In the beginning, the usual official reassurances were highlighted in virtually every story on Japan's Fukushima nuclear nightmare, faithfully reported by woefully anemic corporate journalists, without question or challenge. "The radiation is not currently a threat to public health. There is no immediate threat to public safety."
As one of the world's largest nuclear power plants continues its slow-motion meltdown, hemorrhaging radiation into the air, ocean, groundwater, food supply and who-knows-what-else, take the official statements with one bitter grain of salt: Anyone who minimizes the threat of this event is tragically misguided, or a fucking liar.
For all sorts of reasons, nuclear issues are among the most misrepresented of any issue in the public eye. Exhibit A: The official recap of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster that's been included in some Fukushima coverage for context. An Associated Press story parsed it this way: "(Chernobyl) killed at least 31 people with radiation sickness, raised long-term cancer rates, and spewed radiation across much of the northern hemisphere."
Really? Thirty-one? Last year, the New York Academy of Sciences published a painstaking and comprehensive analysis of 5,000 studies and papers on the effects of Chernobyl, which concluded that its radiation may have killed about 1 million people around the world in the 20-year aftermath. But I guess we can hardly blame the AP for the 999,969-death discrepancy, since they completely ignored the announcement of these findings, as did virtually every other major media outlet. Fukushima differs in some ways, and it'll be years before the cumulative effects become clear, but I'll bet my DNA that it, too, will kill many thousands of people.
Unfortunately, those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it. "We can only work on precedent, and there was no precedent," said a former director of the Fukushima plant to The New York Times. "When I headed the plant, the thought of a tsunami never crossed my mind." Really? The coastline of Japan is littered with hundreds of stone monuments erected by previous generations warning of devastating tsunamis that followed major earthquakes, some of which precisely mark the high-water reach of ancient killer waves. What kind of world is this, in which we consume vast amounts of information masquerading as knowledge, yet somehow manage to forget real knowledge, even when it is written in stone?
When the Arizona Corporation Commission held a hearing last month on safety issues at Arizona Public Service's Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station—the largest nuke plant in the United States—nuclear cheerleaders fell all over themselves to declare the facility safe. Really? Just two years ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rated Palo Verde as the least safe of this nation's 104 nuclear plants, due to a host of problems—inadequate maintenance, failed safety systems, inoperable emergency equipment, human errors, falsified records and so on. A scathing report by one of the most clear-eyed and level-headed of the world's nuclear watchdogs, the Union of Concerned Scientists, cited a culture at Palo Verde that emphasized "doing what is needed to keep the reactor operating as opposed to keeping the reactor safe."
Incredibly, the preferred response of nuclear profiteers to safety concerns is denial, dismissal and debunking. The UCS report concluded that it was "insane" for nuke owners to spend so much effort "trying to explain away yesterday's mistakes and so little time watching the road ahead to prevent tomorrow's mistakes." Absurdly, the Obama administration includes nuclear power on its list of "clean energy" options for the road ahead. Regardless of meltdowns, the entire production chain of nuclear energy—from the toxic and radioactive contamination of its mining to the 100,000-year hangover of its waste—is fraught with deadly health impacts.
It'd be one thing if there were a net benefit to be derived from nuclear power, but there simply is not. People squawk about subsidizing solar, but honest accounting shows that the per-kilowatt-hour costs of subsidizing the development of the nuclear industry actually exceeded the average market value of electricity. Translation: It literally would've been cheaper to buy power and give it away for free. If we spent as much on solar as we've thrown down the radioactive rat hole, our future would be a lot brighter.