Does the name Fukushima ring a bell? It certainly should, because it’s the place in Japan where, in March 2011, the tsunami caused by a massive offshore earthquake swamped a nuclear power plant and caused several of the reactors there to melt down. For some time in the spring of 2011, the world’s attention was riveted to Fukushima and the effort to contain the disaster there – which, it quickly became clear, was considerably greater than that of Chernobyl, back in the old USSR, in 1986. However, as the days turned to weeks and then months and the levels of radiation declined – or, at least, the levels measured were announced to have declined – the world moved on to other matters.
But whilst the world adopted the comforting assumption that the Japanese were dealing with Fukushima and things were gradually being brought under control, the reality was quite different. The Fukushima plant contained several reactors and the specific developments in each one were different (although all were appalling) and required differing responses. To understand it all, a good knowledge of nuclear physics is helpful – and that is probably why most people turned off, sooner or later. But another possible reason is that onlookers around the world were acting in self-defence: when people read that even the experts from Japan and elsewhere were effectively admitting that they didn’t know if there were practical solutions to the threats posed by the disaster and its aftermath – and that the chances of this or that suggested course of action were unknown – they perhaps not surprisingly decided that they would be better off not thinking about it.
The fact that the subject faded from the news and time passed without it reappearing, must have convinced most people that their decision to switch off from Fukushima was correct. Unfortunately, it was not.
Fukushima was never properly brought under control. There are many reasons for this, but the most fundamental one is that the Japanese government left the job to the owner of the site, The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). However, TEPCO was not the victim of an unforeseeable event – although the earthquake was exceptionally strong – but rather was guilty of a long list of blunders, encompassing planning, design and, especially, maintenance, through to poor response to the actual event. It was incapable, from every point of view, of dealing with the aftermath, as should have been obvious at the time – and many observers said as much. But the incompetent Japanese government left the incompetent Japanese utility company in charge of dealing with a mega-disaster that should have become a global effort, but couldn’t, because then the Japanese would ‘lose face’.
In the intervening period of almost 2 ½ years, anyone who wanted to follow Fukushima could do so, but only in the blogosphere, because the mainstream media had largely forgotten about it. Few wanted to know, for reasons discussed above, and so the field was left to a few dedicated bloggers, many of whom were eccentric, or obsessive, for one reason or other. It was difficult to believe what they said, especially since the Japanese government and TEPCO) were maintaining the façade that things were OK and getting better.
That was incorrect and, more accurately, untrue. The bloggers who tried to keep the topic alive for the rest of the world may have exaggerated and may even have been over-the-top, but at the end of the day, they were right. This is now obvious, because over the past few weeks, and much more intensively over the past few days, Fukushima has forced its way back into the mainstream news. The reports from the disaster site make extremely uncomfortable reading, particularly if you happen to live anywhere around the Pacific Ocean. True, that is rather a large body of water, and California is a long way from japan, but – at least according to some of the scientists quoted in some of the reports, the poison seeping out of Fukushima in the form of highly radioactive water will not be dissolved, dispersed or otherwise dealt with by the Pacific and will therefore cause trouble far from its source.
If you haven’t read about Fukushima recently, or for a long time, you should – but only if you are ready to be shocked and frightened and confused. In any event, it looks like we are going to be hearing a great deal more about it. But, however, it turns out, the clearest conclusion to be drawn from the sad saga is that governments and their agencies simply cannot be believed, especially in matters of life-and-death.