Just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, President Bush’s adviser on homeland security, was called into a meeting with the president. As described by Ridge in his biography “The Test of Our Times,” Bush was concerned that moves taken in response to 9/11 at the borders — essentially, they were closed — were undermining trade and thus an economic recovery.
After any disaster, the tendency is to stop everything: Close the borders in the case of terrorism, shut down offshore oil drilling after an oil spill, or decommission all nuclear plants in the case of an accident. But that instinct is always offset, and more often than not supplanted by, a greater desire: the desire to rebound. By October 2001, Bush recognized that America had to start to get back to normal. Loosen up at the border, he said, and “find a better way, Tom.”
Two years ago today, Japan suffered an epic disaster — actually a triumvirate of catastrophes. A powerful earthquake, a tsunami, and the damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant left 20,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced. It created longterm health consequences that are still unknown today. The nuclear industry was shut down; out of Japan’s 52 plants, only two are presently running.
Now there is a strong movement to get them all working again, though many in Japan and the world are wary. For the island nation of Japan, there are few other options; the demand for electricity probably can’t be met by any other source. Sometimes, in a world of harms, there is a need to focus on the best practical outcome. Societies cannot make themselves safe, only safer. It is possible to be both fatalistic and hopeful, simultaneously.
If ever there was a clue that Japan was getting over its post-tsunami funk, it came last month when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised the Japanese parliament that the nuclear plants taken off line would restart once they passed new safety guidelines. Abe was cautious in his remarks, knowing that anti-nuclear sentiment runs high in Japan and that a new safety commission formed in the wake of Fukushima was not entirely supportive of his move.
But the leader of the newly elected Liberal Democratic government is facing a challenge made almost impossible by the nuclear shutdown: the need to revitalize an economy that is dependent on cheap energy.
Abe’s insistence that new safety standards be enforced “without compromise” is essential, but the die has been cast: Japan will, at some point, be a nuclear-energy state again. There will be no phase-out, as promised by Abe’s predecessor.
Japan’s decision is not necessarily dangerous, any more than ours was to put airplanes back in the sky after 9/11. Nations must bounce back, but they need to find ways to apply the lessons they learned.
March 11, 2011, was three distinct disasters. The earthquake and tsunami fell into the category of tragedies that are often unavoidable. But the nuclear accident requires a different analytical frame, and proponents of nuclear energy shouldn’t be allowed to write off the Fukushima crisis as a natural disaster. Since the industrial revolution, there have always been industrial harms. As societies require more of technology, engineering, and transportation, there will be blips in the systems. What isn’t inevitable, however, is that they happen again.
Other nuclear-power nations do not have to wait for their own accidents to adapt. Unfortunately, in the United States, the nuclear industry is now challenging a government proposal to require filters that would stop radioactive particles from getting into the atmosphere. The failure of Japanese engineers to realize that such particles were escaping was one of the most alarming aspects of the crisis; now, the areas around Fukushima are uninhabitable. Creating a filter to stop the release of such particles should be a simple fix, consistent with the instruction that Bush gave to Ridge: “Find a better way.”
The failure to achieve full safety is inevitable; the failure to strive to be safer, to learn from the past, is inexcusable.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem.