Somewhere, someone should write about the official euphemisms that accompany disasters. The roiling set of problems at the Fukushima nuclear complex seems only to grow as one unprecedented situation after another arises, including a possible massive build-up of salt -- 99,000 pounds are estimated to have accumulated in reactors 2 and 3 -- from sea water pumped into the damaged reactors to cool them. Salt can encrust uranium fuel rods and heat them up dangerously.
In the meantime, the “mox” fuel (which contains highly toxic plutonium with a half-life of 24,000 years) in reactor 3 now seems to be leaking and venting. The release of mox fuel into the environment represents a situation with which the nuclear industry has little experience. Fears are rising that there could be "a crack or a hole in the reactor core's stainless steel chamber or in the spent fuel pool that's contained by a massive concrete container," which could prove devastating. And that’s just to begin to lay out the problems at the complex itself, which are predicted to go on for "weeks, if not months."
Meanwhile, the tap water of Tokyo, with radiation levels high enough several days ago to be considered a danger to infants, got much attention until it dropped back into a more normal range. Some other measurements have been at least as eye-opening. These would include radiation levels 1,600 times higher than normal taken days ago about 12 miles from the plant and modestly elevated ones 74 miles away, as well as a recent spike in levels of iodine to 1,850 times the legal limit in adjacent sea waters, and water leaking into a plant turbine room registering levels 10,000 times more than normal. One thing you can undoubtedly count on: no one’s going to be eating spinach, found not just to have traces of Iodine-131 (half-life 8 days), but of cesium-137 (half-life 30 years), produced anywhere near Fukushima for a while.
And as for those euphemisms, on Friday the Japanese government widened the evacuation area around the plants from a mandatory 12 miles to a “voluntary” 19 miles. (Previously, residents in the 12 to 19 mile zone were simply encouraged to stay indoors.) According to the Guardian, “The government's chief spokesman, Yukio Edano, said 130,000 residents in the area had been encouraged to leave to improve their quality of life, not because their health was at risk.”
Quality of life? The official explanation for such a euphemism would undoubtedly be to “prevent panic.” But as Rebecca Solnit -- whose book on disasters, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, is already a classic – explains, in disasters it tends to be governments, not citizens who panic. As she writes in her latest piece “The Earthquake Kit,” that’s just one of the misconceptions we need to “unpack” from our minds before our own disasters strike. Meanwhile, in Japan, it looks ever grimmer as talk of days until the nuclear crisis subsides reluctantly slips into weeks and the weeks into months. Still, few are willing to look into the abyss and really wonder about the worst that could happen, even though the euphemisms are already beginning to glow in the dark.