Japan: Nobody knows nothing


Like a lot of people, I've been scouring the news the last few days trying to get some sense of what's happening in Japan, especially with the nuclear crisis. I don't know about you, but I don't feel I'm having much success. A few very random thoughts on a huge news story that nobody really has their arms around.

-- Why is it so difficult to follow? It's not for a lack of understanding of nuclear accidents or their potential consequences; I actually think the American media, for all its myriad flaws, has done a pretty good job of explaining that, especially MSNBC's geeked-out Rachel Maddow, who has wisely chosen to try to educate her viewers on nuclear power rather than engage in useless speculation over the spare and often contradictory news from Japan.

The biggest reason that it's hard to follow is...what I just said, that the official accounts are spare and contradictory. If you visit the major online news sites, some are leading with information from a day ago while another will have a startling claim -- there's a large radiation leak from this reactor or an explosion at that one -- that no one else has and which is typically denied by Japanese officials an hour later. I can't tell you how many times I've read that radiation levels are rising and then a chyron appears on TV that very instant that says radiation levels are dropping. Combine all of that with the 13-hour (and one day, thanks to the International Date Line) difference with Japan, and in this age of supposedly omnipresent and omnipotent news media there is never any sense that we know what is happening in real time. Weird and frustrating.

-- The accident is worse than Three Mile Island? So what? One area in which the media has been disapponting is this obsession in comparingt Japan to TMI and Chernobyl. If I were a just-arrived space alien and heard the way some reporters are talking about the 1979 nuclear mishap in central Pennsylvania, I'd think that Three Mile Island was one of the greatest tragedies in U.S. history. The reality? No one died in the immediate accident, and officially no deaths in the surrounding community have been linked to the radiation (yes, some disagree) that was released (intentionally, to prevent an explosion). The containment structure at TMI did exactly what it was built to do -- it contained the damage from a partial fuel meltdown. Meanwhile, you could look at Japan -- so far -- this way, that the accident isn't nearly is bad as this energy disaster: The Massey Energy mine collapse in West Virginia just last year that killed 29 people.

But people are more scared of nuclear radiation -- because it's more mysterious than a coal accident, even though coal has killed literally thousands of more people than the nuclear industry. I think that's understandable -- the world was introduced to the horrors of nuclear death with massive killing and destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, right there in Japan, and the words "nuclear" and "ultimate horror" have been joined at the hip ever since. (Example: a scheme to get around the filibuster in the U.S. Senate was dubbed "the nuclear option.") There is nothing that frightens people more than the horrors we can't see or don't fully understand.

The reality of the Japan situation? We don't know, but there are suggestions it could be comparable to the 1986 accident at Chernobyl (where the Soviets didn't even have containment...WTF?). That is not good -- not the end of the world, as we learned then -- but not good. Some 50 plant workers died within days from radiation, and cases of illnesses such as thyroid cancer increased dramatically in the surrounding area; a fairly large area surrounding Chernobyl remains closed to human activity 25 years later. Although the number of cancer deaths are difficult to trace, it's doubtful that a Japan outcome on the scale of Chernobyl (now remember, it could be worse, given that six reactors or spent fuel pools are at risk) would cause as many deaths as the earthquake and tsunami, a point that I believe some commenters here made earlier. That's no source of comfort, obviously.

-- So what about the future of nuclear power? Although few probably remember my earlier post or two on this, I'm in that small group of crazy liberals who came to the conclusion that nuclear power was a better alternative (especially given its stellar safety record since Chernobyl....um, so much for that!) than greenhouse gas pollution from burning fossil fuels, especially coupled with concerns over the arrival of peak oil, sooner or later.

Now? I have to say that what we've learned about the nuclear industry this week -- that warnings about the type of reactors at Fukushima (and used widely in the U.S. and elsewhere_ have been ignored for nearly 40 years, that Japanese authorities failed to anticipate an earthquake of a magnitude that actually struck, and a new safety focus on U.S. nuclear plants in disaster-prone locales like California -- is fairly appalling, and there needs to at least be some sort of time out. The safety record of the nuclear industry (outside of a then-imploding Soviet Union) was really good, until one day when it suddenly wasn't.

I don't think nuclear power should be halted, nor do I think that new plants should never be built in the future. But that can't happen until the massive flaws revealed in Japan, and perhapsdifferent  flaws of a similar magnitude that are also being ignored, are corrected, and that may take a while. If you disagree with me and think it should be full steam ahead with nuclear power -- and that's not an irrational argument -- you should understand that in the reality-based world that's probably not going to happen. Much of the political support for nukes has evaporated faster than the water around those spent fuel rods.

What a mess. Our addiction to oil -- that's what George W. Bush called it -- is leading us to extreme addict-like measures, such as fracking which is pollutiing Pennsylvania's waterways in our glorious quest to become the next Texas, or the risky deepwater drilling in the Gulf that blew up in our faces...or war and bloodshed in the Persian Gulf. Nuclear power seemed like a way to help transition out of that, to power electric cars while we increased our generation of renewable energy.

Now what?