4400 days ago, I told a CBC radio producer that a meltdown at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant would involve few if any casualties. That was on Day One of the catastrophe that began with the Great East Japan Earthquake, a monster event that unleashed a tsunami of terrifying size and power against a virtually unprotected coastline in northeastern Japan. The wall of water, 14 meters high in some places, collided with the coastline at hundreds of kilometers an hour, and then swept thousands of meters inland like a giant raging river in reverse. Everything in its path—ships, rocks, cars, people—spun uncontrollably into the maelstrom. People were literally pulverized.
Nearly 16,000 people met a violent death as and immediately after the tsunami swept through. Six thousand more were injured; as of March 11, 2012, over 3,200 were still missing. I still remember the video footage of terrified villagers huddled on high ground, watching the torrent rage through their community below. They were wearing winter clothing; the outside temperature was close to zero degrees celsius.
Those who designed and built the seawalls that were supposed to stop a tsunami from wrecking coastal communities will likely object to my characterization of Japan’s northeastern coast as having been “virtually unprotected” on March 11, 2011. But the stark fact is that the seawalls did not stop the tsunami on that day.
Though that is a simple and tragic fact, we do not hear it being mentioned very much. We do however hear a lot about the failure of one seawall in particular: the one that was supposed to protect the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant. Like the seawalls intended to protect human communities, the one at the nuclear plant failed when it was struck by a wave that exceeded its design basis. Unlike the other seawall failures though, the one at the Fukushima nuclear plant did not result in any direct casualties, even though three of the plant reactors melted down. That remains a simple fact, 4400 days after the meltdowns.
When the CBC radio producer called me on that morning, 4400 days ago, I was confident in saying that even a major meltdown would probably not kill anybody. That is because there is simply no credible scenario in which the radioactive materials inside the reactor are dispersed to humans in the area in quantities sufficient to cause major damage. Yes, in special and highly unlikely circumstances there could be an explosion that breaches the reactor pressure vessel and lofts radioactive material into the air; those radionuclides would then settle back to earth and could present an exposure threat to humans in the area. Yes, that explosion would threaten the lives of those who were immediately nearby. And yes, such an explosion would be a tragic event for those who were immediately affected. But it could not deliver dangerous radioactive materials so efficiently to humans as to cause widespread damage.
Explosions occur frequently all around the world. One occurred at a refinery near Tokyo, and was the result of the very same earthquake. You can see its aftermath in the video below:
However, while I was confident in telling the reporter there would be few if any radiation related casualties stemming from a nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, I did not foresee the casualties that did result from the meltdown.
I refer to the people who tragically died when they were forcibly evacuated from the Fukushima prefecture when news of the meltdown spread. The Japanese government panicked in the stress and mayhem of the international media spotlight. Unable to stand above the uninformed fray, the government ordered the evacuation of thousands of people who would have been much safer if they had remained in their homes. Instead they were herded into the devastation and chaos of post-tsunami Japan.
Today’s Mainichi Shimbun reports that 638 people, mostly elderly, died in that needless evacuation. Imagine: senior citizens, near the ends of their lives, many unable to even get up out of bed, forced out of their homes and into hell—all because of uninformed anti-nuclear hysteria, fanned by the mainstream media.
It is time we stopped listening to professional scaremongers.
The trick here is seeing that the onus for those regrettable fatalities is put squarely on the nuclear-emergency cluelessness (“educated” by anti-nuke groups) of local and national officials who instigated an chaotic play-it-by-ear evacuation rather than lay blame on the deathless reactors themselves. Noda is going to have to stand up on his hind legs against the fear-tide and pit the blame of these deaths on the haphazard execution of a evacuation performed by those entrusted to protect public safety.
Who is the culprit, one who strikes a match in a full theatar, or the one who starts screaming, “Fire!” But of course, the former is criminal, while the later is well-meaning bystander, worried for well-being of his neighbours.