Fukushima’s nightmare

The international community must work to mitigate this global disaster

The news from Fukushima is not good. Cleanup of the Japanese nuclear-power plant crippled by the March 11, 2011, tsunami is proving more difficult than anticipated. What’s worse, scientists now know that massive amounts of radioactive water—some 400,000 gallons a day—are flowing through the reactor site and into the ocean.

Recent reports show that the water contains substantial amounts of radioactive iodine, cesium and strontium, all of which pose dangers to human health. Iodine-131 can be ingested into the thyroid, stunting children’s growth and causing ailments such as cancer; cesium-137, which accumulates in the muscles, has been found in tuna off the California coast; and strontium-90, which has a half-life of almost 29 years, mimics calcium and settles in the bones.

The Fukushima plant’s operator, Tepco, simply doesn’t know what to do to contain the damage. The Japanese government is stepping in, but it too seems flummoxed by the magnitude of the disaster.

And pollution of the oceans isn’t the worst threat. That’s posed by the 400 tons of spent fuel rods now kept in a cement-walled cooling pond 100 feet above Unit 4. Another major earthquake in this earthquake-prone region could send those rods tumbling to the ground, where they would ignite in the open air. The consequences would make Chernobyl look like a tea party.

Fukushima is no longer just a Japanese problem. It’s a global disaster that requires a global response.

For Californians, it should provoke a reassessment of our use of nuclear power. Now that the San Onofre nuclear plant has been closed for good, only Diablo Canyon remains. Like Fukushima, it sits next to the ocean, and there is an earthquake fault—the Cascadia—sitting off the Northern California coast capable of producing a tsunami nearly as large as the one that hit Fukushima.

It’s time to awaken from our nuclear nightmare.