Nuke to the North

Nuke to the North

Lifting my young son from the ground, it never occurred to me what was about to go down in Tohoku …

The quake, 8.8 and rising, was pretty serious; but we were in the open, in a farm field, twenty-miles inland. There were no falling building chunks to avoid, out of control cars to dodge, or mad dashes to high ground. Thirty minutes later, however, when we arrived home and turned on the TV, the horror hit us right between the eyes!

Looking back, all I can say is, “That was a bad day.” And it was, no question. But, as impossible as it seemed that Friday afternoon and evening when the destruction was unfolding on television, an even greater cruelty was waiting in the shadows …


Email from friends and family all carried the same message, “Get the hell out of Dodge!” Most of the gaijins we knew in Japan had received similar requests and many were leaving the country or fleeing south. But we weren’t in Japan on vacation; we were living here. You know, a house with a washing machine, clothes on the clothesline, refrigerator and its full empty full cycle, rotating dishes in and out of the sink, a kid attending the local school, a golf course nearby, a twice-weekly ultimate game, and, of course, our Japanese friends, who didn’t have an option. 

So we stayed.

Today, an entire month has gone by. Where we are, much has returned to normal. The electricity’s been on for a week or more, food’s back on the shelves in the markets, the line at the local gas station has disappeared. For the past ten days, our young son has been on haruyasumi (spring break) and most days he’s running with the kids in the local park. Yamamoto-san, my friend and neighbor, and I have been making golf plans. Sakura, the cherry trees, are in bloom. All in all, things are looking up.

Of course, that’s not 100% true.

Nerve-rattling aftershocks persist. Thousands of people are missing and presumed dead. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in evacuation centers. The nuke to the north is coiled, and ready to strike.

Yet, as with all things, time heals, and shock gives way to other thoughts. For me, it’s a series of questions, the most dominant being, “How could all this happen seemingly simultaneous?” I mean, until the Christmas 2004 earthquake off Indonesia, the one that spawned the tsunami killing 230,000 people, I hadn’t heard that much about 9.0 quakes. Sure, 7.0’s, and the periodic 8.0, but 9.0? Well, it turns out four occurred back in the Fifties and early Sixties. Were these related to the megaton bomb tests going on during that period? Maybe, but that wouldn’t account for the 9.0’s in Indonesia and Japan. They occurred in the 21st Century, six years apart, during a lull, comparatively speaking, in nuclear bomb testing. Perhaps there’s truth to the rumor that empty caverns left behind by extracted oil are time bombs waiting to go off. If so, we’ve got a serious problem.

What about the tsunami? Well, considering the size and ferocity of the waves, the number of people living along the coast, and the length of coastline it hit, it’s amazing more people didn’t die. Undoubtedly, what saved many lives was the Japanese commitment to preparation, including an elaborate public address system that runs throughout the country. Sadly, the Japanese being overwhelmed by an earthquake and tsunami does not bode well for the rest of the world, particularly if the two recent 9.0’s are precursors of things to come.

What’s the answer?

Some may say, “Hey, this is a once every thousand years event so go back to what you were doing.” While that may be true, I think the best bet is, whenever possible, prepare for worse-case scenarios. In the case of Tohoku, I’d advise to build on high ground away from the coast. Tohoku, like many areas in Japan, is very traditional – purity and kindness are ways of life. Most homes are multi-generational, meaning many of the people are incapable of making a sprint to safety. Whatever the answer, the stories coming out of the tragedy demand solutions …

– Opera singer, Kumiko Mori, who’s from Tohoku, tells of her brother dashing up a hill then looking back and seeing several older people, women, and children being swallowed by the wave

– A fishing boat arriving in the bay after the tsunami and reporting to the police that hundreds of bodies are floating in the water. The police respond that they are unable to assist in the recovery, asking if the fishermen would be so kind as to retrieve as many bodies as possible. The fishing boat docking later with over two hundred bodies on board

– Emotion in my wife’s voice as she speaks of seeing on television hundreds of coffins on the ground, waiting to be covered in dirt, while nearby a group of people comfort a young man who is bowing and crying to a small wooden box

In the days and weeks since the quake and tsunami, more than once I have flashed to the Oscar winning film, Departures, and its portrayal of death in Japanese society. One scene that keeps popping into my head has the station wagon moving slowly through an open area covered in snow. It comes as the audience is learning of the rituals surrounding death in such a traditional place and how preparing the body helps with the grieving process. As I reflect on the scene, I sense the levels of purity and kindness superimposed onto an endless cycle of life and death, playing out in a land whose history goes back thousands of years. When my wife speaks of coffins and a young man’s grief, I think of how uniquely difficult this tragedy is for the people of Japan.

