Feature

Japan’s trials and tribulations

The official death toll climbed to nearly 9,500, with more than 16,000 people still missing. The government estimated the cost of damages at $309 billion.

Japan struggled this week to care for victims of the tsunami and address its nuclear disaster. Workers made fitful progress toward cooling the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, but tests revealed that tap water in Tokyo, 150 miles to the south, contained more than twice the iodine-131 levels considered safe for infants. Temporary shelters still hold more than 237,000 people, many of them sick. The official death toll from the disaster climbed to nearly 9,500, with more than 16,000 people still missing, and the government estimated the cost of damages at $309 billion, almost four times that of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Technicians at Daiichi reconnected the plant to Japan’s electrical grid, raising hopes that they could soon restore power to vital reactor cooling systems. But that process had to be suspended when steam and smoke began spewing from reactors 2 and 3. Technicians also sought to circulate cool water in pools containing spent fuel rods, which can release dangerous amounts of radiation if the water in the pools holding them boils away.

“Slow-to-arrive, spotty information” from the Japanese government is spreading needless anxiety, said the Portland Oregonian. In events like this, “anything less than real-time transparency” is unacceptable. The information gap is a by-product of Japan’s “plodding, consensus-oriented leadership style,” said The Washington Post. If this crisis doesn’t force the country’s hidebound corporate and political leaders to adapt to 21st-century standards of openness, what will?

“The media’s disproportionate, distorted reporting” also foments needless worry, said Matthew Shaffer in NationalReview.com. Despite the scary headlines, the death toll from radiation, as opposed to the earthquake or the tsunami, will probably be minuscule. In fact, “the most deadly consequence” of the accident could be that it delays “the advancement of nuclear technology.” Curiously, it won’t in Japan, said Gwynne Dyer in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “So long as the problems at Fukushima Daiichi do not kill large numbers of people,” the Japanese will not abandon nuclear power. In the U.S. and Europe, meanwhile, a popular anti-nuclear reaction is underway, even though coal-mining accidents and greenhouse-gas emissions cause thousands more deaths every year. Many forget that even in the grimmest hour, “risks should be assessed rationally, not emotionally.”

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