The nuclear crisis next time

In the Oct. 17 edition of The New Yorker, there’s an exceptionally good piece about the Fukushima nuclear accident by Evan Osnos. Among the many revelations are testimonials from workers who grappled with the crippled nuclear reactors after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Osnos describes their heroic efforts to open vents to exhaust the ...

Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images
Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images
Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

In the Oct. 17 edition of The New Yorker, there's an exceptionally good piece about the Fukushima nuclear accident by Evan Osnos. Among the many revelations are testimonials from workers who grappled with the crippled nuclear reactors after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Osnos describes their heroic efforts to open vents to exhaust the hydrogen that was building up inside the reactor vessels. One vent was partially opened before the workers had to retreat due to high radiation levels. The hydrogen, which had escaped into the reactor building, later exploded.

It's a nightmare to manage a crisis of such magnitude. Not only was there a nuclear disaster; the country suffered death and destruction from the tsunami. But I was struck by the surreal, reassuring statement made that first evening by the government spokesman: "Let me repeat that there is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak." In fact, this was the second-worst nuclear accident in history, after the Chernobyl disaster of April-May 1986.

There are major differences between the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But in all three cases, such misleading statements were issued at the outset, contributing to deep public mistrust later on. On the morning of the Three Mile Island accident March 28, 1979,  the utility, Metropolitan Edison, put out a statement that the plant had been “shut down due to a mechanical malfunction,” saying “there have been no recordings of significant levels of radiation and none are expected outside the plant.” In fact, extremely high levels of radiation had been recorded inside the plant.

In the Oct. 17 edition of The New Yorker, there’s an exceptionally good piece about the Fukushima nuclear accident by Evan Osnos. Among the many revelations are testimonials from workers who grappled with the crippled nuclear reactors after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Osnos describes their heroic efforts to open vents to exhaust the hydrogen that was building up inside the reactor vessels. One vent was partially opened before the workers had to retreat due to high radiation levels. The hydrogen, which had escaped into the reactor building, later exploded.

It’s a nightmare to manage a crisis of such magnitude. Not only was there a nuclear disaster; the country suffered death and destruction from the tsunami. But I was struck by the surreal, reassuring statement made that first evening by the government spokesman: "Let me repeat that there is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak." In fact, this was the second-worst nuclear accident in history, after the Chernobyl disaster of April-May 1986.

There are major differences between the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But in all three cases, such misleading statements were issued at the outset, contributing to deep public mistrust later on. On the morning of the Three Mile Island accident March 28, 1979,  the utility, Metropolitan Edison, put out a statement that the plant had been “shut down due to a mechanical malfunction,” saying “there have been no recordings of significant levels of radiation and none are expected outside the plant.” In fact, extremely high levels of radiation had been recorded inside the plant.

Chernobyl, in the closed Soviet system, was even worse. The authorities waited for two days and then issued a statement that revealed almost nothing: "An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, damaging one of the reactors. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. The injured are receiving aid. A government commission has been set up." The Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov said the Kremlin pronouncements on Chernobyl were "couched in terms that might have been used to announce an ordinary fire at a warehouse."

Not surprisingly, in Japan after Fukushima, government credibility plummeted. Osnos found distrust to be "astonishingly pervasive" and notes that a poll in late May showed that more than 80 percent of the population did not believe the government’s information about the nuclear crisis. There are all kinds of implications of this mistrust; one of them is that some Japanese are debating whether to obey the government’s evacuation plans. The country is still heavily reliant on nuclear energy, too, and public confidence will be sorely tested in the months ahead as decisions are made about whether to bring back on line those reactors idled for stress tests.

Osnos concludes that for all that went wrong before the meltdowns, "the fundamentals of Japan’s open society served it well in the aftermath," with elected officials issuing evacuation and safety warnings, parliament launching investigations, and the Japanese press chronicling "a raging national debate about the future." One hopes there will be more thorough and detailed reporting like this article, too, helping document what went wrong, and spreading the word — before the next nuclear crisis.

 

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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