Japan’s nuclear crisis: A report from Tokyo

A friend, Alan G., just wrote me from Tokyo about the dangerous situation at the Fukushima nuclear reactor near Sendai, where the controversial utility TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) is desperately trying to forestall a meltdown of the core and prevent an even greater catastrophe:

It’s very hard to separate fact from rumor from lies by the power company and the government, who have a vested interest in trying to put as good a face as possible on the nuclear accident. But in any event the government and Tokyo Power are claiming that the reactor itself did not explode, but rather the roof of the outer containment building blew off due to a buildup of hydrogen gas in the space between it and the reactor vessel. They claim that the reactor itself remains intact. They also claim that they had been intentionally venting radioactive steam into the air before the explosion, to reduce pressure building up in the reactor (due to a failure in the coolant water system AND its backups!) and that the explosion itself did not send radiation into the air — that, in fact, the amount of radiation detected in the vicinity is steadily decreasing after the intentional venting. Also that the wind was blowing out to sea so local people would have not been exposed to much radiation. That’s the official story, anyway.

In any case it’s irresponsible of whatever media you saw to say unequivocally that the reactor itself exploded. Even the skeptics here (and there are many, including  a citizens’ anti-nuke group gave its own press conference which I watched on the internet – at which experts – renegade ex-nuclear engineers! Right on! – tried to explain what they thought was really going on and what the government might be hiding. But even they did not believe that the reactor itself had necessarily exploded.

On the other hand, right now the news on TV is saying something about possibly 200 people exposed to radiation locally. I don’t know how that happened, but it may be due to wind shifts. The only outright injuries reported so far are to four nuke workers who were on site when the explosion occurred. In any case, no, I’m not contemplating leaving Tokyo. Maybe that’s naive, I dunno. But no one I know is talking about evacuation, yet, anyway. The plant is about 150 miles north of here so maybe we are hoping we are far enough away.

So far the most sobering and disturbing thing is the inability or unwillingness of govt and power co. spokesmen to give straight answers about what’s going on, as well as the TV stations’ (including NHK of course) unwillingness to press them on this. They are consistently trying to put the brightest spin on it, of minimizing the danger. No doubt they rationalize that this is necessary to prevent panic, but it’s criminal if it’s lulling people into a false sense of security (though they have in fact evacuated people within a 20 kilometer radius of the damaged nuke). What’s telling, though, is that the media is quick to portray the NATURAL disasters that have occurred in the worst possible light — TSUNAMI! OH NO! HUNDREDS, MAYBE THOUSANDS DEAD! WHOLE TOWNS DESTROYED! and so on… but when a man-made disaster, or one exacerbated by human error, occurs, self-censorship kicks in to protect powerful interests. The disparity in coverage is jarring, almost laughable if it weren’t so serious in its implications.

Sobering words indeed. Alan, by the way, grew up in Tokyo as I did (we were neighbors for many years in the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka) and has been living there for much of the past 20 years as a musician and translator.

Update: Read the latest from Alan G. here.

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