11 March 2014

March 11 and the 3-year anniversary of Fukushima

     It was 3 years ago that the world watched in stunned horror as Japan was struck by one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded and then was at the mercy of Mother Nature as a killer tsunami swept onto the coast. There seemed to be no end to this tragedy as hours passed with images of towns being destroyed by the onrushing water.
    We didn't realize at the time that an even greater tragedy was unfolding in Fukushima at a nuclear power plant. While there was damage from the earthquake, the real damage was done by the tsunami, which crippled the cooling system at the plant and initiated a meltdown once the backup power systems had failed. We were witnessing the start of a nuclear meltdown, although the information was not made readily available at the time. We were too caught up in seeing the destruction of the tsunami that was clearly visible to the naked eye.
    I remember being stunned at the images of the tsunami. It was hard to comprehend what I was seeing. The typical Irwin-Allen type of B-movie tidal wave was replaced by an ugly wall of debris creeping over the landscape miles from the ocean.
    I don't remember Fukushima being mentioned until the following day. It ins't as if I knew that there was a nuclear power plant in the affected area right along the coastline after all. The initial reports talked about how things were under control and it wasn't until the world saw footage of the explosions rocking the reactor buildings that we all began to realize that something was terribly wrong there. All of the reassuring messages in the world could not erase the images of those explosions. I know enough science to realize that there was not going to be an actual nuclear detonation as we would see from an atomic bomb going off, this was visually not that disturbing, but on a deeper level it was very alarming.
    I remembered back to my years in college when Chernobyl happened. There was no live footage of what went on there that we could see, and we were left with all sorts of mental images of what must have happened. At the time, the nuclear industry went into hyper-protective mode here in terms of Public Relations to convince us that we were all safe. Something like that could NEVER happen here, we were told, because Chernobyl was the result of reactor experiments that had gone wrong. Three Mile Island was still reasonably fresh in our minds at that time as well. What we witnessed from Fukushima was not the result of bad decision-making, it was the result of a man-made structure being left at the mercy of Mother Nature. No amount of effort could stop the meltdown in Fukushima because the entire area surrounding the plant was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. There was simply no way to get people and resources to the crippled reactors in the early hours after the tragedy.
    I do place a good portion of the blame for the after-effects on TEPCO and the Japanese government. I will always believe that there was a concerted effort to give the barest minimum of information in those first few days. The normal rationale for this would be to avoid panic, that is a joke when the world is seeing what is going on to try and "prevent panic".
    The after-effects from Fukushima are still being discovered. 3 years later and we still do not know exactly how bad the damage is, or will be. The story of US Navy vessels sent to help in disaster relief being exposed to huge amounts of radiation, and the resulting sickening of the sailors reminds us that this is a tragedy that will not end for decades. The effects of Fukushima on the Pacific Ocean are still largely unknown due to the sheer vast size of the Pacific. The spread of the contamination will probably astound us, but somehow I think that now the efforts are focusing on once again "preventing panic" although this time on a global scale rather than a regional or national one.
    It is this conspiracy of silence that bothers me more than anything else. WIthout credible information, how are we supposed to determine the best way forward from this ongoing crisis? When the after-effects of exposure to radiation that can be traced back to Fukushima becomes more apparent, I think that the entire dangerous experiment with nuclear energy will finally come to an end.