I like to think of myself as a bit of a technologist, in that I believe in the ability of science and technology to make our lives better and more fulfilling. Indeed, even given the devastating environmental havoc industrialization is wreaking on the global environment, I'd still argue that the technological innovations of the past century or so have proven a huge net positive, at least for us human beings.
For example, I sure as hell wouldn't want to live without such technologies as penicillin, birth control, vaccines, central heating, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and electric lighting, just to name a few of the basic amenities of modern life, not to mention the perhaps less essential Internet and other media technologies that enrich our lives daily. Hell, even something as seemingly mundane as a fresh cup of coffee is a bit of a technological and economic marvel, if you stop to think about it. And most of these technologies that make our lives easier, more comfortable, more gratifying and longer, rely on electricity or some other power source to create and/or run them.
Which is why—and those of you who have followed my posts on Japan's looming post-tsunami nuclear disaster might be surprised to learn it—I am not opposed to developing nuclear power... in theory. The newer reactor designs are inherently safer then the 40-plus-year-old technology that is failing in Japan, and there is no doubt that compared to the toxic and carbon emissions of coal—which fuels 50 percent of US electrical generation—nuclear power carries with it a much smaller environmental footprint. Thus, as someone with a profound appreciation for the immense gift of technology and the nearly limitless genius of the human imagination from which it springs, I welcome the possibility of safe and affordable nuclear power.
Nuclear fuel rods are fucking MELTING DOWN in not one, not two, but in three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station! Three reactor containment buildings were damaged by explosions there, and a fourth by fire, while radiation levels have soared to life-threatening levels, prompting fears of a substantial leak of radioactive materials. Meanwhile, three other reactors at a second nuclear facility have experienced less catastrophic cooling system failures, while elevated radiation levels have been detected at a third.
No, this is not a Chernobyl style disaster, nor is it likely to rise to that level, but it is a serious radiological crisis nonetheless. But more significantly, this is not some sub-par Soviet reactor design, or a one-off cascade of mechanical failure and human error like at Three Mile Island. These are six reactors suffering the same failures simultaneously, three seriously, due to a foreseeable event. In that context, this was not an "accident" as much as an engineering failure of epic proportions that should give pause to even the most enthusiastic technologists as our nation contemplates building a new generation of nuclear reactors.
Even if the worst has past, the worst is pretty damn bad as it is. Imagine a similar episode here in the US—multiple explosions and fires, plumes of radioactive smoke, a 12-mile evacuation zone, background radiation levels spiking hundreds of miles away—and tell me this wouldn't be the top news story, 24-7, and rightly so. Yet for some reason, a number of commenters in the threads have expressed outrage at my obsessive posting on the subject (which has largely consisted of repeating news flashes from the BBC, Kyodo, NHK, the New York Times and other reputable sources), accusing me of being "alarmist," "sensationalist," and "irresponsible." Some have even gone so far as to question my qualifications as a "journalist," as if posting to Slog has ever provided much of a claim to being one.
Don't get me wrong. It's not like my feelings are hurt or anything. After six years of wading through the cesspool that is the comment thread over on HA, my skin's thicker than the elephant man's. I'm just, well, a bit confused at what's pissing everybody off.
Is it my occasional lack of precision? Pick nits if you want about whether it's a "meltdown" or a "partial meltdown," or whether an explosion of a nuclear reactor's containment building can be reasonably described as a "reactor explosion," but those are the terms that were used when the news flashes first hit the wires. Is it my tone? Maybe. Sorry. I've tried to uncharacteristically tone down the emotion and snark in these posts, though it's difficult, particularly in the headlines, when the news is so relentlessly awful. So think of my tone as a sorta nervous laugh.
But mostly, there appears to be an objection to me covering this story at all. Stick to the local beat, I've been told. Leave the nuclear crisis coverage to somebody who knows how a reactor works, like Golob. Qualify every post with a lengthy explanation of how a boiling water reactor couldn't possibly produce a disaster along the lines of Chernobyl, or don't post at all.
My defenders in the threads, and there are many (thanks!), have attributed the criticism to pro-nuclear industry trolling, but I suspect it's more complicated than that. I think there are a lot of people like me who have reluctantly and uncomfortably embraced nuclear energy in recent years, but who simply can't bear the thought of rethinking this issue yet again. In fact, the perception seems to be that I am deliberately hyping the events at Fukushima in an effort to challenge those nuclear power supporters. But that couldn't be further from the truth.
If I am hyping the crisis at Fukushima it is because it is news... indeed, history. This is already the second worse nuclear "accident" ever—not Chernobyl, no, but far worse than Three Mile Island—and with total meltdown's of three reactor cores still possible, and even the spent-fuel pools leaking and unstable, the final outcome could still be catastrophic. The US-based Institute for Science and International Security today said that the ongoing crisis is ''now closer to a level 6, and it may unfortunately reach a level 7'' on the International Nuclear and Radiological Events scale that ranks events from 1 to 7, an assessment with which France's Nuclear Safety Authority concurs.
Alarming, yes, but "alarmist"...? Not according to the experts.
It is ironic, and perhaps a giveaway to the true motivations driving the comment threads, that some of the same readers criticizing me for my coverage of Fukushima have praised me for my arguably sensationalist coverage of what I have snarkily dubbed "the War in Wisconsin," a series of posts absolutely dripping with unbridled advocacy. The difference there is that the issue, defined in partisan political terms, is much more black and white. You either support the rights of unions or you don't. And most of the readers here on Slog fall into the former group. But nuclear power, well, that's much more complicated, with environmentalists who once marched against it breaking with dogma to promote new nuclear power plant construction as a necessary option for reducing carbon emissions... a position to which I still adhere, despite all of the above.
Cognitive dissonance can be a bitch, sure, but if our domestic nuclear power industry and its effort to embark on a new round of construction cannot survive a painful conversation about the Fukushima disaster, then it doesn't deserve to. For any industry willing and able to sweep news like this under the rug cannot be trusted to operate safely.
PS: Fukushima Number 4 is on fire again.