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  March 11, 2014

Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Three Years Later: Who is Responsible?

Nuclear power engineer Arnie Gunderson and journalist Chiho Kaneko discuss a lawsuit to hold General Electric and other reactor manufacturing companies responsible and the Japanese public's attitude toward nuclear energy
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Chiho Kaneko is an artist and a journalist based in Vermont. She is originally from Iwate, Japan, one of the prefectures hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for Fairewinds Energy Education.

Arnie Gundersen has over 40-years of nuclear power engineering experience. He attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) where he earned his Bachelor Degree cum laude while also becoming the recipient of a prestigious Atomic Energy Commission Fellowship for his Master Degree in nuclear engineering. Arnie holds a nuclear safety patent, was a licensed reactor operator, and is a former nuclear industry senior vice president. During his nuclear power industry career, Arnie also managed and coordinated projects at 70-nuclear power plants in the US.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

March 11 marks the three-year anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. It's considered the worst nuclear accident on record since the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl.

Many questions remain unanswered, not the least of which is: did the Japanese government participate in a coverup on the true nature of the accident; and the power plant's operator, TEPCO, whether or not their ability to repair the damage was done effectively.

Now joining us to discuss all of this are our two guests.

We have Arnie Gundersen, who has over 40 years of nuclear power engineering experience and holds a nuclear safety patent. He was a licensed reactor operator and is a former nuclear industry senior vice president.

And also joining us is Chiho Kaneko. She's an artist and a journalist based in Vermont who has reported from Japan since the Fukushima disaster. She's a member of the board of directors of Fairewinds Energy Education.

Thank you both for joining us.



DESVARIEUX: So, Chiho, I want to start off with you. I'm looking--looking back at what we know now, do you think the public was properly informed at the time of the accident and ever since? And do you think there were things that the government failed to report? Can you speak to specifics?

KANEKO: Well, short answer is that, no, public was not informed properly. There was so much chaos at the time, but also, that, you know, some people's lives could have been protected better had they had more information, for instance, about the prediction of how the plume went or, you know, what kind of wind direction, all those things.

And then in terms of--you were talking about government coverup or whatever. It is very difficult to completely cover up the sort of scientific data today, interestingly, because a lot of people are armed with, you know, sort of individual electronic devices, such as--you know, a lot of people own their own sort of radiation, you know, detectors. So it's a little different from, say, Chernobyl accident or maybe Three Mile Island. You know, people have a lot more available to them in terms of finding out what's happening. And yet radiation you just cannot see. It's very difficult to sort of quantify, and it's ongoing. So that's the challenge. And also the actual information that, you know, should come from the Fukushima Daiichi site, that is not readily available, because everything has to go through TEPCO first, and you don't know if they're telling everything they know about it. You don't know that. And you don't even know if that information's filtered through further, you know, sort of government bureaucracy or whatever. So even though we should actually know a lot more today, the reality is that there's so much against for people to know what's going on.

DESVARIEUX: But I want to speak to specifics about what you feel like they did not adequately warn the public about.

KANEKO: Well, that's very--. I think that the most difficult thing right now is the question of internal radiation exposure, that is, you know, people are still being exposed to radiation through air that they breathe and the food that they eat. So at least one thing government can do is to really monitor all the food. Well, it's impossible, but, you know, as much food as possible, and then sort of try to find out, okay, what food from this area, what kind of fish, for instance, you know, seem to have more sort of radiation so people should stay away from? They're not doing that, per se. And instead they are putting more emphasis on economic revitalization. So even the fishery, you know, fishermen off the coast of--I mean, in Fukushima, they're hoping to restart fishing, and government's really doing everything they can to accommodate it. So in that sense, you know, the first line of defense, which is basically the food and air, that is not being protected.

DESVARIEUX: Arnie, not surprisingly, there have been lawsuits filed against the government and TEPCO, and one recently was filed, actually, on March 10, and that was against GE, Toshiba, as well as several other companies. I want to get your take, though. Based on your technical knowledge of the reactors used at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant, who, in your opinion, is responsible?

