Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
The earthquake and tsunami that ripped through the ten reactors at Fukushima, Japan, did not come as a surprise to me. In 1976, I conducted a ten-month study of nuclear power in Asia, and in November thirty-five years ago, I wrote an article for The Progressive entitled "Japan's Nuclear Crisis." In it, I described mishaps at several Japanese nuclear plants, including Fukushima. And I simply noted what many Japanese anti-nuclear activists had told me: that "most of Japan is far too mountainous and earthquake prone to allow nuclear plant siting."
Every Japanese reactor built there -- now fifty-five in total -- sits on or near an earthquake fault. And a tsunami was somewhere between a perennial possibility and a virtual certainty.
True to form, the Japanese industry told the public such matters were none of its concern. The reactors would be shockproof. And there would be walls and berms to prevent damage in the "unlikely" event a tsunami should follow.
We will never know the full extent of Fukushima's destruction. The quantities of emissions that have already spewed into the atmosphere -- and into human bodies -- cannot be meaningfully calculated.
We do know that the disaster has forever obliterated any pretense by the Japanese government and utilities that they can manage this technology on their home ground. It's amazing that this pretense lasted as long as it did, but hubris and greed make many governments blind.
After Chernobyl, American nuclear energy proponents blamed it all on "inferior Soviet technology." But the same can't be said for Japanese technology. Hitachi and GE share ownership of nuclear operations in each other's countries; Toshiba controls Westinghouse. If anything, the Japanese are better at this game than the Americans.
Fukushima is just the latest in an escalating string of terrifying disasters. The chain of nuclear accidents leading up to Fukushima is clear and compelling. It's filled with "minor" mishaps that flow in a steadily escalating stream from the beginnings of atomic bomb production to the day that tidal wave roared into Fukushima.
For Americans, Fukushima should qualify as a warning sign.
There are twenty-three reactors of virtually identical or extremely similar design licensed here. Vermont Yankee was licensed to operate an additional twenty years the day before its Fukushima twin was rocked and drowned.
Indian Point, twenty-five miles north of Manhattan, is another Fukushima sibling perched perilously close to a serious seismic fault. More than ten million Americans live within the corresponding fifty-mile radius recommended by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for evacuation from Fukushima.
Four coastal California reactors are far closer to earthquake faults than was Fukushima to the one that destroyed it. Two at Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo, and two more at San Onofre, between Los Angeles and San Diego, could easily be ripped apart by quakes and tsunamis.
And huge population centers are far nearer to those ground zeroes than is Tokyo to Fukushima. Had that 9.0 earthquake hit California, we could now be watching the evacuations of Los Angeles and San Diego and the permanent ruination of the Central Valley, which produces much of America's fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
A Diablo-Onofre cloud would blanket the United States in lethal radiation within four days. Any one of our 104 licensed reactors could kill untold thousands and do trillions in permanent damage, devastating the American economy.
There is good news, however. When the No Nukes movement first started, it was hoped by many that solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, biomass, increased efficiency, and other renewable technologies would "someday" be cheaper than nuclear power and fossil fuels.
By all accounts, that day has come. With the prospect of clean, community-controlled green power at plummeting costs set by the timeless freedom of the wind and sun, renewable energy has long since won the ecological and economic battle against atomic power.
Nothing can ever compensate for the horrible price the people of Japan -- and especially its nuclear workers -- will forever pay for the avoidable folly of Fukushima.
But in its wake, we must make sure nothing like it ever happens again.