The lessons of the Fukushima catastrophe, now a year old, are simple enough. Some of them affirm what we’ve learned from kindred disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
In the first hours and days, contrary to soothing press releases and news conferences, the authorities have no idea what is happening. So they lie; and the more they learn, the more they lie.
Amid the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, the worst nuclear accident in US history, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chair Joseph Hendrie admitted, “We are operating almost totally in the blind…. It’s like a couple of blind men staggering around making decisions.” In the wake of the fire and explosion at Chernobyl in 1986, the Soviet government said and did nothing for two days. In the first days of the Fukushima catastrophe last March, chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano reassured Japan and the world that there was “no immediate health risk.” It turns out that behind closed doors, panic-stricken leaders were worrying about “a demonic chain reaction” of meltdowns. “If that happened,” Edano disclosed later, “it was only logical to conclude that we would also lose Tokyo itself.”
So the Japanese government set a twelve-mile exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. The US military, presumably with high-grade radiation detectors, increased the exclusion zone for its personnel around the Fukushima plant to fifty miles. The USS Ronald Reagan steamed rapidly far out to sea.
By March 13 the reactors were melting down and exploding, the high-level radioactive waste threatening to catch fire. The NRC offered public assurances that no harmful levels of radioactive fallout would reach US territories. Behind closed doors, officials were already worrying about potentially hazardous levels of radioactive iodine-131 reaching Alaska.
Lesson number one, my father Claud’s old rule: never believe anything till it is officially denied. Lesson number two: no matter how obviously appalling the catastrophe, the nuclear industry will insist on the safety of nuclear power. This chorus has been uninterrupted since the 1950s, when it urged that building materials be impregnated with uranium to make snow removal unnecessary.
After a few months the industry regroups: out of disaster, affirmation. Nuclear power really is safe, because we didn’t lose Pennsylvania or Tokyo. Stratospheric levels of cesium, strontium-90 and tritium? No problem. “Even if you eat contaminated vegetables several times, it will not harm your health at all,” the BBC reported Edano as advising. From the point of view of the nuclear industry, the great thing about nuclear fallout, provided it doesn’t fry you on the spot or within a day or two, is that cancer takes time to show up, during which more nuclear plants can be built and more money coaxed out of dangerous existing ones.