Of course, the nuke to the north is the main concern to the rest of the world, and for good reason. As sad and tragic as the earthquake and tsunami are, nuclear meltdown knows no bounds; the entire planet is at risk.

* * * * *

On a bluff, overlooking earthquake infested ocean waters, in a prefecture in the Tohoku region called Fukushima, sits the American-designed nuclear power plant, Fukushima Daiichi. In the late 1960’s, when the Japanese public first became aware such a facility was going in, local residents joined with the worldwide anti-nuclear movement and hibakusha (survivors from Hiroshima & Nagasaki) in opposition to the plant’s construction, citing, among other dangers, the location’s susceptibility to tsunamis. The nuclear industry responded with a six-meter concrete wall they guaranteed would keep the plant dry. But the Great Tohoku Earthquake wasn’t some backroom, run-of-the-mill shake, it was enormous, unleashing a torrent of energy some 600 million times that which the American military laid on Hiroshima. The resulting tsunami hit the coastline with such force that Fukushima Daiichi’s protective wall was immediately unmasked, exposing the soft underbelly of corporate greed.

Since no one knows the negative consequences of atomic power more so than the Japanese, the question that begs to be asked is why didn’t government officials demand the plant be prepared for all worse-case scenarios, including mind-bogglingly big tsunamis? Unfortunately, as with most things involving business, the answer is money, something that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the company that owns and operates Fukushima Daiichi, has loads of. Long ago, TEPCO, following the lead of the nuclear industry, put chunks of cash to work so as to insure their agenda would survive. They enticed government regulators to become TEPCO employees; they spent millions influencing local town officials; they recruited national icons, even using manga characters in support of nuclear energy.

Smart, if it wasn’t so sinister. Considering one ounce of plutonium can kill every human being on planet Earth, and nuclear power plants like Fukushima Daiichi use tons of it, could the nuclear industry’s actions be characterized as anything less than criminal?

So, what’s next for these guys?

You got it – America! The plan, one that has the endorsement of Congressional Republicans, and President Obama, is to build two nuclear energy plants on the Texas coast.

Wait a second!

Didn’t Katrina hit the Gulf Coast? Didn’t the Gulf of Mexico just go through a disaster involving an oil spill?

Is anyone thinking this through?

If not, maybe this will raise a red flag. The company that’s been contracted to build the two nukes is none other than TEPCO, the owners and operators of Fukushima Daiichi.

You gotta be kidding!

If there is a silver lining to the radiation leak at Fukushima Daiichi, it is the opportunity for the people of the world to stop and think. Obviously, it would be naïve to think we can get by without expanding our energy sources; but it would be plain stupid to ignore what’s happened in Fukushima. Could there be a better time than now to demand clean, non-threatening sources of energy? Solar, wind, and geothermal are abundantly available and all come without the negative consequences of oil and nuclear. But they will never become our primary source of energy unless we, the people, confront the big money backing oil and nuclear.

Stop the press!

This just in … The nuclear disaster in Fukushima has officially been put on a par with Chernobyl. Well, what do you know? 

Of course, Natalia Manzurova, has been saying this all along. As a surviving Chernobyl liquidator, a group of civilians and military personnel numbering in excess of 800,000 who were called upon by the Soviet government to deal with the consequences of that nuclear disaster, Natalia speaks from experience. According to her, “Every nuclear accident is different, and the impact cannot be truly measured for years. The government does not always tell the truth. Many will never return to their homes. Their lives will be divided into two parts: before and after Fukushima. They’ll worry about their health and their children’s health. The government will probably say there was not that much radiation and that it didn’t harm them. And the government will probably not compensate them for all that they’ve lost. What they lost can’t be calculated.”

Natalia’s message to the people of Japan? “Run away as quickly as possible. Don’t wait. Save yourself and don’t rely on the government because the government lies. They don’t want you to know the truth because the nuclear industry is so powerful.”

This is not good.

D. B. Guidinger © All Rights Reserved 2011