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Japan’s Nuclear Nightmare: The Price of Technological Optimism

We all make mistakes

It was June when I wrote an article titled ”Problems with Nuclear Power Highlighted by Gulf Disaster?”, highlighting the consequences of undue optimism, the particularly grave implications regarding nuclear power. With AP currently reporting the Japanese government is forecasting the possibility of ‘multiple’ reactor meltdowns, the first three paragraphs of that article read: 

Nobody's perfect, and so mistakes do happen.  But while I doubt if any of us could conceive of the tragedy coming with a reported 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil daily entering The Gulf, are we any more capable of conceiving what might come with a nuclear disaster?  While optimism is important, it's sometimes a trap - just ask BP.

Before we are ‘sold' into a wholehearted embrace of the ‘clean, safe, and reliable' energy that gave us the Chernobyl Disaster, perhaps we might want to consider why so many of us are so sure ‘the unthinkable' can never least until it does.

We humans are an interesting species, our achievements demonstrating that we are capable of virtually incalculable greatness. Unfortunately, our catastrophes - such as that ostensibly ‘one in a million' chance oil debacle in The Gulf - demonstrate that we have our downsides too. Of course, sometimes even I happen to have that ever so rare occasion when, dare I say it, even I actually make an error; though, I reassure myself that this just means I'm only human.  But that's precisely it - 'human error' can be a problem.

Currently, as seawater is being pumped into at least three reactors in what has widely been described as a desperate, last resort attempt to avert the ‘unthinkable’, The Washington Post quoted a nuclear industry expert citing the differences between Japan’s nightmare and BP’s Gulf debacle. He emphasized that: "The problem with the BP event is that they didn't have a Plan B…we have, I would say, sufficient defense in depth. We have Plan B, C, D and possibly E."

Given present circumstances, and that – as of this writing - there are reportedly at least three reactors in severe trouble, and at least three more in a reported ‘emergency’ condition, I wonder where on this expert’s back-up plans we presently are. Notably, Daiichi 3 just blew up, a hydrogen explosion similar to that which occurred at Daiichi 1 occurring.

Unfortunately, in a display of ‘technological courage’ number 3 is fueled with an experimental plutonium and uranium mixture termed ‘mox’. As plutonium is substantively more toxic than uranium, what that means is markedly increased health injuries and contamination in case of a release.

Earlier, news reported a relief valve at number 3 was stuck and being opened manually, hampering possibilities to release pressure. I won’t speculate if that was pressure within the reactor container or the building surrounding it, and we’re told that the reactor containment is intact following the explosion.

As with BP, it does seem the infallible backup systems keep failing. I wonder what letter the plan for running as fast as you can is, not that it would do much good.

A reactor at Onagawa – about a hundred kilometers NW of Fukushima’s Daiichi reactors – was said to have registered radiation at 400 times normal, the radiation attributed to the Daiichi problem. Of course, with an exclusion zone of only twenty kilometers around the Daiichi plant, and the city of Sendai between Daiichi and Onagawa, there would seem substantive problems yet to be addressed. The fact that the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan encountered radiation a hundred miles offshore emphasizes the point.

Maybe it’s time to rethink nuclear power, how ‘clean, safe and inexpensive’ it really is.

Notably, and since it should now be obvious how ‘clean and safe’ nuclear power is, The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article titled “Japan Govt, Not Insurers, Responsible For Nuclear Cleanup Costs: Experts”. Given this, it would seem that not only must Japan’s citizens endure the ongoing nuclear nightmare (as of this writing, about 200 are reported under threat of radiation poisoning – a number virtually certain to grow), but pay for the privilege. Of course, in the US the Price-Anderson Act ensures virtually the same thing, limiting corporate liability in case of a nuclear accident to $11 billion.

I won’t mention that California has four nuclear reactors near fault lines, nor what could happen to them. Fortunately, Harvey Wasserman recently did, writing:

“The two huge reactors each at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon are not designed to withstand such powerful shocks (similar to Japan). All four are extremely close to major faults.

All four reactors are located relatively low to the coast. They are vulnerable to tsunamis…”

The title of Wasserman’s article is “ An 8.9 Quake Could Have Irradiated the Entire US”.

As I pointed out in June, during the height of BP’s Gulf destruction, the damaging effects of radiation can last a lot longer than those of oil. Though some of us certainly claim that today’s nuclear power is ‘clean, safe, and reliable’, of course, wasn’t the same said of today’s deepwater oil exploration?

Recalling Chernobyl, the area surrounding it is estimated at being habitable in a few centuries, though the land immediately surrounding the meltdown is forecast as taking 2,000 years before being so. As for what will occur in Japan, only time will tell.

We’re all human, and as such we make mistakes. One of those was not realizing tsunamis could knock out back-up power at nuclear plants, and another is actually believing we can think of every contingency which could make nuclear nightmares real. But, if the nuclear industry isn’t aware of this, then why do the Japanese taxpayers have to pay for the current catastrophe, and why does America have the Price-Anderson Act?

We all make mistakes, and the idea of ‘clean, safe, and inexpensive’ nuclear power is proving one of the worst. Of course, when things go horribly wrong, at least then it becomes apparent there is a dire need to correct them.

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Ritt Goldstein

Ritt Goldstein

Ritt Goldstein ( is an American investigative political journalist based in Stockholm. His work has appeared in broadsheets such as Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, Spain's El Mundo and Denmark's Politiken, as well as with the Inter Press Service (IPS), a global news agency.

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