Terrifying prospect of meltdown raises the nuclear question again
Amid the apocalyptic scenes reaching our television screens from northern Japan, it seems invidious to address just one aspect of this catastrophe or to draw any conclusions -- so recently did disaster strike and so comprehensive is the destruction. Already, however, the disaster has posed with a new urgency a question that seemed to have been retreating from global concerns in recent years: how safe, really, is nuclear power?
Japan, given its history, had every reason to be among the most circumspect countries in developing and harnessing nuclear power. Its geography argued for double, treble the precautions that might be taken anywhere else. And until last week, the safety measures appeared more than adequate. Japan had a safety record, and a reputation for integrating safety into design, that was second to none. The famed national discipline and resilience of the Japanese was seen as an added asset, in the event of anything untoward.
Until now, it had also been possible to cite Japan's experience to rebut fears about the safety of nuclear reactors. There was always something particular about previous nuclear accidents that would not, it was assumed, be replicated in Japan. America's worst nuclear accident, at Three Mile Island, was the consequence of a mechanical failure that caused the reactor core to overheat. New regulations and design changes followed. The most destructive of all nuclear accidents, at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, whose 25th anniversary -- by a cruel quirk of fate -- will be commemorated in just one month, reflected shortcomings in design, but also the neglect of infrastructure and general indiscipline that attended the last years of the Soviet Union. Nuclear power in Japan, it was widely accepted, was at a whole different level of reliability.