A reporter, describing the devastation of one city in Japan, wrote: “It looks as if a monster steamroller had passed over it and squashed it out of existence. I write these facts ... as a warning to the world.” The reporter was Wilfred Burchett, writing from Hiroshima, Japan, on Sept. 5, 1945. Burchett was the first Western reporter to make it to Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped there. He reported on the strange illness that continued to kill people, even a full month after that first, dreadful use of nuclear weapons against humans. His words could well describe the scenes of annihilation in northeastern Japan today. Given the worsening catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, his grave warning to the world remains all too relevant.
The disaster deepens at the Fukushima complex in the aftermath of the largest recorded earthquake in Japanese history and the tsunami that followed, killing thousands. Explosions in Fukushima reactors No. 1 and No. 3 released radiation that was measured by a U.S. Navy vessel as far away as 100 miles, prompting the ship to move farther out to sea. A third explosion happened at reactor No. 2, leading many to speculate that the vital containment vessel, holding uranium undergoing fission, may have been breached. Then reactor No. 4 caught fire, even though it wasn’t running when the earthquake hit. Each reactor also has spent nuclear fuel stored with it, and that fuel can cause massive fires, releasing more radiation into the air. The cooling systems and their backups all have failed, and a small crew of courageous workers remains on-site, despite the life-threatening radiation, trying to pump seawater into the damaged structures to cool the radioactive fuel.
President Barack Obama had hoped to usher in a “nuclear renaissance,” and proposed $36 billion in new federal, taxpayer-subsidized loan guarantees to entice energy corporations to build new plants (adding to the $18.5 billion already approved during the George W. Bush administration). The first energy corporation in line to receive the public largesse was Southern Co., for two reactors slated for Georgia. The last time new construction on a nuclear power plant in the U.S. was ordered, and ultimately built, was back in 1973, when Obama was a seventh-grader at the Punahou School on Honolulu. The Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 effectively shut down new commercial nuclear projects in the U.S. Nevertheless, this country remains the largest producer of commercial nuclear power in the world. The 104 licensed commercial nuclear plants are old, close to the end of their originally projected life spans. Plant owners are petitioning the federal government to extend their operating licenses.
These licenses are controlled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). On March 10, the NRC issued a press release “regarding renewal of the operating license for the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station near Brattleboro, Vt., for an additional 20 years. The NRC staff expects to issue the renewed license soon.” Harvey Wasserman, of NukeFree.org, told me, “The first reactor at Fukushima is identical to the Vermont Yankee plant. ... There are 23 reactors in the United States that are identical or close to identical to the first Fukushima reactor.” A majority of Vermonters, including the state’s governor, Peter Shumlin, support shutting down the Vermont Yankee reactor, designed and built by General Electric.
The Japanese nuclear crisis has sparked global repercussions. Protests erupted across Europe. Eva Joly, a French member of the European Parliament, said at one protest, “We know how to get out of the nuclear plants: We need renewable energy, we need windmills, we need geothermal, and we need solar energy.” Switzerland has halted plans to relicense its reactors, and 10,000 protesters in Stuttgart prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to order an immediate shutdown of Germany’s seven pre-1980 nuclear plants. In the U.S., Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said, “What is happening in Japan right now shows that a severe accident at a nuclear power plant can happen here."
The nuclear age dawned not far from Fukushima, when the United States became the sole nation in human history to drop nuclear bombs on another country, destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Journalist Wilfred Burchett described, for the first time, the “atomic plague,” writing: “In these hospitals I found people who, when the bomb fell, suffered absolutely no injuries, but now are dying from the uncanny after-effects. For no apparent reason their health began to fail.” More than 65 years after he sat in the rubble with his battered Hermes typewriter and typed his warning to the world, what have we learned?
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.