New Fukushima Report: “Devil’s Chain Reaction” Could Wipe Out Tokyo

Map of the east coast of Japan showing the distance between Tokyo and Fukushima Daiichi, 150 miles to the north.

A new independent report on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear disaster reveals that Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan feared events following the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami would require the evacuation of Tokyo. The report, conducted by the Rebuild Japan Foundation, a new policy organization comprised of college professors, journalists and lawyers, sheds new light on just how in-the-dark many were in the wake of natural disasters that left the Fukushima nuclear facility with damaged safety systems and without internal or external power.

The investigation underscores the conflicting interests of the Japanese government, the directors of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO–Fukushima’s owner and operator), and those on the scene at the crippled nuclear plant. Masataka Shimizu, president of TEPCO, is said to have ordered all of Fukushima Daiichi’s employees to evacuate the facility in the days after March 11, but Daiichi’s plant manager, Massao Yoshida, argued that he could get the damaged reactors under control if he and nuclear workers remained. PM Kan eventually ordered a skeleton crew to stay at the plant, fearing that Fukushima Daiichi, the nearby Fukushima Daini and a third nuclear facility could spiral out of control and start what has been translated as a “devil’s chain reaction” or a “demonic chain reaction” that would necessitate evacuation of the nation’s capital, a city of 13 million people, 150 miles south of Fukushima prefecture.

Given this new window on internal deliberations (far too nice a word–these were likely frantic, heated arguments) in Japan, the decision made by US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko within days of the quake to recommend evacuating American citizens from an area 50 miles around Fukushima seems downright conservative. In recent days, nuclear power proponents have used this action as their latest volley in their ongoing push to oust Jaczko and replace him with a more servile chief regulator.

Interesting, too, the objections of TEPCO’s president to the plan to pour seawater on the melting Fukushima reactors and boiling spent fuel storage pools. This last-gasp measure, apparently the idea of Yoshida, the Daiichi manager, is believed to have somewhat cooled the reactors and at least kept the fuel pools from completely emptying–which would have resulted in a much more serious outcome (hard to believe, but true)–though it should be noted that the radioactive runoff is now contaminating the ground, groundwater, rivers and the ocean around Fukushima. TEPCO brass no doubt did not want to use seawater because its corrosive effects would make it impossible to ever restart any of the Daiichi reactors (again, ridiculous in hindsight, but not hard to imagine inside the profit-above-people distortion bubble that exists at companies like TEPCO). (UPDATE: Japan Times reports Kan was reticent to use anything but fresh water, but Yoshida ignored him and went ahead with the use of seawater.)

Other recent revelations–about how close Fukushima Daini came to a meltdown of its own, about how the Fukushima region is now more seismically unstable, and that the government had dire assessments of the disaster that it worked hard to keep secret–serve to buttress Naoto Kan’s fears that a string of nuclear disasters was a distinct possibility. And it should also serve as a warning that those fears are still a possibility if the region’s nuclear plants–whether or not they are still functioning–are not decommissioned and contained.

And all this information, and the new details on the lack of trust between the Japanese government and TEPCO, also paints a more nuanced–and, honestly, disturbing–picture of the environment in which US officials had to make decisions.

But, perhaps most importantly, this latest report is yet another data point against the absurd assertion that Fukushima Daiichi somehow proves nuclear power’s “defense in depth” safety systems work. The assertion that Fukushima isn’t a massive disaster, just as it stands today, is ridiculous, but reading about the lack of good information in the early days of the crisis, the internal fights and the government’s fears makes it clear that things could have easily been much, much worse. While there are still real concerns about just how much radiation residents throughout Japan will be expected to absorb, and there are still many technical questions that remain unanswered, it now appears that it was only a combination of an occasionally assertive PM, the heroism of about fifty Daiichi workers and maybe some dumb luck that gave the world the relative luxury of calling Fukushima an ever-metastasizing disaster, rather than an almost-instant hell on earth.

