As the first “anniversary” of the devastating March 11, 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan approaches, the ongoing disaster continues regularly to make front page news worldwide. The most recent example came with the recent release of an independent investigation by a private policy organization, the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, which revealed the true extent of the astonishing ignorance and arrogance displayed by Japanese industry and government officials alike throughout the emergency. We now know that even as they tried to play down the risks in public, Japan’s leaders were admitting privately that they didn’t actually know the true extent of damage at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Moreover, they were secretly considering the possibility of somehow evacuating tens of millions of residents of Tokyo’s metropolitan area.
After a powerful earthquake and tsunami shut down the plant’s cooling systems nearly a year ago, officials began talking among themselves about a possible worst-case outcome: the plant could release such large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere that it would force the evacuation of millions. At the same they began to worry about a potentially even worse scenario: larger radiation releases from the more than 10,000 spent fuel rods stored in unprotected pools near the damaged reactors. It took five days after the earthquake, notes the independent report, for Japanese officials to confirm that the pools were still filled with water and thus safe.
Not surprisingly, the independent report conflicts greatly with the government’s own official investigation into the accident, which was released as an interim report in December. A key difference between the two investigations, for example, involves accounts of what happened when prime minister Kan demanded that the plant’s operator, the utility Tepco, not remove all its employees from the damaged plant and instead continue efforts to contain the crisis. Siding falsely with the utility’s version of events, he government’s investigation concluded that Tepco executives (who refused to cooperate with the independent investigation) only wanted to withdraw a portion of the plant’s staff. But the independent investigators found instead that the company had in fact wanted a total pullout, which could easily have proved deadly for tens of millions of people.
The revelation that utility officials, nuclear regulators, and high government ministers (including then-prime minister Naoto Kan) significantly understated the true dangers of the accident for fear of setting off a panic — and that they deliberately hid their most alarming assessments not just from the Japanese public but also from staunch allies such as United States government officials — should come as no surprise. Nor is it unusual to learn that their post-accident reporting is highly suspect and includes false conclusions favorable to industry and government. After all, history has shown that hiding the truth about the danger and risks to the public is precisely what government officials, regulators and utility executives always do in the face of a serious nuclear accident.
More than three decades ago, the world’s first catastrophic accident at a large commercial nuclear plant — the March, 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island(TMI) plant in Pennsylvania — inspired us to write Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology in America, which outlined how a new and Orwellian public relations-oriented language spoken by nuclear developers had evolved. Nukespeak is a language of evasion and euphemism, of minimizing and sanitizing, and of public relations and promotion. It is a language where catastrophes are rendered harmless by sterile words; and where an “accident” can never happen, since it is instead defined as an event, an incident, an abnormal evolution, a normal aberration, or a plant transient… Nukespeak takes its cues and techniques from the worlds of advertising, sales and marketing, since it too is blatantly aimed at selling us something we don’t need –and which in this case would otherwise be deemed dangerous and foolhardy.
Nukespeak is the language of the nuclear mindset — the world view, or system of beliefs of nuclear developers. The word mindset means what it implies, a mind that is already set. A mindset acts like a filter, sorting information and perceptions, allowing some to be processed and some to be ignored, consciously or unconsciously. Nukespeak encodes the beliefs and assumptions of the nuclear mindset; the language and the mindset continuously reinforce each other. Repeat after them: nuclear power is safe and cheap, green and clean…
For decades, the use of Nukespeak and its PR and information-management techniques has consistently distorted the debate over nuclear power. Time and time again — Fukushima is but the latest example — nuclear developers have confused their hopes with reality, publicly presented their expectations and assumptions as facts, covered up damaging information, harassed critics and fired scientists who disagreed with established policy, refused to recognize the existence of problems, generated false or misleading statistics to bolster their assertions, failed to learn from their mistakes, and claimed that there was little choice but to follow their policies.
Before the accident at Three Mile Island, for example, nuclear proponents liked to claim that meltdowns were nearly impossible events, virtually unimaginable. The TMI accident, which began with a sticky valve, proved otherwise. In the end, the plant came within thirty minutes of a full meltdown. And even though the plant operators averted disaster, the reactor vessel was still destroyed and radiation was released into the atmosphere.
