The horrible and heartbreaking events in Japan present a strange concatenation of disasters. First, the planet unleashed one of its primordial shocks, an earthquake, of a magnitude greater than any previously recorded in Japan. The earthquake, in turn, created the colossal tsunami, which, when it struck the country’s northeastern shores, pulverized everything in its path, forming a filthy wave made of mud, cars, buildings, houses, airplanes and other debris. In part because the earthquake had just lowered the level of the land by two feet, the wave rolled as far as six miles inland, killing thousands of people. In a stupefying demonstration of its power, as the New York Times has reported, the earthquake moved parts of Japan thirteen feet eastward, slightly shifted the earth’s axis and actually shortened each day that passes on earth, if only infinitesimally (by 1.8 milliseconds).
But this was not all. Another shock soon followed. Succumbing to the one-two punch of the earthquake and the tsunami, eleven of Japan’s fifty-four nuclear reactors were shut down. At this writing, three of them at the Fukushima plant have lost coolant to their cores and have experienced partial meltdowns. The same three reactors have also suffered large explosions. The spent fuel in a fourth caught fire. Now a second filthy wave is beginning to roll—this one composed of radioactive elements in the atmosphere. They include unknown amounts of cesium-137 and iodine-131, which can only have originated in the melting cores or in nearby spent fuel rod pools. Both are dangerous to human health. The Japanese government has evacuated some 200,000 people in the vicinity of the plants and issued potassium iodide pills, which prevent the uptake of radioactive iodine. The carrier USS Ronald Reagan had to change course when it sailed into a radioactive cloud.
The second shock was, of course, different from the first in at least one fundamental respect. The first was dealt by Mother Nature, who has thus reminded us of her sovereign power to nourish or punish our delicate planet, its axis now tipping ever so slightly in a new direction. No finger of blame can be pointed at any perpetrator. The second shock, on the other hand, is the product of humankind, and involves human responsibility. Until the human species stepped in, there was no appreciable release of atomic energy from nuclear fission or fusion on earth. It took human hands to introduce it into the midst of terrestrial affairs. That happened sixty-six years ago, also in Japan, when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time, Harry Truman used language that is worth pondering today. “It is an atomic bomb,” he said. “It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.” Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, referred to the atomic bombings by implication when he stated that the current crisis was the worst for Japan “since the Second World War.”
For some years afterward, atomic energy was understood mainly to be an inconceivably malign force—as the potential source of a sort of man-made equivalent of earthquakes, and worse. In the 1950s, however, when nuclear power plants were first built, an attempt began to find a bright side to the atom. (In 1956 Walt Disney even made a cartoon called Our Friend the Atom.) A key turning point was President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace proposal in 1953, which required nuclear-armed nations to sell nuclear power technology to other nations in exchange for following certain nonproliferation rules. This bargain is now enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which promotes nuclear power even as it discourages nuclear weapons.