Home / Nuclear Meltdown Japan: What’s the Fallout for the U.S.?

Nuclear Meltdown Japan: What’s the Fallout for the U.S.?

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For days now, we’ve been watching events unfold thousands of miles away in Japan. A horrific 9.0 magnitude earthquake strikesjust off the island’s east coast, then a tsunami, and as if things could not get any worse, a slow-motion nuclear disaster. There are no words to express what the people of this nation must be going through. The sound bites, even the live feed from Japan’s news network, cannotsource: Nuclear Regulatory Commission do justice to it.

We worry here, across the Pacific, needlessly, perhaps, that whatever radiation coming over thousand of miles will reach our shores. People stock up on Potassium Iodide—just in case; buy duct tape—just in case. It’s an unlikely scenario, but when you don’t know what else to do, you do what seems logical at the time.

We try to help the best way we can, and that usually means sending contributions via organizations like The Red Cross, Save the Children, and Network for Good. But we also begin to have conversations within our families, groups of friends, and inevitably our communities large and small. Should we rethink our nuclear policy? Should we redouble our efforts to seek out less risky, less potentially catastrophic energy sources—and develop them? Because if the ultra-earthquake-prepared and technologically savvy Japan is so vulnerable, how does that bode for us?

The talking heads, many of them nuclear physicists, tell us there’s nothing to worry about, we’re in pretty good shape here in the U.S. (And they know lots more about fission than I do—having barely made it out of two semesters of physics at college with “B”s—although I did better at quantum chemistry, so I’m a total wimp on this stuff!) But how do you predict the unpredictable?

The U.S. coast from Northern California to the Canadian border is vulnerable to the same sort of subduction earthquake that just hit Japan. Are the nuclear production and waste storage facilities on the West Coast really built to withstand a series of catastrophic failures due to a natural disaster like a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami? 

Are the facilities built on other fault lines built that way? There are facilities all over the country, built near nearly fogotten fault lines. Would a facility in Missouri or Southern Illinois withstand a 7.0 or 8.0 earthquake on the New Madrid fault system? And if not, do we need to be thinking, sooner rather than later, about the repercussions?

This a conversation we need to have, particularly as we look to our energy future and the increasingly unstable situation in oil-rich regions in the Middle East. Is nuclear the answer—or is it something we really—and seriously—need to rethink? And if nuclear is the key to our energy solution, it’s time for a thorough, independent review of regulations, standards, disaster preparedness, and the adequacy of regulatory funding. We are not invulnerable to what just happened to Japan. And the time to have this very important conversation is now—and not “the day after.”

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • troll

    fission is and always has been too fickle to base a civilization on

  • No-one’s talking about basing our civilization on it, troll, just having it as one item in the toolkit.

    And until we can master how to harness nuclear fusion to generate power, it really does have to be one of those tools, at least in the short term.

    Once the Japan situation has panned out, we need to take a leaf out of what the aviation industry does after an accident, and ask: what went wrong, and how can we prevent this from happening again?

    As opposed to calling for an end to all air travel.

  • ruthinor

    On Nova Science Now this year one of the episodes dealt with scientists who are learning how to predict earthquakes with greater accuracy. One thing they left me with, the chances of a hugh quake in Southern California appears to be a near certainty and in the near future. I live in Oregon and think about that quite a bit. Obviously, in hindsight, Nuclear facilities should never be built near fault lines that are known to be particularly active. The science seems to be getting much better as far as predictions are concerned.

  • The problem here is not lack of knowledge – there is plenty of knowledge floating around. No, the problem is the lack of political will – as in being willing to force your opinions down the unwilling throats of the governors (the opposite of what is sometimes laughingly called “leadership”), and the fact that nobody has taken Prophecy 101 or 102 in school….

    There is also the problem of the Japanese government trying to cover up the truth in Japan. Japanese hate losing face and all that rot.

    But in addition to that is the presumption that nuclear power is a necessity. When you do a cost/benefit analysis, it is likely that you will find that subsidizing solar energy is a lot cheaper than paying for the damages that nuclear meltdowns produce. That in itself eliminates nuclear power as a necessity.

    When you do not have nuclear plants around, you do not have to predict or prophecy the meltdowns of the plants. Aren’t predicting and prophesying earthquakes and volcanoes enough of a challenge?

  • Ruvy! A first! We agree on something. Marbim b’simcha: must be the Adar (II) effect.

