Four years ago today Japan suffered through a massive earthquake followed by a huge tsunami that triggered a dangerous nuclear meltdown. Only the tsunami part wasn’t foreseen in an article that ran in The Nation in March of 1995, “Will Japan’s Nuke Plants Be Next?” written by Aileen Mioko Smith (now director of Green Action Japan) and C. Douglas Lummis (a former teacher in Japan and a former US Marine) after the earthquake that year near Kobe. File this one under “Hate To Say We Told You So.”

Legend has it that there is a giant catfish buried deep in the sand beneath the Japanese islands who occasionally shifts and changes position. When that happens the earth shakes and splits, rocks roll down from the mountaintops and the fragile constructions of human beings collapse. People used to say that the ever-present danger of earthquakes here contributed to the Japanese sense of the ephemerality of all things. Who would have thought they would build forty-eight nuclear power plants on the back of the catfish….

The “earthquake-proof” power plants were built on the basis of calculations that excluded the possibility of an earthquake on this fault. Other faults also run in the area. Calculations that include the possibility of an earthquake on a combination of these faults indicate an earthquake with twenty times the force of the maximum predicted by the government experts. What would happen then? One official complained, “That’s like asking what would happen if the world blew up!” There is a strong, but by no means strong enough, anti-nuclear-power movement in Japan. On the whole it has been weakened by excessive trust in scientists and government officials: “They must know what they are doing” is the usual refrain. The Kobe catastrophe has made it clear that they do not. There is no question that nuclear power generation is absurd on these shifting islands and will be abolished someday. The only question is whether that day will come in time.

March 11, 2011

To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.