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.
In January the NRC put out a new report called “State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequences Analyses,” or SOARCA, revising downward the agency’s risk-assessment models. Flourishing this document, the NRC declared that the “risks of public health consequences from severe accidents” at nuclear plants “are very small.” The “long-term risk” of a person dying from cancer from such an accident is less than one in a billion. This is because—read this carefully—“successful implementation of existing mitigation measures can prevent reactor core damage or delay or reduce offsite releases of radioactive material.”
Let’s move now from “successful implementation” at the theoretical level to the realities of post-Fukushima Japan. The Japanese don’t relish the prospect of losing Tokyo—or Japan. Seventy percent of them want to end nuclear power now. At the moment, only two out of fifty-four reactors in Japan are operating. There have been no blackouts because of power shortage. If the antinuclear forces manage to stop the restart of the remaining reactors—which has to be locally approved in each prefecture—all reactors will be shut down by May. The nuclear industry and its creatures in government are well aware of the threat. The government and Tepco, owner of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, brazenly lie and say that “cold shutdown” has been achieved at Fukushima Daiichi and everything is safe. The 60,000 refugees from Fukushima prefecture, living in wretched conditions, will no doubt be urged to return with their children to fallout-sodden homes and schools and playgrounds, now heralded as “safe.”
Last July, then–Prime Minister Naoto Kan proposed revising the policy of promoting nuclear power and exports of nuclear technology. Kan didn’t last long. Now the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun reports that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is “insisting that a stable electric power supply utilizing nuclear power plants is essential for economic growth.” Noda conceded that the “biggest precondition” is winning the understanding of prefectures where nuclear plants are located and confirming the safety of the plants.
Meanwhile, the March 16 edition of Weekly Asahi reports a conversation between scientific writer Hirose Takashi and US nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen. They agreed that one major danger is the spent fuel pool at Fukushima’s Reactor No. 4. This, they say, contains enough radioactive material to blow the Japanese islands apart. It is being cooled by water, but if the concrete tank (badly damaged by last year’s earthquake) were to spring a leak and the water level to go down, this could result in “an explosion never before experienced by human beings.”
Leave the last word to the ad hoc antinuclear coalition All Japan 3/11 Action Committee: “We cannot afford to miss this opportunity which is made possible by the immense damage suffered by people in Fukushima due to the Fukushima Daiichi accident. If we managed to realize zero nuclear power in Japan now, it will certainly speed up the process of putting an end to nuclear power not only in Japan but also the world.”