Japan's Chernobyl - a Phoenix editorial

From this week's Phoenix:

It may have receded from the headlines, but the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station continues.

Reports from Fukushima that one month ago would have triggered international alarm are today absorbed with barely an anxious shrug.

That, at least, seemed to be the reaction to the news when Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency recategorized the disaster, upgrading it from level five to level seven.

According to the International Nuclear Event Scale, that is as bad as officials can imagine: "A major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects."

There have been only two level-seven incidents in nuclear history: the Chernobyl catastrophe 25 years ago in the Ukraine and now Fukushima, on the east coast of Japan.

Officials, however, may be running out of terminology with which to convey the still-unfolding seriousness of the situation.

Aftershocks from the earthquake that triggered the crisis continue to plague the region, compromising the efforts of an army of workers laboring against great odds to keep four cracked and crippled nuclear reactors from complete meltdown.

Meanwhile, half a world away, in the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba prepares to embark on a program of deep-water oil exploration, raising concern about the possibility of another environmental disaster of a magnitude similar to that caused last year by BP.

America's Gulf oil crisis clearly caused no agonizing reappraisals about deep-water drilling among Cuban leaders. Given the shamefully lax regulation of energy companies here in the United States, Washington is in no position to lecture Cuba about safety standards. That, however, does not mean there is not cause for worry.

The United States, indeed the rest of the world, needs to start thinking about energy in aggressively new ways.

And the Fukushima tragedy, even if it gets worse, is unlikely to slow the spread of nuclear power in expanding economies such as China and India, to name just the two most obvious.

Since humanity will not curb its appetite for energy, it seems that the minimally intelligent next move should be to seek to establish international safety standards governing the extraction of natural resources and the actual generation of power.

An international safe-energy treaty will not, in and of itself, immunize the planet from oil spills and nuclear meltdown. Past negligence in the Gulf and the clear miscalculation in Japan of risk assessment are sad testimony to that.

Humanity is too often short-sighted and greedy, and the breed that runs the energy cartels seems capable of a particularly loathsome kind of negligence.

Working to establish internationally enforceable standards for nuclear power and deep-water drilling is not a cure-all, but it would be a step in the smart direction.


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