GUNDERSEN: Well, you know, I actually said in a speech in New York City last year that the fuse for this accident was lit by General Electric, the American company, in 1966, the design decisions to keep the plant down low and the design decisions about the height of the tsunami wall. They built about a four meter, about a 12 or a 14 foot high tsunami wall. And when the tsunami came, it was 45 feet. So General Electric knew that, but they made economic decisions to make the plant cheap as opposed to decisions to protect the public.

So I think I agree. I think Japan should be going after General Electric and all of the reactor manufacturers who are involved.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. And I want to get both of your takes on this idea that Japan, at the end of the day, needs nuclear energy, considering that in 2017, they were hoping to increase their reliance on nuclear energy to about 40 percent of all their electricity would derive from nuclear energy. What's your opinion, Chiho?

KANEKO: Well, first of all, you know, the current administration of government is very pro-nuclear, because they have been heavily lobbied by the, you know, powerful Japanese business lobbying group. And so they say that the Japan needs nuclear power in order to be [incompr.] becoming, again, competitive in the world market. But then that's just one portion of Japanese population. I do believe that the majority--I think the polls show, too, that the majority of Japanese citizens actually do not--I mean, they prefer if the government completely phase out nuclear. It might take, you know, of course, a few years, but they don't want Japan, you know, just relying on nuclear power. So I think if there is will to get out of nuclear power, people have shown, you know, already enough ingenuity and creativity in history, and I think a lot of people believe that we can find alternative ways to generate electricity.

DESVARIEUX: Arnie, what's your take? Does Japan need to rely on nuclear energy to stay a modern society?

GUNDERSEN: You know, there were 54 operating nuclear plants on the day before the accident. Six will never start up again--that's all the six units at Fukushima Daiichi. But the other 48 have not been running either. Japan has shut down every nuclear power, the lights haven't gone out, and as far as I know they're still a First World country. So they can do without it.

And I wrote a book called Fukushima Daiichi: The Truth and the Future, and the future doesn't have to be the same as the past. They can go into a renewable future, and, in fact, have lots of renewable resources that they could draw upon.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Arnie, I want to get your take on the lobby behind nuclear power there in Japan. And Chiho mentioned it before. Can you speak to specifics? What kind of influence does this group have?

GUNDERSEN: Well, six weeks after the accident, the minister in charge of the most powerful ministry in Japan, called METI, wrote an email that said, our top priority is to keep Tokyo Electric functioning. So they really didn't give a darn about the people. Their goal has always been to keep Tokyo Electric alive.

And you know that now, though, there's a schism in the business industry. You know, a lot of business people are saying, I don't want to have to pay for another accident. This is a half a trillion dollar expense. So people that live near these plants--like, Suzuki has a plant very near to a nuclear plant--well, they're considering moving because if there is a nuclear accident, it'll put them out of business. So even within the business community, there's a schism that's occurred. But some people are not thinking it's a great idea to go nuclear.

DESVARIEUX: Chiho, is that same sort of rift happening in Japan? I know you mentioned that more people seem--you're not in the minority, it seems like, in terms of the polls. People are more cautious about nuclear energy. Can you speak to that further? What sort of changes are upon us?

KANEKO: Well, there are definitely a lot more sort of solar wind projects happening in Japan. You know, Japan enacted feeding tariff program several months after the accident. So that greatly, you know, pushed and encouraged the sort of the renewable development.

And [crosstalk]I think a lot of people are really eager and, you know, poised to jump into that.

GUNDERSEN: You know, since the accident, Japan has built 33--the equivalent of 33 nuclear power plants worth of solar power. So they can do this. They have the technology. And, frankly, they're brilliant engineers. If they saw a business opportunity to lead the wold, I really think they have an opportunity to show us how to do it differently.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Chiho Kaneko, Arnie Gundersen, thank you both for joining us.

KANEKO: Thank you for having us.

GUNDERSEN: Okay. Thanks, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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