Ten years ago this week, I stood at my makeshift desk in the living room of my tiny Baltimore row house, shaking while I watched the news.
On March 11, 2011, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan — registering 9.0 on the Richter scale — took place off the coast triggering a tsunami that flooded nearby coastal areas, causing widespread destruction.
As the waters receded, another tragedy began to unfold. The earthquake had knocked out power to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and the tsunami’s water had flooded the plant’s diesel backup generators, leaving it without power to circulate coolant in the reactor core. Three reactors overheated, melted down, caused hydrogen explosions and released radioactive contamination on the scale of only one previous accident, which I know all too well: Chernobyl.
I spent the early years of my life in Germany — 800 miles away from Chernobyl. But, when I was in first grade, that all changed. Radioactive fallout from Chernobyl blanketed my hometown. Public health officials warned us not to eat the vegetables growing in our backyard. Our family tradition of searching for wild mushrooms was mothballed indefinitely. Decades later, one-third of the boars that roam Bavarian forests are unfit for human consumption because they are radioactive.
The Fukushima accident and the Chernobyl disaster were different in many ways but they shared a common root — the marriage of an inherently dangerous and complex technology with the difficulty of anticipating all the possible ways that things can go wrong.
At Fukushima, Tokyo Electric Power Company planned for a maximum earthquake of magnitude 7.9. No contingency planner expected that a magnitude-9 earthquake — 12 times more powerful than the maximum forecast — would occur.
Fukushima was not the only instance in recent memory when failure to imagine the unimaginable had tragic consequences for people and our environment.
BP embarked on deep-sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and didn't take the risk of a blowout seriously enough. In April 2010, the company's well exploded, the drilling platform burned and sank, 11 workers were killed and the Gulf of Mexico filled with oil. Tar balls wash up on Gulf beaches to this day.
Just last month, Texans shivered in their homes as a result of the failure to plan for an extreme cold snap capable of freezing nearly half of the state’s projected generating capacity from gas, coal and nuclear plants. Millions were left without power, more than 70 people died, and the economic costs of the freeze are projected to be $200 billion.
It is easy to look back at the operators of the Fukushima plant, the Chernobyl reactor, or BP’s rig and identify where they went wrong. It’s harder — maybe even impossible — to envision all the possible ways in which the next disaster, the next mistake, might happen. This is especially true when climate change makes extraordinary weather events more commonplace.
The central lesson of Fukushima is that relying on dangerous fuels to produce power is an invitation to disaster. Yes, most of the time things will be okay. But the consequences of even a single failure — including mass displacement, radiation exposures, the continued buildup of radioactive water at the plant and cleanup costs as seen following the Fukushima disaster — should cause us to lean on safe technologies wherever we can. After all, solar panels don’t need coolant. Wind turbines don’t blow up.
We should also take a hard look at America’s remaining nuclear fleet. Today, there are 20 reactors operating in the United States using the same design as the reactors damaged in Japan 10 years ago — a design experts have long criticized for its questionable ability to contain radioactive material in the event of a crisis.
Risk factors at reactors become more serious as the infrastructure ages. The fact that 86 of the 96 nuclear reactors operating in the U.S. have had their operating licenses extended for at least 20 years beyond their originally envisioned lifetimes is also cause for concern.
Thankfully, there is a bright side for America’s energy future. Safe renewable energy is on the rise. Last year, for the first time in 130 years, America got more power from the sun and the wind than we did from burning coal. Renewables make up the lion’s share of new power generation expected to come online this year.
As we observe this 10-year anniversary of the world’s second nuclear catastrophe, we have to ask ourselves whether we are still willing to accept risks of dangerous fuels. Having experienced a nuclear disaster, I know what my answer would be.
Johanna Neumann is the senior director of the Environment America's campaign for 100% Renewable Energy.