Japan Is Going to Restart Its Nuclear Power Plants, But Don't Freak Out About It

Fukushima, mid-disaster. Image: Japan Daily News

Areva, the French nuclear fuel company, helps supply Japan with a lot of its juice. And Areva's chief executive says that Japan is going to restart up to six reactors by the end of the year. Eventually, it's going to power up at least two thirds of them. Japan's prime minister Shinzo Abe has been a little cagey, but he recently told the press that yes, despite the upcoming March 11th anniversary of the Fukushima crisis, the nuke plants are coming back online.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that "half a dozen reactors may restart by the end of this year in addition to the two that resumed operations in 2012." Luc Oursel, the Areva CEO, said at a press conference that “I think two-thirds of reactors will restart” within several years.

I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so

Before you freak out, keep two things in mind—and chiefly, that this is probably a good thing.

First, consider Japan's alternative: loads of coal, oil, and gas power. Japan has been importing fossil fuels to make up for the lost supply; burning all of the above pumps out climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, Japan is entertaining plans to build 12.5 gigawatts worth of coal-fired power. That would be a disaster in climate terms. Eventually, solar and wind could feasibly pick up the slack, but it takes years to build out that kind of infrastructure. 

Second, though Fukushima was the worst nuclear catastrophe in decades, it wasn't all that bad. Look. The last thing I want to do is downplay a nuclear tragedy. But the fact is, the World Health Organization recently released its findings about the fallout, and the results are actually encouraging. Here's what they determined was the increased risk of cancer for those exposed to radiation near Fukushima:

  • For leukemia, a lifetime risk increase of around 7% over baseline cancer rates for males exposed to the radiation as infants, and about 6% for females exposed as babies.
  • For all solid cancers (meaning everything with a discrete tumor mass, including brain and breast cancer), a lifetime risk increase of about 4% over baseline rates for females exposed as infants.
  • For thyroid cancer (which chiefly occurs in women) a lifetime risk increase of around 70% over baseline rates for women exposed as infants.

Which might sound bad. But as TIME's Bryan Walsh explains:

What that means is that the risk of getting cancers like leukemia or thyroid cancer is already very, very low, and even those who lived close to Fukushima—and therefore most likely received the highest radiation doses—will see only a small increase in that small danger. As Richard Wakeford of the University of Manchester, one of the authors of the report, told journalists:

"These are pretty small proportional increases. The additional risk is quite small and will probably be hidden by the noise of other (cancer) risks like people’s lifestyle choices and statistical fluctuations. It’s more important not to start smoking than having been in Fukushima."

Again. This was the worst nuclear disaster in a quarter-century. And before the reactors are brought online, each must be thoroughly inspected by regulators—regulators who would rather not see a repeat of 2011 stain their consciences and reputations. In fact, there's a chance that none of the reactors will even be deemed fit for reactivation, even if the energy companies and politicians are ready to fire them up. 

But I hope they do—just long enough to keep coal out of the picture and replace them with a couple of the world's biggest wind farms, anyway.

Topics: Fukushima, nuclear power, Nuclear, Japan

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