquid natural gas to make up for the power shortfall. Meanwhile, the Obama administration, feeling the heat from rising gasoline prices and local state pressure, is about to reissue permits for new deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
The environmental costs seem to be increasing exponentially but our thirst for energy can never seem to be quenched.