Aftershocking: Frontline’s Fukushima Doc a Lazy Apologia for the Nuclear Industry

There is much to say about this week’s Frontline documentary, “Nuclear Aftershocks,” and some of it would even be good. For the casual follower of nuclear news in the ten months since an earthquake and tsunami triggered the massive and ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, it is illuminating to see the wreckage that once was a trio of active nuclear reactors, and the devastation and desolation that has replaced town after town inside the 20-kilometer evacuation zone. And it is eye-opening to experience at ground level the inadequacy of the Indian Point nuclear plant evacuation plan. It is also helpful to learn that citizens in Japan and Germany have seen enough and are demanding their countries phase out nuclear energy.

But if you are only a casual observer of this particular segment of the news, then the Frontline broadcast also left you with a mountain of misinformation and big bowl-full of unquestioned bias.

Take, for example, Frontline correspondent Miles O’Brien’s cavalier treatment of the potential increase in Japanese cancer deaths, courtesy of the former property of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO):

MILES O’BRIEN: When Japanese authorities set radiation levels for evacuation, they were conservative, 20 millisieverts per year. That’s the equivalent of two or three abdominal CAT scans in the same period. I asked Dr. Gen Suzuki about this.

[on camera] So at 20 millisieverts over the course of a long period of time, what is the increased cancer risk?

GEN SUZUKI, Radiation specialist, Nuclear Safety Comm.: Yeah, it’s 0.2— 0.2 percent increase in lifetime.

MILES O’BRIEN: [on camera] 0.2 percent over the course of a lifetime?

GEN SUZUKI: Yeah.

MILES O’BRIEN: So your normal risk of cancer in Japan is?

GEN SUZUKI: Is 30 percent.

MILES O’BRIEN: So what is the increased cancer rate?

GEN SUZUKI: 30.2 percent, so the increment is quite small.

MILES O’BRIEN: And yet the fear is quite high.

GEN SUZUKI: Yes, that’s true.

MILES O’BRIEN: [voice-over] People are even concerned here, in Fukushima City, outside the evacuation zone, where radiation contamination is officially below any danger level.

There was no countervailing opinion offered after this segment–which is kind of disgraceful because there is a myriad of informed, countervailing opinions out there.

Is 20 millisieverts (mSv) a year a conservative limit on exposure? Well, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the average annual dose for those living in the United States is 6.2 mSv, half of which is background, with the other half expected to come from diagnostic medical procedures. And according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the maximum additional dose for an adult before it is considered an “unacceptable risk” is one millisievert per year.

Then, to assess the cancer risk, O’Brien, practically in the same breath, changes exposure over a single year to “over the course of a long period of time”–an inexcusable muddying of the facts. One year for those who must live out their lives in northern Japan might wind up seeming like a long period of time, but it would actually be a small fraction of their lifetimes, and so would present them with only a fraction of their exposure.

So, is Dr. Gen Suzuki assessing the increased cancer risk for 20 mSv over a lifetime, a long time, or just one year? It is hard to say for sure, though, based on his estimates, it seems more like he is using a much longer timeframe than a single year. But even if his estimate really is the total expected increase in cancer deaths from the Fukushima disaster, what is he talking about? Miles O’Brien seems almost incredulous that anyone would be showing concern over a .2 percent increase, but in Japan, a .2 percent increase in cancer deaths means 2,000 more deaths. How many modern nations would find any disaster–natural or manmade–that resulted in 2,000 deaths to be negligible? For that matter, how many of the reporters, producers or crew of Frontline would feel good about rolling the dice and moving their family into an area that expects 2,000 additional fatalities?

Further, the exchange doesn’t say anything about the person who is supposed to casually endure the equivalent of three abdominal CAT scans a year (something no respectable professional would recommend without some very serious cause). The effects of radiation exposure on children are quite a bit different from the effects of the same exposure on adults–and quite a bit more troubling. And young girls are more at risk than young boys. Though the Frontline episode features many pictures of children–for instance, playing little league baseball–it never mentions their higher risks.

