The massive earthquake that shook Japan this week nearly killed millions in a nuclear apocalypse.
It also produced one of the most terrifying sentences ever buried in a newspaper. As reported deep in the New York Times, the Tokyo Electric Company has admitted that "the force of the shaking caused by the earthquake had exceeded the design limits of the reactors, suggesting that the plant's builders had underestimated the strength of possible earthquakes in the region."
There are 55 reactors in Japan. Virtually all of them are on or near major earthquake faults. Kashiwazaki alone hosts seven, four of which were forced into the dangerous SCRAM mode to narrowly avoid meltdowns. At least 50 separate serious problems have been so far identified, including fire and the spillage of barrels filled with radioactive wastes.
There are four active reactors in California on or near major earthquake faults, as are the two at Indian Point north of New York City. On January 31, 1986, an earthquake struck the Perry reactor east of Cleveland, knocking out roads and bridges, as well as pipes within the plant, which (thankfully) was not operating at the time. The governor of Ohio, then Richard Celeste, sued to keep Perry shut, but lost in federal court.
The fault that hit Perry is an off-shoot of the powerful New Madrid line that runs through the Mississippi River Valley, threatening numerous reactors. The Beyond Nuclear Project reports that in August, 2004, a quake hit the Dresden reactor in Illinois, resulting in a leak of radioactive tritium. Nevada's Yucca Mountain, slated as the nation's high-level radioactive waste dump, has a visible fault line running through it.
More than 400 atomic reactors are on-line worldwide. How many are vulnerable to seismic shocks we can only shudder to guess. But one-eighth of them sit in one of the world's richest, most technologically advanced, most densely populated industrial nations, which has now admitted its reactor designs cannot match the power an earthquake that has just happened.
In whatever language it's said, that translates into the unmistakable warning that the world's atomic reactors constitute a multiple, ticking seismic time bomb. Talk of building more can only be classified as suicidal irresponsibility.
Tokyo Electric's behavior since the quake defines the industry's credibility. For three consecutive days (with more undoubtedly to come) the utility has been forced to issue public apologies for erroneous statements about the severity of the damage done to the reactors, the size and lethality of radioactive spills into the air and water, the on-going danger to the public, and much more.
Once again, the only thing reactor owners can be trusted to do is to lie.
Prior to the March 28, 1979 disaster at Three Mile Island, the industry for years assured the public that the kind of accident that did happen was "impossible."
Then the utility repeatedly assured the public there had been no melt-down of fuel and no danger of further catastrophe. Nine years later a robotic camera showed that nearly all the fuel had melted, and that avoiding a full-blown catastrophe was little short of a miracle.
The industry continues to say no one was killed at TMI. But it does not know how much radiation was released, where it went or who it might have harmed. Since 1979 its allies in the courts have denied 2400 central Pennsylvania families the right to test their belief that they and their loved ones have been killed and maimed en masse.
Prior to its April 26, 1986, explosion, Soviet Life Magazine ran a major feature extolling the virtually "accident-proof design" of Chernobyl Unit Four.
Then the former Soviet Union of Mikhail Gorbachev kept secret the gargantuan radiation releases that have killed thousands and yielded a horrific plague of cancers, leukemia, birth defects and more throughout the region, and among the more than 800,000 drafted "jumpers" who were forced to run through the plant to clean it up.
Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the industry has claimed its reactors can withstand the effects of a jet crash, and are immune to sabotage. The claims are as patently absurd as the lies about TMI and Chernobyl.
So, too, the endless, dogged assurances from Japan that no earthquake could do to Kashiwazaki what has just happened.
Yet today and into the future, expensive ads will flood the US and global airwaves, full of nonsense about the "need" for new nukes.
There is only one thing we know for certain about this advertising: it is a lie.
Atomic reactors contribute to global warming rather than abating it. In construction, in the mining, milling and enriching of the fuel, in on-going "normal" releases of heat and radioactivity, in dismantling and decommissioning, in managing radioactive wastes, in future terror attacks, in proliferation of nuke weapons, and much much more, atomic energy is an unmitigated eco-disaster.
To this list we must now add additional tangible evidence that reactors allegedly built to withstand "worst case" earthquakes in fact cannot. And when they go down, the investment is lost, and power shortages arise (as is now happening in Japan) that are filled by the burning of fossil fuels.
It costs up to ten times as much to produce energy from a nuke as to save it with efficiency. Advances in wind, solar and other green "Solartopian" technologies mean atomic energy simply cannot compete without massive subsidies, loan guarantees and government insurance to protect it from catastrophes to come.
This latest "impossible" earthquake has not merely shattered the alleged safeguards of Japan's reactor fleet. It has blown apart---yet again---any possible argument for building more reactors anywhere on this beleaguered Earth.
Harvey Wasserman's SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030, is at www.solartopia.org. He is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and writes regularly for www.freepress.org, where this article first appeared.