For the past four days I have been anxiety ridden, sleep deprived, and absolutely glued to my laptop. But that doesn’t change the fact that right now I am sitting comfortably in my warm home, with abundant food, clean water, access to electricity, and have close contact with everyone I love. There are human beings in Japan who have lost everything, including homes and loved ones, and they are fighting for their lives as I write this. It literally brings me to tears.
This situation in Japan is exceptionally complicated for me to process. I was born in Tokyo, the daughter of a nuclear engineer, and have spent the past two+ years building a non-profit organization dedicated to sharing accurate arts-integrated information in support of nuclear energy. I started the organization to help bridge the gap between the realities of nuclear science, energy needs, and public awareness of these issues.
Right now people need accurate information about nuclear energy more than ever, as panic and sensationalized media reports are overshadowing the very real consequences of the catastrophic natural disasters that occurred on Friday. Citizens of Japan are suffering in unimaginable ways, and the rest of us are focusing in on the least threatening of the circumstances facing their survival: Nuclear Energy.
I want to provide some information in hopes that we can put the situation into perspective and refocus on meeting the immediate needs of the Japanese people.
First of all, I do not intend to downplay the incredibly precarious ongoing events at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Station. It is a huge issue that must be faced with great knowledge, caution and diligence. Thankfully, the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Japanese Government are some of the most experienced nuclear facilitators in the world, and they currently have assistance on the ground from several of the most capable American engineers as well.
The risk at Fukushima is not the lack of technical knowledge or ability at the plant, it is the complete lack of infrastructure that they have to work with as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. They are doing all that they can to keep the damage to plants and the release of radiation to a minimum until electricity and transportation routes can be reestablished. As far as I am concerned the operators and engineers at Fukushima are heroes beyond heroes.
Fukushima Daiichi Units 1 though 6 have all had significant problems ranging from cooling problems to oil fires and explosions. As dramatic and frightening as it has been to watch this unfold on the news, the reality is that even if any or all of these plants meltdown, it will still be the least significant threat that the public is currently facing. Nuclear power plants are designed to meltdown in a very specific way. If the fuel overheats and the temperature inside the reactor reached a certain temperature it will melt into the containment structure. This is what happened at Three Mile Island, and no significant harm was caused to the public, though the plant never operated again. If there is partial or total meltdown at any unit, it will happen inside the reactor, not out in the open where it is an immediate public threat.
The fact that these plants stood up to an earthquake 7 times stronger than they were designed for, and then a subsequent 30 foot tsunami is evidence that they are holding up better than any engineer could have expected. The radiation that has been released is not life threatening, and timely safety precautions like evacuations and distribution of iodine, will ultimately keep the vast majority of the public safe from exposure. At this point the power plants have been shut down for 5 days and are cooling down, so the risk of a meltdown are decreasing over time, although you won’t gather that from the main stream media coverage.
The loss of infrastructure, including the plants at Fukushima, is the most dangerous part of this situation. Access to health care, clean water, food, electricity, transportation, housing and communication abilities are all compromised at this time, which means the death toll will continue to rise. Without these needs being met, the public is at great risk. We should be making every effort to help rebuild basic infrastructure as quickly as possible though personal donations and government aid.
As contrary as it may seem, part of the infrastructure Japan will need in the coming months and years is new nuclear power. There have been major breakthroughs in the nuclear sector in the past thirty years, and the public needs to know about them. Technologies like Generation III+ Reactors, Small Modular Reactors, Thorium Reactors and Next Generation Nuclear Power are stronger, safer, carbon free alternatives to fossil fuels (I won’t get into how poorly oil and natural gas plants have held up through this situation). I can’t help but think that the warming oceans and carbon-saturated atmosphere, has amplified the severity of recent natural disasters. We need energy technology that doesn’t contribute to the ongoing weather and geological anomalies that have become common place in recent years, causing unprecedented death and destruction in places like Indonesia, China and Haiti. Walking away from nuclear energy technologies now could be a mistake of epic proportion.
So please, take another look at the events in Japan, and take a little time to learn the facts about nuclear energy. The real disasters in Japan are the earthquake and tsunami, as well as the resulting humanitarian crises, not the issues at Fukushima. Once we get past sensationalized stories and fear based reporting, we can focus our concern and attention to the people who are suffering and meeting their immediate needs.
Lastly, just in case you are reading, I am sending my love and prayers to the Katoh’s and the Yamamoto’s. You are in my thoughts constantly.
- Suzanne Hobbs, 3/15/2011
For more technical information please defer to the experts: ( www.nei.org )
Bio: Suzanne Hobbs is the Executive Director of PopAtomic Studios, a non-profit organization dedicated to using the power of visual and liberal arts to enrich the discussion on nuclear energy: ( www.popatomic.org )