Japan syndrome

According to news reports, the latest earthquake pushed Japan 13 feet closer to the United States. On an Earth that charts movement in millimeters, not yards, that is an amazing feat.  

Still, America is going on with its life strangely disassociated from the immense catastrophe that has befallen our closest ally in that part of Asia. The death toll from the tsunami is but one part of the horrific story now being played out in Japan. The other part of the story, of course, is what is going on with its battle with its own nuclear reactors.

Japan has a particularly tragic history with radioactive death, being the only recipient of nuclear weapons in warfare. Despite that history, Japan has for decades embraced nuclear energy, mostly because it didn’t have any real choice. In a land that has few natural resources to produce the electricity that is essential to live in the modern world, the Japanese embraced nuclear energy as the best way to be energy-independent.

The nuclear industry has held Japan up as a model. If the Japanese can safely produce electricity from nuclear power plants, given its long history with earthquakes, then well, anybody can. At least that was the story until this weekend.

Nobody anticipated what would happen if the earthquakes were accompanied by the kind of tsunami that comes once every thousand years or so. Of course, it is hard to anticipate this kind of natural disaster. This “event” was biblical in its proportions. It is not hard to brand this “the worst-case scenario.”

What the nuclear industry needs to do right now is explain clearly and concisely what is going to happen and what has to happen to keep people and the environment safe. It can’t panic. It can’t lie. It can’t obfuscate. It has to be open and transparent. And it can’t spin its way out of this disaster.

In a dramatic case of odd timing, 12 days before the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, a movie about a near-meltdown was released. Starring Jack Lemon and called “The China Syndrome,” the movie showed an industry that was careless with its safety procedures and callous with its concern for the public. Its impact on the consciousness of the public cannot be overstated. We haven’t opened a nuclear plant in America since then.  

The terrible tragedy in Japan might have the same impact on our nation’s efforts to renew its commitment to nuclear power. We can’t afford to let that happen. If we have any hope of being energy-independent, we need nuclear energy.  

We should take this time to learn everything we can from this tragedy and put those lessons to use. The industry should be open and transparent and honest with the public about the risks and the benefits. But we shouldn’t shut down nuclear. It is too important to our nation’s future. 

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