Feature

Japan’s crisis: No end in sight

Evidence is strong that at least two reactors have experienced a partial meltdown and that one containment vessel is cracked.

Tokyo Electric Power officials this week admit­ted they were losing their battle to contain the radiation leaks at Japan’s stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Despite frantic efforts by harried technicians, highly radioactive water leaking out of damaged reactors was hampering repair work, and officials said that the crisis could persist for months. Authorities found not only high levels of radiation in seawater near the plant but also plutonium in surrounding soil. Evidence is strong that at least two reactors have experienced a partial meltdown and that one containment vessel is cracked.

The damage poses a dilemma to plant officials and workers, who are still struggling to keep reactors and spent fuel rods from overheating. By spraying, dropping, and pumping in tons of water, they’ve created a new contamination source that spreads radioactivity as it leaks out. In seawater about 1,000 feet from the plant, sensors detected 3,355 times the normal level of iodine-131, a concentration officials contended does not pose a significant threat. Many workers are nearing the cumulative radiation limits set by Japan’s government and will have to be replaced.

The Japanese are “dousing the reactors with hoses as though fighting a fire that could be put out,” said George Johnson in The New York Times. But the partially melted fuel rods cannot be permanently extinguished, and radiation is an insidious force whose “terror lies in the abstraction.” The earthquake and tsunami claimed a finite toll of about 10,000, but radiation claims “victims who do not know who they are.” Here in Japan, “hope has dimmed” as the conversation shifts “from seismic activity to radioactivity,” said J.T. Cassidy in The Baltimore Sun. My neighbors could handle shortages and power outages. But now we learn that the government “has no laws on the books regulating safe radiation levels in food.” Ordinary Japanese can only “look on in apprehension” as foreigners flee their country.

Perhaps this crisis will finally compel Japan to shed its “unquestioning faith in science and technology,” said Janis Mimura in Newsday. For generations, the nation’s leaders have fostered this naïve faith as the ideal way to address problems, giving the Japanese people “a false sense of security.” Now that trust in technology is ebbing, as is public confidence in a government that’s shown its “inability to provide strong leadership” in this still-​unfolding disaster.

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