The Disaster in Japan

All attention in this household—obsessive attention—is on Japan at the moment. (I apologize if any of this sounds rushed or distracted. I’m constantly checking the headlines, even as I write.) Nuclear power is a subject that took up ten years of my wife Judy’s life. Her first feature-length film, Dark Circle, (she co-directed, co-produced and narrated it) was about the links between nuclear weapons and the nuclear power industry. It won several awards, including an Emmy. In the last few years, I’ve watched her become increasingly dismayed over the renewed interest in nuclear power. She’d thought that the battle was over. She has told me repeatedly that public officials and the media will never tell you the truth about a nuclear emergency as it’s happening, and I’m seeing that she’s right. The “experts” they call on for commentary are almost invariably pro-nuclear power. Judy can read an article, dissect it—tell me what they’re really saying. The corporations, including those that own the media, want nuclear power. They are reluctant to publish anything that will make it look bad. What many people don’t understand—I didn’t for the longest time—is that all nuclear power does is boil water. That’s it. It’s just a fancy and dangerous way to boil water. The issues that nuclear energy raises are much more complicated than what most of us know. Dark Circle goes into those issues. It’s available on iTunes to rent or own and can be purchased through Amazon. This isn’t a pitch for product. Judy no longer owns the copyright. What she wants is that people educate themselves.

So I sit here working on my book and watching the news. Whenever I fall into thinking about nuclear power as simply a domestic political issue, I lose sight of the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people in Japan suffering tremendously right now. It’s terrible to forget that. Through my exploration of Zen Buddhism as well as my encounters with the Japanese, I’ve developed an affection for Japan. I’m pulling for them.


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22 Responses to “The Disaster in Japan”

  1. Chandani Diaz Says:

    Can you (with Judy’s help) explain a meltdown (and what happens when one takes place) in a nutshell. I’m not very knowledgable on nuclear power. Our hearts ache for the people there – many without shelter (and it’s cold right now), food, electricity…and many missing family members.

    It feels SURREAL that in one corner of the world people are struggling to survive a natural disaster….meanwhile, a madman in another part of the world is trying to replicate (in war) the damage of an earthquake and tsunami INTENTIONALLY!!

    • markbittner Says:

      Under normal conditions, uranium fuel pellets are stored in rods, which are kept under water, cooling them. When the fuel rods lose the water surrounding them, they heat up to as much as 4000 degrees celsius and melt the tubes containing them. The pellets themselves melt and drop to the floor of the containment room where they burn through the floor and enter the ground. All kinds of things can happen at that point—explosions and general contamination of water and soil among them. That’s it in a nutshell.

  2. Sarah Says:

    “The human toll here looks to be much worse than the economic toll and we can be grateful for that.” — TV personality and economist Lawrence Kudlow, March 13, 2011

    Well, yay for that.

    • Tracy G Says:

      Nice. Maybe someone will engrave that on his tombstone when he’s gone. It’d be amusing as his epitaph, don’t you think?

      Sadly, I don’t think either the full human toll or the full economic toll have been counted yet. Word is there’s now been a third explosion at the Daiichi plant.

    • markbittner Says:

      For the record, he apologized for his statement. He claims he simply misspoke. At least we’re still at the point where people feel obliged to apologize for that kind of thing.

    • Tracy G Says:

      I know. I went and read his original comment in context after I saw it here, and also his retraction. He’s a supply-side economist. In my opinion, he has a lot more to apologize for than that slip of the tongue.

      What’s going on at the no. 2 reactor? Can Judy make any sense of the news fragments associated with the latest explosion? It seems more serious than what happened at no. 1 and no. 3.

    • markbittner Says:

      She’s out doing errands and I don’t think she knows about it yet. From what I’ve read, this event seems even worse. Judy has us stocking up on supplies, by the way. She thinks the situation is grave.

    • Tracy G Says:

      Smart lady. Godspeed to you both.

    • Sarah Says:

      “Judy has us stocking up on supplies.”

      Mark, I hope you won’t mind my asking, but what did she buy?

    • markbittner Says:

      Living in an earthquake zone as we do, we already had a three day emergency kit. We added some canned food to what we already had. The media crisis atmosphere has passed. But I think it’s important to note that the governments of Japan and the United States are not going to tell you what’s really going on. They want nuclear energy programs. According to most polls, it seems that most Americans do. But few know all the facts. One example: Hardly anybody knows that because insurers refuse to insure nuclear power plants, the taxpayers have to pick up the tab for an accident.

    • Tracy G Says:

      I’m a tornado survivor. I think it’s a good idea to keep a well-stocked pantry no matter what’s going on. At my house, we could continue to eat well for a couple of weeks. We’d be in a real bind if we lost our water supply, though, unless I had time to fill the bathtub first. We’re currently storing only seven gallons in jugs. I keep meaning to do something about that.

      I would’ve guessed correctly that taxpayers foot the bills for nuclear power plant disasters, but what has surprised me is the degree of complexity and attentiveness required to keep the spent rods cool. Apparently, you can’t just stick those deep in a mountain somewhere and wall it off. If I understand correctly now, they must be actively monitored and tended for decades. And then “merely” contained for centuries. What’s finally dawning on me, over the course of this horrific situation, is that the active lifespan of that waste is longer than the lifespan of a typical corporation. I believe our resources will run low before we’re able to build very many more nuclear plants, so I don’t lose sleep worrying about a proliferation of new ones. But what will happen when the companies maintaining the old power plants find it too expensive to continue?