Also missing here, any mention that in a country now blanketed north to south in varying levels of radioactive fallout, radiation exposure is not purely external. The estimates discussed above are based on an increase in background radiation, but radioactive isotopes are inhaled with fallout-laden dust and dirt, and consumed with food from contaminated farmlands and fisheries. Outcomes will depend on the isotopes and who consumes them–radioactive Iodine concentrates in the Thyroid and has a half life of a couple of weeks; Cesium 137 tends to gravitate toward muscle and has a half-life of about 30 years. Strontium 90, which concentrates in bones, lasts almost as long. The affect of all of this needs to be factored in to any estimates of post-Fukushima morbidity.

So, as one might imagine, Dr. Suzuki’s cancer estimate, be it from his own deliberate downplay or O’Brien’s sloppy framing, is widely disputed. In fact, a quick survey of the literature might call the estimate in Frontline an absurdly low outlier.

By way of example, take findings compiled by Fairwinds Associates, an engineering and environmental consulting firm often critical of the nuclear industry. Using data from the National Academy of Science’s report on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR), Fairwinds explains that one in every 100 girls will develop cancer for every year they are exposed to that “conservative” 20 mSv of radiation. But Fairwinds believes the BEIR also underestimates the risk. Fairwinds introduces additional analysis to show that “at least one out of every 20 young girls (5%) living in an area where the radiological exposure is 20 millisieverts for five years will develop cancer in their lifetime.”

It should be noted here that five years of 20 mSv per year would equal 100 mSv lifetime exposure–the newly revised lifetime maximum set by Japan after the start of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. And some cities in northern Japan, uncomfortable with this blanket prescription, have set limits for children at one millisievert per year.

None of this information was hard to find, and all of it stems from data provided by large, respected institutions, yet, for some reason, O’Brien and Frontline felt content to let their single source set a tone of “no big deal.” Worried Japanese residents featured just after the interview with Dr. Suzuki are portrayed as broadly irrational, if not borderline hysterical.

The dismissive tenor of the medical segment carries over to several other parts of “Nuclear Aftershocks.” Take Frontline’s assessment of the German reaction to the meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has pledged to entirely phase out their reliance on nuclear power within the next decade. O’Brien call this decision “rash” and “hasty,” and he doesn’t qualify those adjectives as the viewpoint of one expert or another; instead, he uses them matter-of-factly, as if everyone knows that Germany is a nation of jittery, irresponsible children. The political reality–that the German government is actually pursuing a policy that is the will of the people–is treated as some sort of abomination.

Japanese anti-nuclear protestors get similar treatment from Frontline. That large demonstrations like those seen over the last ten months are a rare and special occurrence in Japan is not considered. Instead, the documentary, time and again, hints at a shadowy doomsday somewhere in the near future, a sort of end-of-civilization scenario caused by an almost instant cessation of nuclear power generation. Indeed, as the program ends, O’Brien declares that every nuclear plant in Japan will be shut down by May–and as he says this, the camera peers out the window of a slow-moving elevated train. The view is a darkened Japanese city, and as O’Brien finishes his monologue, the train grinds to a halt.

Ooh, skeddy. Was this Frontline, or Monster Chiller Horror Theater?

Yes, the end seemed that absurd. “Nuclear Aftershocks” paints a picture many members of both the nuclear and fossil fuels lobbies would love to have you believe: a sort of zero-sum, vaguely binary, cake-or-death world where every possible future holds only the oldest, dirtiest and most dangerous options for electrical power generation. You get coal, you get gas, or you get nuclear–make up your mind!