But did the nuclear power industry ever learn or act upon the “lessons” of TMI? While it’s true that much has changed in the nuclear field since then, it’s also true that the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same. Nuclear developers worldwide maintain the same culture and ways of thinking, and the same lack of transparency. The same sloppy mix of public relations and industry-dominated regulatory bodies is still the hallmark of the nuclear power industry.
In response to the partial meltdown of three reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi — the world’s third great nuclear plant catastrophe, following TMI and the far-worse meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 — we issued a Second Edition of our book, now called Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima.
In preparing a new edition, we were amazed to find that no matter where we looked today, we found striking and alarming continuations of the effects of what we had earlier labeled the nuclear mindset, and of a self-contained world where “nothing can go wrong” because we are supposedly under the protection of a savvy nuclear priesthood of risk-managing engineers, nuclear deterrence strategists, unquestioning military officers, subservient regulatory officials, classification specialists, nonproliferation inspectors, and steely politicians — the same people who once promised us energy “too cheap to meter,” produced in plants whose designers would foresee everything that could go wrong and then engineer redundant safety systems that would prevent any serious problems.
Looking back over the record of the decades from the Manhattan Project of World War II to last year’s triple meltdown at Fukushima, the nuclear mindset must be judged wanting in every respect. The accident at Fukushima — like those at TMI and Chernobyl before it — should only remind us again that, in spite of their allegedly redundant “defense-in-depth” design safety features, and constant reassurances that nothing can go wrong, nuclear power plants have repeatedly failed, sometimes with extremely costly and deadly consequences. Attempts to correct past errors have led to huge increases in the price tags of new plants, making them so expensive that only massive government subsidies and guarantees keep the nuclear industry afloat. Meanwhile, the cost of renewable sources of electricity continues to fall, and investments in energy efficiency provide far higher rates of return than those in nuclear plants.
Before Fukushima, nuclear proponents had taken to calling the rush of state-subsidized orders for new plants a “nuclear renaissance,” and hailed nuclear power as a supposedly “clean and green” means of combating climate change by reducing the need to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity. Despite the industry’s dismal history and lackluster present, however, many governments around the world — including those of China and the United States, where President Obama, other leading Democrats, and the leaders of the Republican opposition in Congress are all united on the issue — continue their insane push to build new plants. Yet amidst this boosterism, neither governments nor utilities have put forth a solution to the intractable problem of what to do with the many tons of radioactive waste these plants have already generated thus far. These dangerous materials are now stored on-site, turning every nuclear plant in the world into a de facto high-level radioactive waste dump — and a tempting target for terrorists.
Fortunately, the scale and staggering cost of the Fukushima accident has begun to break down the nuclear mindset in at least some parts of the world. Although U.S. regulators have downplayed the risks of the dozens of American reactors of the same flawed design as the plants at Fukushima, officials in other countries have already reacted with radical changes in their energy strategies. In Japan, regulators have temporarily shut down all but two plants. And in Germany (with the world’s fourth largest economy), where the government had issued a controversial decision in the fall of 2010 to extend the licenses of the country’s aging nuclear plants, Prime Minister Angela Merkel reversed course and pledged to shut down all of the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022.
History has shown that we can and should expect more examples of the misuse and abuse of language by Japanese nuclear officials over the coming months – and even years. Although major nuclear accidents like that of Fukushima thankfully happen only rarely, they never end. The recent 25th “anniversary” of the Chernobyl accident, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged to build a “sarcophagus” to entomb the radioactive waste still there, should serve us all as a stark reminder. Nuclear developers are still incapable of “imagining the unimaginable” (such as the 100 foot tsunami wave that blasted over the forty foot protective seawalls near Fukushima) precisely because they lack the language, and thus even the concepts, with which to express the reality that nuclear power is neither safe nor cheap, but an expensive, dangerous and outmoded form of technology that threatens us all. If we don’t soon learn and take to heart the lessons of Fukushima — and of Chernobyl before it, and Three Mile Island before that — there is no reason to mark the first anniversary of the accident there with anything other than ever-growing alarm.