March 16, 2011

Heroic Efforts…Likely to Fail

Wednesday, 7:30 pm Pacific Time. There are currently two competing narratives regarding the nuclear crisis unfolding at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. The first is that we are all looking at a huge success story—nature has thrown her worst at us, and our technology has survived with minimal loss of life or environmental consequences expected.

The second is a much darker, uncertainty-laced narrative that speaks to our deepest fears. Gregory Jaczko, Chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, now believes that many of the spent fuel rods stored at Fukushima are completely uncovered and actively spewing deadly radiation. It is possible this could stop workers from being able to continue cooling the nearby distressed reactor cores, leading to a cascading series of meltdowns and radiation releases at up to all six of the plant's reactor cores and/or fuel storage ponds, at least one of which contains plutonium.

Regardless whether or not that terrifying catastrophe comes to pass, it seems safe to say that no one ever foresaw a worst-case scenario remotely like this. And maybe that's what most frightening: we're now completely off the script. No one really knows what comes next.

Consider Fukushima's role as a multiplier. A critical lesson of this catastrophe is that nuclear accidents may not necessarily occur alone, when we have our full resources to cope with them. Rather, other disasters are likely to precipitate a nuclear crisis, when we are least capable of responding, when we are at our most vulnerable.

Look, the reality is, we're not suddenly going to scuttle all of the world's nuclear power plants. We will continue to depend on them (and likely new nuclear plants) for a long, long time. But Fukushima has revealed the lie that our existing technology and procedures are good enough. This is not what a success looks like. This is a disaster. Let's at least be honest enough with ourselves to admit that much.

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Andy Lewicky

ANDY LEWICKY is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer who enjoys good books, jasmine tea, long walks in the rain, and climbing and skiing the big peaks of the California Sierra. email | follow

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