The news cycle being what it is, it’s not surprising that we’ve taken to navel-gazing just days after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami—even as we struggle to uncover, report on, and comprehend the full devastation that they have reaped. And with ever-scarier headlines homing in on the efforts to avoid a meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, it’s not surprising that the focus here has been on energy policy. Politicians like Joe Lieberman are asking for America to “put the brakes on” nuclear until we know what happens in Japan; the pundits are dutifully debating the merits of his suggestion.

Much of the reaction has called for calm before panic. Japan’s quake-tsunami one-two hit is a freakish, one-of-a-kind thing, many are arguing, and Fukushima was older and not as well prepared for manmade or natural attack as its American counterparts. We can draw lessons from it, sure, but those lessons should not be that nuclear can’t work at all.

The argument for the nuclear industry comes from some expected corners. Take this editorial in the Wall Street Journal’s Asia edition, titled “Nuclear Overreactions: Modern life requires learning from disasters, not fleeing all risk,” as excerpted in Mike Allen’s Playbook this morning:

After a once-in-300-years earthquake, the Japanese have been keeping cool amid the chaos, organizing an enormous relief and rescue operation, and generally earning the world’s admiration. We wish we could say the same for the reaction in the U.S., where the troubles at Japan’s nuclear reactors have produced an overreaction about the risks of modern life and technology.

But the same argument—or thereabouts—is being made by what Politico’s Ben Smith is dubbing “the anti-anti-nuclear left.” The point here is less that people are overreacting irrationally to the current, escalating crisis in Japan, but that when put on the scales alongside fossil fuels, the risks of nuclear energy are given a fresh and perhaps relatively less frightening perspective.

In the anti-anti-nuclear camp is Matt Yglesias, who writes:

What happens when a tsunami hits an offshore drilling platform or a natural gas pipeline? What happens to a coal mine in an earthquake? How much environmental damage is playing out in Japan right now because of gasoline from cars pushed around? The main lesson is “try not to put critical infrastructure near a fault line” but Japan is an earthquakey country, so what are they really supposed to do about this?

I don’t really want to be the nuclear apologist guy. I think of myself as a clean energy guy. I’m an energy efficiency guy. But what I’m definitely not is a fossil fuel guy. And you can’t make sense of the safety concerns around electricity generation unless you put the nuclear risks in some kind of context.

Yglesias was responding to a Slate column by William Saletan, who writes that, in the long-term, fossil fuel energy production is far more dangerous than nuclear.

If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute calculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.

Even if you count all the deaths plausibly related to Chernobyl—9,000 to 33,000 over a 70-year period—that number is dwarfed by the death rate from burning fossil fuels. The OECD’s 2008 Environmental Outlook calculates that fine-particle outdoor air pollution caused nearly 1 million premature deaths in the year 2000, and 30 percent of this was energy-related. You’d need 500 Chernobyls to match that level of annual carnage. But outside Chernobyl, we’ve had zero fatal nuclear power accidents.

Then there’s Josh Marshall, at Talking Points Memo, who comes down somewhere near the same side after wisely calling for everyone to wait-and-see before the political analysis begins.

There’s so much we don’t know yet about the situation in Japan. And there’s so much yet to happen—we don’t know how bad this is all going to get. For that and many other reasons, I don’t want to try to say anything definitive. But as we watch this very frightening situation unfold in Japan, I think it’s worth keeping a few thoughts in mind.

We saw a catastrophic accident with fossil fuels in the Gulf last year. What seems more relevant to me is that the proper and planned use of fossil fuels—in other words, when everything goes just according to plan—is creating what appears to be catastrophic damage on a planetary scale. What’s more, setting aside global warming, there is a detailed scientific literature showing the number of deaths and chronic illnesses tied to the release of fossil fuel pollution into the air—lung diseases, asthma, cancer, etc. Again, when all goes just according to plan.

Of course, this “anti-anti-nuclear” left aren’t the only ones making noise. The Guardian cautions readers today against swallowing what Japanese officialdom is feeding reporters regarding the nuclear problems the country is facing, and suggests a nuclear cover-up that might give the lie to those claiming the anti-nuke contingent is overreacting. In a piece titled, “Japan radiation leaks feared as nuclear experts point to possible cover-up,” the paper reports that some engineers are skeptical of the Japanese government’s remaining mum about radiation leaks. (Though, as with many stories coming out of Japan, it’s hard to tell whether the government is remaining mum—this report, for just one of many, suggests they’re being more open than that.) The Guardian report goes back to WikiLeaks cables to back up its case.

In a newly released diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, politician Taro Kono, a high-profile member of Japan’s lower house, tells US diplomats that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry—the Japanese government department responsible for nuclear energy—has been “covering up nuclear accidents and obscuring the true costs and problems associated with the nuclear industry”.

In 2008, Kono told them: “The ministries were trapped in their policies, as officials inherited policies from people more senior to them, which they could then not challenge.” He mentioned the dangers of natural disasters in the context of nuclear waste disposal, citing Japan’s “extensive seismic activity, and abundant groundwater, and [he] questioned if there really was a safe place to store nuclear waste in the ‘land of volcanoes’.”

Interesting—but impossible to say that the same pattern (if indeed there is evidence to support Kono’s claims) is being repeated here until the story is completely told.

Another piece attracting attention in the nuclear/Japan debate today comes from Greg Palast at the progressive website Truthout, who describes himself as a lead investigator in government nuclear plant fraud and racketeering. Palast picks apart the implications of president Obama’s decision to ask congress for $4 billion for two new nuclear reactors to be built on the Gulf Coast in Texas. The reactors would be built by the Tokyo Electric Power Co and local partners. Palast, in a direct attack on the pro-nuclear op-eds we’ve been seeing, says we’re not getting the full story on nuclear in the mainstream news, and brings the story close to home.

Last night, I heard CNN reporters repeat the official line that the tsunami disabled the pumps needed to cool the reactors, implying that water unexpectedly got into the diesel generators that run the pumps.

These safety backup systems are the “EDGs” in nuke-speak: Emergency Diesel Generators. That they didn’t work in an emergency is like a fire department telling us they couldn’t save a building because “it was on fire.”

What dim bulbs designed this system? One of the reactors dancing with death at Fukushima Station 1 was built by Toshiba. Toshiba was also an architect of the emergency diesel system.

Now be afraid. Obama’s $4 billion bailout in the making is called the South Texas Project. It’s been sold as a red-white-and-blue way to make power domestically with a reactor from Westinghouse, a great American brand. However, the reactor will be made substantially in Japan by the company that bought the US brand name, Westinghouse—Toshiba.

It’s an interesting investigation. But again, it’s hard to say the same mistakes would be repeated simply because the same companies are involved.

My own take is to caution people against having their own takes too quickly. Marsall’s words are possibly the wisest: “There’s so much we don’t know yet about the situation in Japan.” And what we want before any rigorous political debate is just that: information to fill in what we don’t yet know. Most of us have been spending our days just trying to figure out how nuclear power plants work (and fail), simply trying to understand the reports coming out of Japan—see here, here, and here for English major-friendly explanations. And with each new report, explosion, leak, drying pool etc, the story becomes more complex—and, at least to my untrained eye and ear, more frightening. We really don’t know what will happen here. And we thus don’t really know what it means.

Until the outcome is known, it might be best to “put the brakes” on the punditry.


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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.