Reporting on Japan's Nuclear Crisis
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    • COURTESY ASSOCIATED PRESS

      Futaba Kosei Hospital patients who might have been exposed to radiation are carried into the compound of Fukushima Gender Equality Centre in Nihonmatsu in Fukushima Prefecture (state) in Japan, March 13, 2011.

Nation Institute Fellows have produced some of the most compelling analyses of the situation in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami last week caused a series of explosions at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Jonathan Schell's essay in the April 4 issue of The Nation, "From Hiroshima to Fukushima," was picked up by The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Since its publication, he has been invited to speak at a panel discussion on The Charlie Rose Show, been interviewed for Australian television and the Argentine national daily La Nacion, and will speak at a Disaster Relief Conference on March 24 at Yale University, where he is a lecturer.

Schell's commentary placed the tragedy in the broader narrative of the role of nuclear power in human history, and in Japanese history in particular. During the quake, the face of earth literally changed: Japan was moved thirteen feet eastward, and the land itself sank two feet lower into the earth’s crust, which contributed to the ease with which the tsunami wave swept six miles inland. Then came the nuclear disaster.

He writes:

"The second shock was, of course, different from the first in at least one fundamental respect. The first was dealt by Mother Nature, who has thus reminded us of her sovereign power to nourish or punish our delicate planet…. The second shock, on the other hand, is the product of humankind, and involves human responsibility. Until the human species stepped in, there was no appreciable release of atomic energy from nuclear fission or fusion on earth." 

At his discussion on Charlie Rose, Schell reminded his fellow panelists, the Council on Foreign Relations' Michael Levi and author William Tucker, that these kinds of nuclear events are predictable, because the human race is fallible, and "unless we're perfect," we can't keep the hot nuclear core of the reactors cool. He also pointed out that apart from the safety concerns, nuclear power plants are "an open spigot for nuclear proliferation" and that no one has "yet figured out a place to put the nuclear waste."

Institute Fellow Christian Parenti has written three articles for The Nation since the crisis began, each offering insight into the specific risks of nuclear power while sharply criticizing the U.S. nuclear industry for their lax attitude toward safety. In "A Warning from Japan" (which was made a "must-read" on the CFR website) he writes:

"The United States has a fleet of 104 old and rickety nuclear reactors. Twenty-three of them are the same General Electric design as the Fukushima plant. Perhaps more dangerous than our old and brittle equipment is the arrogance and overconfidence of our regulators and managers. The culture of the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is pathologically cavalier. The mix of technological hubris with the profit motive has produced a track record of slipshod management, corner-cutting and repeated lying."

On March 22, Parenti published another essay that traced the rise and fall of America's nuclear regulatory structures after the Three Mile Island disaster.  He tells a tale of political rancor towards the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and cites Robert Alvarez, a former senior adviser in the Energy Department who said, "They stripped away much of the institutional knowledge that had been integral to the safety culture."

Parenti was consulted as an expert in American nuclear safety on MSNBC's The Ed Show, where he told viewers that "the management and regulation of our nuclear fleet is…inadequate." Read Parenti's other Nation articles here and here.

Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, a longtime opponent of nuclear energy, points out that three aging nuclear reactors in the United States are located in earthquake zones, two in Southern California and one in North Carolina, each of which could poison the country on the scale of Fukushima, or even Chernobyl.

On March 21, The New Republic published "The Reawakening of Fear" by Natasha Zaretsky, which traced the ebb and flow of American anxiety about nuclear energy, especially in the context of the Three Mile Island disaster, which, she argues, was an important moment when people lost faith in their government. She writes, "Like the accident at Three Mile Island, the accident at Fukushima Daiichi — whatever its final outcome — will mark the end of an era in the history of civilian nuclear energy... and [remind] the public of what the industry has tried so hard to make them forget: that nuclear power, like nuclear weapons, can pose a grave threat."

The images and stories that have emerged from Japan in recent days are enough to chill us to the bone, and we ought to use this event to re-evaluate the role of nuclear power. As Institute Fellow Naomi Klein tweeted on March 12, "No energy that can poison entire populations during disasters deserves to be called 'clean.'  A turbulent future needs non-toxic energy."

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