It’s been almost a year since we sat in front of our TVs, drop-jawed, open-mouthed, watching in horror as an above design-basis earthquake and monstrous tidal wave engulfed the coasts of northeastern Japan. Almost a year since video of an exploding nuclear reactor played again and again. Almost a year since I called my brother in Tokyo, begging him to fly our family out of harm’s way. Bring everyone! Bring your wife’s family! They shouldn’t stay in Fukushima! Oh, right, there are no trains running and no gas for cars. OK, so you can’t do anything about her family—they’re trapped in radiation zone—but at least bring your family over!
But, wait. We have a nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, just south of us. What if something happens here?
During the past year, in addition to those affected by the earthquake and tsunami, more than 150,000 people have had to abandon their homes, have lost their livelihoods because of the accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Compensation disputes between TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates Fukushima Daiichi) and victims continue, but as of mid-February, only five out of the 948 claims have even been processed. The coasts along the east side of Japan are all contaminated. There are big pockets of massive contamination, not only near the facility, but much farther away.
It’s all old news over here. Many think the crisis is over. For the Japanese, it’s only just begun. The details of what really happened continue to trickle out. There are new crises to have to overcome all the time. Cleanup of radioactive materials is difficult and dangerous. After removing the contaminated soil or debris, what next? You can’t just burn it or bury it like ordinary trash. I feel like I have lost a huge part of my homeland.
You want to think it won’t happen here! The people of Fukushima did, too.
Japanese officials believed that we had better technology and a more reliable power grid. If you’ve seen pictures of Fukushima before the accident, it was impressive. A multi-billion dollar asset, to be sure. Within a few days, it became a much bigger liability, not to mention a Pandora’s box spewing out horror after horror.
You don’t think it can happen here? PG&E has much more money to spend on PR than those against nuclear energy, and their PR machine has done a spectacular job.
“We have a different kind of reactor.”
“We’re built to withstand the size of quakes that nearby faults can create.”
“We have a more streamlined chain of command and more autonomy.”
TEPCO was just as confident.
There are more similarities between Fukushima and Diablo Canyon than you want to think about.
They are different types of reactors, but both are more than 40 years old. Would Fukushima have had the same scale disaster had it been only 20 years old? Experts say probably not.
Masashi Goto, a former nuclear power plant designer, said in an interview with the British newspaper, Guardian, that stress tests and such at nuclear plants were next to useless because “they do not take into account the various malfunctions that can result in a disaster, including human error and equipment failure.”
During the first few days of the crisis, workers at Fukushima were making their own decisions because of the scale of the crisis and the many unknowns. In some cases, this led to even bigger problems. A streamlined chain of command or autonomy guarantees nothing. Human error is a huge potential risk at any nuclear site, even without the forces of nature.
It’s not surprising that many residents here are in full support of the nuclear facility. The majority of Fukushima residents were also in support. Those that weren’t could move away, thinking that a distance of 100 miles or more would be enough in the event of an accident.
Friends in Los Angeles tell me how unrealistic, how naive I am to think we could do without nuclear power. “If we didn’t have nuclear, we’d just have more coal-burning plants, we’d be more reliant on imported fossil fuels” they say, never imagining that their own lives might one day be affected by an accident at Diablo Canyon.
Most Japanese thought so, too. Yet, with 90 percent of our plants currently shut down, the country has been able to keep going. The nuclear industry is pushing to restart its reactors by the summer, but even the trade and industry minister is starting to believe that Japan can go on without power cuts, even if all reactors were offline. It will surely slow the already nearly comatose economy, but then, another nuclear accident would kill it—and the nation.
What gives me hope is that humans are able to learn from mistakes. Germany will phase out nuclear power by 2022, and Switzerland intends to do so by 2034. Please don’t let the lessons of Fukushima be forgotten. Nuclear power is neither cheap nor clean. It is very, very dangerous, and the operators cannot possibly be prepared for every contingency.
I, for one, would trade every single thing that ran on electricity for uncontaminated water and food, a healthy environment, and no risk of radiation exposure. I would learn to live with far less power rather than risk a life of uncertainty. I love the green hills surrounding our home here in San Luis Obispo County; my soul soars with a beautiful falcon in flight. I delight in my ability to grow my own food, pump my own water, and every day I pray from the bottom of my heart that someday soon I will no longer have to worry that all of this might be taken away in an instant. I pray with everything I have that Diablo Canyon and San Onofre are taken offline and the spent fuel rods taken away.
Until that day, every day is March 10—the day before the accident. ∆
Carole Hisasue is a Japanese national living near Los Osos. Send comments to email@example.com.
-- Carole Hisasue - Los Osos
-- Carole Hisasue - Los Osos