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Eating Blinky: Nuclear Power Safety Jitters




Fukushima photo: Digital Globe/Wikipedia

If you’re not a subscriber, I guess you’ll have to pay for access to this recent New Yorker piece, but it is well worth it. Evan Osnos took a look at Japan and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown seven months after the terrible tsunami destroyed so many lives and very nearly killed many more.

This is compelling writing and reminds me of something I’d forgotten—hadn’t we all agreed that nuclear disaster was a real and legitimate fear again, and change was needed? What happened?

The article raises a theory that resonates. In a long section in the middle of the piece detailing the history of nuclear power in Japan, Osnos notes that post-Chernobyl Japanese officials actually became less safe and at the same time more assertive of the safety of nuclear power.

The idea was to defend the industry against attacks by distinguishing the practices in Japan from those in the USSR, but somehow while the language did just that, the reality went the opposite way.

It reminded me of a time back in 1989 or 1990, in high school chemistry. Much to my father-in-law’s chagrin (he just retired after nearly 40 years as a chem prof), this was never my subject, and I was a rather indifferent student who paid as a little attention as possible. I was, however, proudly political, and thus sat up when a man in uniform (I know we all like a man in uniform, but I honestly can’t recall what branch of the military he was in), showed up to talk to us about the benefits of nuclear power.

He began by asking who in the class was concerned about nuclear safety, and I raised my hand, expecting at least a handful of others to do the same. They didn’t. Big surprise, I suppose, that when a guy with a gun comes to class, kids aren’t too eager to step out with a contrary opinion.

The rest of the class was an extended argument between he and I, and I lost absolutely — knowing, of course, nothing about nuclear power and having no capacity to make the case for potential dangers.

I still don’t, of course, except to point to this article about last August’s Virginia quake, which calmly  quoted  the head of the affected facility saying that “These plants are designed for this kind of seismic event.” A week later we learned that these plants were not designed for “this kind of seismic event” at all.  Because, as in Japan, nuclear power is too important to our nation’s energy system to bother with actually confronting the very real risks — it’s much easier to reassure everyone that things are fine. Ultimately, however, Mr. Burns doesn’t eat the fish, and you probably aren’t ordering a lot of Japanese beef these days.

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