      That question is very troubling.

    • markbittner Says:

      I’ve been thinking the same about the difficulty this country is going to have building many more nuclear plants. I don’t think it’s going to happen. Your point about companies maintaining old ones is something that has never crossed mind. And, yes, it is troubling.

    • Sarah Says:

      @ Tracy and Mark,

      Excerpts from The Guardian (London, UK), 22 March 2011:

      Japan nuclear firm admits missing safety checks at disaster-hit plant

      The power plant at the centre of the biggest civilian nuclear crisis in Japan’s history contained far more spent fuel rods than it was designed to store, while its technicians repeatedly failed to carry out mandatory safety checks, according to documents from the reactor’s operator. … The revelations will add to pressure on Tepco to explain why, under its cost-cutting chief executive Masataka Shimizu, it opted to save money by storing the spent fuel on site rather than invest in safer storage options. … Regulators have been accused of uncritically backing industry moves to prolong the life of ageing nuclear power plants such as Fukushima Daiichi amid mounting local opposition to the construction of new facilities. … Maintenance management was “inadequate”, and the quality of inspection “insufficient” …

      You can read more of this article at

      * * *

      P.S. Mark, I’ve just borrowed a copy of Dark Circle from my local library. I’ll take a pill to lower my blood pressure before I watch the film!

    • markbittner Says:

      Another reason I don’t want nuclear power is the get-government-off-the-back-of-business policies of the Republican party, who will undoubtedly push to loosen regulation of power plants as soon as they think they can get away with it.

  3. Shelley Says:

    It appears your fears were well founded. These leaks are an unmitigated disaster and I’m afraid to wake up to tomorrow’s news.

  4. Karen Says:

    I was appalled to hear this morning that President Obama is saying US nuclear power plants are safe. Talk about tempting fate! He said something similar about off-shore oil drilling right before BP’s Gulf oil debacle.

    For starters are how “safe” US plants are: The Diablo Canyon plant in California is run by the same company (PG&E) that had the disastrous natural gas explosion in San Bruno. The plant is located near a fault, on the ocean and, I believe, it is the same construction as the ones in Japan. Just because they are located in “USA-We’re #1” does NOT mean they are safe, or even safer than those in Japan. Hubris always leads to disaster.

  5. Lydia Says:

    I’m just wondering, and I’m no expert on nuclear energy or have watch the documentary yet, but if nuclear is not a good option, then what is? I mean I would have to say that nuclear is a better option compared to fossil fuels. It’s not realistic to expect green energy (hydro, wind, solar) to take over all of our electrical production immediately as most of that technology is not advanced enough to do so affordably. Nuclear offers a better option than coal, oil, etc. And almost all energy sources are fancy ways to boil water. I lived 20 minutes away from a nuclear plant for 20 years and they are safe as long as no freak accidents (natural or carelessness on the human operators) occur. The only immediate problem I see is the “not in my backyard” wast disposal issue.

    • markbittner Says:

      I don’t think there are any good options—at least to maintain the way of life we’ve been leading. Our way of life is unsustainable, and there’s going to be an enormous train wreck if we keep trying to maintain it. We have to simplify our lives and, yes, lower our standard of living, which is killing us and everything else anyway. If all we care about is material comforts we are truly doomed. Most of us have been seduced into thinking that money and gadgets and development are the keys to happiness. I’m inclined to think right now that it may well take a disaster, perhaps several of them, to get us to turn away from our fantasy of the good life. This is what I believe in my heart of hearts. We are entering an historic period of profound change.

  6. JB Says:

    I watched Dark Circle for the first time late last year and it convinced me not to try and live in or near San Luis Obispo, despite my initial desire to. I really hope that future generations will decide to stop using highly radioactive elements to turn turbines that generate electricity. There are so many better options. But as the film points out, there is another hand at play with those elements – hands that control military weaponry.

    Wouldn’t it be a true revolution if Iran’s government and people decided to stop building nuclear reactors for “peaceful purposes” because of this catastrophe in Japan?

  7. Tracy G Says:

    I just found a frightening yet helpful article by the Union of Concerned Scientists which explains our current spent fuel rod storage situation.

    In the U.S., the pools at virtually every plant are packed. They’re generally each holding 1,000 tons or more of fuel, as much as five times the original design capacity, now racked at a density which approaches that of a reactor core. A failure at any one of these pools could spew more contamination than Chernobyl.

    Spent fuel rods must be cooled in a pool for roughly five years, at the minimum (not decades, as I was thinking in my comment above). They could then be transferred to dry casks of concrete and steel. Inside the casks, cooling would continue through a safer and more passive process of self-sustaining convection. I do not understand why this is not the standard practice.

    I also do not understand why we can’t simply focus on conservation. According to my favorite peak oil theorist, John Michael Greer, we could provide every single American residence with a $2000 energy efficiency retrofit for the same cost as replacing the 23 U.S. nuclear reactors which share the flawed design of those at Fukushima Daiichi.

  8. gone Says:

    March 28th 2014 now. If you’ve been listening to Arnie Gundersen at or Dr Helen Caldicott .. If you know about .. how do you cope? I am in the sf bay area. No one will talk about it :/ they are so self-absorbed, it’s like you said in your most recent entry about the near collision and how we are headed for one. I see the bowl needs flushing but where is the lever?

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