But the show, like the handmaidens of those out-dated technologies, perverts the argument by glossing over the present and omitting choices for the future. As much as many concerned citizens would like to see nuclear power disappear overnight, it will not. Germany is giving itself a decade, the US is looking to run its aging reactors for another twenty years, and even Japan, dream though they might, will likely not decommission every reactor in the next four months. There is a window–big or small depending on your point of view–but a decided period of time to shift energy priorities.

Even the nuclear advocates who appear on Frontline call nuclear power “a bridge”–but if their lobby and their fossil fuel-loving brethren have their way, it will likely be a bridge to nowhere.

“Nuclear Aftershocks” does mention Germany’s increased investment in a wind- and solar-powered future, but the show calls that shift “a bold bet” and “a risk.”

Likely the producers will argue they did not have time for a deeper exploration, but by allowing fissile and fossil fuel advocates to argue that renewables cannot meet “base load” requirements, while failing to discuss recent leaps forward in solar and wind technology, or how well Japan’s wind turbines weathered the Tohoku quake and tsunami–or, for that matter, how much Japanese citizens have been able to reduce their electrical consumption since then through basic conservation–Frontline’s creators are guilty of flat-earth-inspired editing.

Indeed, missing from almost every discussion of the future of power generation is how much we could slow the growth in demand through what is called efficiencies–conservation, passive design, changes in construction techniques, and the replacement and upgrading of an aging electric infrastructure. The Frontline documentary highlights some of the potential risks of an accident at New York’s Indian Point nuclear generating station, but it contrasts that concern with nearby New York City’s unquenchable thirst for electricity. Missing entirely from the discussion: that New York could make up for all of Indian Point’s actual output by conserving a modest amount and replacing the transmission lines that bring hydroelectric power from the north with newer, more efficient cable.

No single solution is a panacea for every region of the globe, but many alternatives need to be on the table, and they certainly ought to be in any discussion about the “aftershocks” of nuclear’s annus horribilis. It should be seen as impossible to evaluate nuclear energy without considering the alternatives–and not just the CO2-creating, hydrofracking alternatives that are the standby bugbear of those infatuated with atomic power. Coal, gas, and nuclear are our links to the past; renewables and increased efficiency are our real bridge to the future. Just as it is dishonest to evaluate the cost of any of the old-school energy technologies without also considering environmental impact and enormous government subsidies–and now, too, the costs of relocating hundreds of thousands or millions of people and treating untold numbers of future health problems–it is also misleading to treat energy funds as permanently allocated to entrenched fuels.

The billions pledged to the nuclear industry by the Obama administration dwarf the budgets and tax incentives for conservation, alternative fuels, and green technology innovation combined. Factor in the government-shouldered costs of cleanup and waste storage, not to mention the sweetheart deals granted to the hydrocarbon crowd, and you could put together a program for next-generation generation that would make the Manhattan Project look like an Our Gang play (“My dad has an old barn!” “My mom can sew curtains!”).

It is a grave disappointment that Frontline couldn’t take the same broad view. The producers will no doubt argue that they could only say so much in 50 minutes, but like Japan, Germany, and the United States, they had choices. For the governments of these industrialized nations, the choices involve their energy futures and the safety of their citizens; for the Frontline crew, their choices can either help or hinder those citizens when they need to make informed choices of their own. For all concerned, the time to make those choices is now.

It is a shame that “Nuclear Aftershocks” instead used its time to run interference for a dirty, dangerous and costly industry.

The Party Line – December 30, 2011: The Party Line, Nuclear Style

As we close out 2011, readers of this space will likely not be surprised to hear the following:

  • The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility continues and continues to poison the planet;
  • Accidents and events at nuclear reactors across the United States continue at a headshaking pace (something goes wrong somewhere pretty much weekly);
  • The nuclear industry continues its full-court press against any new safety rules that might spring from lessons learned from Fukushima or the domestic events;
  • Industry-friendly regulators continue to help slow-walk new rules while also working with allies in Congress to oust the slightly more safety-minded Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair, Gregory Jaczko;
  • Chairman Jaczko continues to hope his faith in a moderate path and a captured regulatory agency will guarantee a safe nuclear future and help save his job; and
  • All of this has happened before.