    I’ve always been supremely impressed at the level to which Israel uses solar energy. It’s amazing to drive through the country and see houses, businesses, etc. with solar collection panels on rooftops…

  • ruthinor

    Would that we had that kind of Government. Solar energy could really be a lifesaver, but I gave up on the US doing anything that would disrupt TPTB, meaning coal, oil, or any industry that represents a large bloc of voters. This is especially true now that the republican party has become the regressive anti-science body that would be unrecognizable to the likes of Javits, Rockerfeller and others. And the Dems are just pussies. No hope!

  • Boeke

    IMO the republicans are anti-science because they’ve concluded that science has a liberal bias, and the most important thing to republicans is to be anti-liberal.

  • troll

    No-one’s talking about basing our civilization on it…

    too late – as evidenced by your …it really does have to be one of those tools, at least in the short term.

  • troll – no, not at all.

  • For what it is worth an earthquake hit in Ontario several hours ago, after there was a release of 73,000 litres of demineralized water into Lake Ontario at the Pickering A nuclear generating station. This was a notice by Ontario Power Generation to Canada’s federal nuclear regulator. The exact size of the earthquake is unclear – whether it was a 3.8 or 4.8 (and there is a hell of a lot of difference between the two).

  • troll

    so you overstated with your ‘have to be’?

  • ruthinor

    Boeke, IMO Republicans are anti-science because they are generally incredibly stupid. I think a poll would show that 70-80% of them don’t believe in evolution, largely because of their religious beliefs. They don’t seem to think it’s at all possible to believe in God AND science. (And I say this as a non-believer). Too bad. They should see “Inherit the Wind.” The dems are even worse because they know what should be done and don’t give a crap.

  • Ruvy, I hear it was a 4.3 (splitting the difference). It’s not a big earthquake, but would have been breaking news here in Chicago.

    The situation seems to grow more and more dire as the hours pass. The news is very grim.

  • troll – perhaps.

  • Thank you, Barbara. I’m checking elsewhere as well. These things can change (witness how the big one that hit Japan on 11 March was upgraded to 9.0 from 8.9, almost like a kid getting another tenth of a point on his GPA).

    And speaking of Japan, a fellow I know of who lives there has reported two earthquakes in the 6.0+ range and movement under the ground alike a machine or something. His friends have told him it was magma moving under the earth. That is very bad news.

  • I have to be honest. The real story here is not the nuclear plants exploding, it is the earthquakes themselves and the multiplicity of them. The nuclear plants is a nasty side dish of skunk pie – leaving an awful stink but not of such lasting importance.

    The earthquakes can bring about huge changes on the planet and already have, moving the earth south, south-east on its axis and hurrying the magnetic north pole even further towards Russia than it already is. If the San Andreas fault cracks near LA, the whole damned city is liable to sink (bye bye Technorati). What is a meltdown compared with losing HOLLYWOOD?

    Seriously, there is more that can happen than just losing LA to the Pacific. And it ain’t fun, either. And compared to some of these things, a nuclear meltdown in Japan is just a walk in the park, if I may quote the Hafetz Haim.

  • troll

    …Dreadful – here’s another argument that we could have: I’ll take the position that fission became the basis of our civilization when we weaponized it

  • You have a point there, troll. For most of the last 65 years global politics has been broadly based around not provoking anybody to such an extent that they’re tempted to push the nice big shiny red button.

    And of course we wouldn’t even have civilian nuclear power if it hadn’t been for the military R & D.

  • Paul Hudson

    An ocean of water right there to cool the radioactive problem. Hoses? Helicopters dumping small amounts of water is an embarrassing display of disrespect for the common cense of the public. If we can have nuclear power,obviously we can pour,pump,dump,or spray enough water on it to keep it cool. But? Where’s it gonna go? The ocean. Maybe the lawyers have not figured out how to make that ok but it needs to be done,the world is watching our governments not do the obvious

  • hm

    In America we can never be prepared for Nuclear Plant releases, Accidents ect.. because the public isn’t infomed of these things and are discovered years later when documents to the releases turn up and then it to late for the public to have protected themselves. We can never be safe from nuclear because there is no truth from gov. and contractors. The health effects for the ones that surviv are bad. See Hanford Nuclear Reservation the birth place of Nuclear it has not had a pretty outcome. The people that were hurt from the releases from Hanford never had a chance because the releases were covered up.