Josna Rege

101. The Japan Syndrome

In 1970s, 1980s, 2010s, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, United States on March 11, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Aerial image of damaged nuclear plant in Japan (

March 11, 2011: Today’s catastrophic earthquake in Japan has put five nuclear power reactors at risk. The nation’s first-ever nuclear state of emergency has been declared due to the damaged cooling systems of reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi (No. 1) and Fukushima Daini (No. 2) nuclear plants, with radiation levels in the control room of Fukushima No. 1 reported to be one thousand times higher than normal.

Update, March 12, 2011: Despite an earlier effort to reduce the pressure by venting radioactive steam, a hydrogen explosion has now been reported at the Fukushima No. 1 plant’s Unit 1 reactor.

Update, March 13, 2011: There are now six reactors in trouble at two sites in Fukushima, with Tokyo Electric Power Company reporting that 6-10 feet of the fuel rods in the Unit 2 reactor at Fukushima No. 1 have been exposed for some time, despite continuing efforts to cover them with sea water. March 14: There has been a second hydrogen explosion, this one at Fukushima No. 1’s Unit 3 reactor. March 15: An explosion has now been reported at the Unit 2 reactor. And a second explosion. And a fire. As rising levels of radiation are being measured around the facility, TEPCO officials acknowledge that there has been some kind of breach in the containment vessel. March 16: TEPCO has evacuated the last workers from the facility, because the radiation levels are too high. The spent fuel rods from Unit 4 reactor are on fire in their cooling pool, and even helicopters have been unable to deliver water to them.  You can watch live updates 24/7 from Japanese NHK-TV.

This situation calls vividly to mind the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, on April 26, 1986, almost 25 years ago. The release of radiation from that nuclear plant not only killed and contaminated people and land in the immediate area, making it a semi-permanent no-man’s-land, but it also released large quantities of  radioactive isotopes that circled the globe, requiring farmers throughout Europe to dump contaminated milk and produce and endangering people far from the scene of the accident. On the farm in Winchendon, Nikhil and Eric were only a little over a year old, and besides keeping them indoors during the entire period when the deadly cloud was passing over, we gave each of them iodine pills to prevent the potential uptake of radioactive iodine by their tiny bodies.

Seven years earlier, on March 28th, 1979, the partial core meltdown of the Three Mile Island facility in Harrisburg, Pennyslvania had brought the nuclear danger even closer to home.  At the time, we were living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and by coincidence, the James Bridges thriller The China Syndrome (starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas) was showing in movie theaters across the country. I remember leafletting people, as they emerged stunned and blinking into the light of day, with the information that the hypothetical scenario they had just witnessed on the silver screen was a waking nightmare unfolding in real time.

Here in New England we just learned that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has overridden the State of Vermont in issuing a license renewal to the aging, unreliable Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, allowing it to operate for another twenty years. Perhaps the events unfolding in Japan will give pause to the bullish NRC and give renewed energy and support to the plant’s opponents to appeal this dangerous decision.

A final thought about the language we use to talk about the production of nuclear power: why is it that we call these generating units “plants”, as if they were natural phenomena? While we cannot hope to control catastrophes like earthquakes and tsunamis, nothing could be more man-made, more unnatural, than a nuclear disaster.

Tell Me Another

  1. yes, josna, thank you. and what is most irritating to watch and listen to are the perma-news on the big tv stations with their endless prefab word buzz that manages to render things at the same time more harmless and more hysterically grandiose by the minute. one wishes, rather, for stunned silence. i greet you, sharing those memories. they tie a generation. bi.

    • The German people responded swiftly yesterday, bine, with 60,000 turning out for that demonstration against extending the life of Germany’s aging nuclear reactors. A 45-km human chain between a nuclear plant at Neckarwestheim and Stuttgart! That’s inspiring.

  2. I agree Jo.
    It is all horrifying, and much of the power produced is, no doubt, used to make things no-one really needs !

  3. I had a Japanese student living with me a couple of years ago. Even though she doesn’t live in that part of the country, I e-mailed her to make sure she’s OK. I got back a very few words: She’s OK but stunned, horrified and worried. I really feel for those poor people, some swept away by the quake, some by the tsunami, and those that survived that now having to deal with getting away from the “plant” (you’re right about the total inaptness of that word). Having already had Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this is a people who knows what nuclear suffering is like.

    We’ve got nukes in earthquake zones in California. I never was sufficiently consoled by the reassurance that they would shut down automatically during an emergency. And now VT Yankee, which sends me down-home historical calendars every year to show how much a part of the community they are. Bah.

    • Yes. My heart goes out to all the people whose lives have been wrecked in this cascade of disasters. And yes, this ongoing crisis has implications for us all. The nuclear industry’s business is to minimize the risk and to reassure. The citizens’ business is to be informed and to speak out in their own and the public interest. Even Joe Lieberman was on a Sunday morning news show calling for a moratorium on the construction of U.S. nuclear plants.

  4. Hi Jojo,

    I just read this headline in the NYT and it made me so angry that despite our best efforts and with so much past evidence we still cant get people to stop sticking their heads into the (radioactive?) sand!

    Japanese Official Confirms Explosion at Nuclear Plant

    Japanese officials said on Saturday there had been an
    explosion at a nuclear power plant following Friday’s huge
    earthquake, blowing off the roof of the structure and causing
    a radiation leak of unspecified proportions.

    The chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano confirmed earlier
    reports of an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear
    plant, 150 miles north of Tokyo.

    • I know, Vince. Do they think that we have no collective memory at all? Every single time a nuclear accident happens, they (both industry and government spokespeople) trot out the same tired line: “no danger to the public.”

  5. I just do not know what to say!
    There is a nightmarish quality about all this that makes me want to wake up!
    Thanks for speaking out.

    • I know, Marianne. Part of me just wants to curl up in bed and make another pot of tea while another part of me is feverishly trying to keep up with the rapidly unfolding events. I need to keep practicing mindfulness and deep breathing to maintain at least some equilibrium.

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