Following the Fallout from Fukushima

Following the Fallout from Fukushima

“What the hell was anybody doing building six nuclear power plants in an earthquake-prone zone?” Senator John Kerry asked during a speech the other day at the Commonwealth Club of California. “I don’t get it. It’s hubris, if not stupidity.”

With Fukushima still generating fallout—and it is the real thing now—it is important that the Democrat from Massachusetts (and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) get fully in the picture. His question is a good one, but it is time to recognize that Japan’s nuclear calamity is not Japan’s alone.

A little history always helps. After World War II the Japanese public was vigorously opposed to all things atomic—including atomic energy plants. But then came President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, announced in December 1953. Some of us may remember the thought of electricity so cheaply generated it would be free. Fewer of us, it seems, understand that the idea was intended at least in part to spread the fledgling nuclear power technology developed by General Electric and Westinghouse across the U.S. and around the globe.

Japan was a natural destination. The Liberal Democrats (who were neither liberal nor especially democratic) had come to power with considerable U.S. support—overt and covert, as it turns out. By the mid–1950s, Japan had launched a nuclear-fuel research program and put in place all the laws and commissions needed to develop a nuclear power industry. It was under the Liberal Democrats, and over much popular protest, that Japan began building nuclear power plants in the kinds of places that now prompt Senator Kerry’s question.

The Fukushima plant, one of the early-generation nuclear plants in Japan, operated with GE technology. Think of it this way: When we look at it, we’re staring into a mirror. What we see in the way of hubris, if not stupidity, is partly our own.

After his speech in San Francisco, Senator Kerry was asked if he saw a future for nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. He doubted it under current conditions, he said, “but that’s for the market to decide.”

This does not seem right, either. The market, however many its virtues, can also produce some grim outcomes, as we all ought to know since that other recent “meltdown”—the one in the financial sector.

It’s up to the market to decide whether and where to build more nukes? Post–Fukushima, surely we can apply ourselves more intelligently to the question of what to do next.