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, cannot 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.”