Last point first: Ryan Grim has a great follow-up on this month’s attempted coup at the NRC–where four commissioners, in coordination with members of congress and nuclear industry lobbyists, have gone public with complaints about the NRC chairman, Greg Jaczko. While the commissioners have stopped short of calling for Jaczko to step down, several GOP congressmen are pressing for just that result.

As Grim reports in the Huffington Post, the effort to oust Jaczko not only continues in the wake of two congressional hearings on the matter, the whole ugly putsch closely resembles moves in the 1990s to discredit another regulation-minded nuclear regulator. And the stories even include some of the same players.

Like with the current “scandal,” the plot is not a simple one to summarize (so please read Grim’s detailed story), but the highlights include a former National Resources Defense Council scientist, Terry Lash, who was appointed by the Clinton administration to run the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy, his deputy, one William Magwood, and a staffer for the very nuke-industry-financed Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) named Alex Flint.

Thanks to an exploited possible gaffe in protocol and the coordinated work of Domenici, Magwood and Flint, Terry Lash was eventually pushed aside. And Magwood would take over the nuclear division at DOE, first as acting director, and then, under George W. Bush, as the office’s permanent head.

And yes, you’ve read two of those names here before. Bill Magwood is a commissioner at the NRC, a former consultant to the nuclear industry, and one of the most vocal critics of Chairman Jaczko. Alex Flint has run through the classic DC regulatory revolving door, moving between Senate staffer, nuclear industry lobbyist and back, most recently settling in as the top lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry’s largest trade association.

The story is as troubling as it is tired. A government agency manipulated by the industry it is supposed to regulate. An industry, protected by bought politicians, avoids accountability while profiting from government largess. Some of that profit is then turned around to lobby and buy another administration’s worth of officials.

And an agency chief who is maybe too slow to realize that the industry and its surrogates will work relentlessly to undermine him and the regulatory body he tries to command.

The lessons here seem obvious and familiar. . . and yet they seem to be lost on so many.

It has been all-too-rare to see broad coverage of the US nuclear industry in the establishment press, yet, during the first week of December, nearly every news organ was Johnny-on-the-spot, repeating the industry storyline. Gregory Jaczko, it seems, was a temperamental leader, so difficult to work with that the NRC’s mission had been compromised.

Beyond the unremarked upon humor inherent in seeing Republican Senators and Representatives suddenly so concerned with nuclear safety, Jaczko himself provided under-reported frame-relief by proving so difficult to work with that he was able to secure the NRC’s unanimous approval of the new Westinghouse AP1000 reactor (despite some very serious concerns about that design and no financial support for construction without billions in federal loan guarantees). And the rest of the commission was able to out-vote Jaczko, four to one, to fast-track the construction and licensing of the new reactors, slated for plants in Georgia and South Carolina.

But perhaps most remarkable is that despite the industry push-back and power-politics, Jaczko still seems to think and act as if nuclear power can be regulated to a safe and prosperous future. The viciousness of the industry attacks and the seriousness of the events of nuclear’s annus horribilis should really disabuse him of that notion.

And the horrible year is not yet over. The last two weeks have seen the first of the debris from the Japanese tsunami hitting US shores, Pacific seals being tested after showing up in Alaska with skin lesions and other symptoms consistent with radiation poisoning, and a report from the International Journal of Health Services linking some 14,000 excess deaths in the US to the fallout from the Fukushima reactors.

Then there is the Japanese interim report on their nuclear disaster describing a regulatory agency unable and unwilling to take control of the crisis. There is the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) contention that they are not legally responsible for fallout once it lands on someone else’s property. And here in the United States, there was a valve leak at Mass Pilgrim, a condenser leak at New York’s Fitzpatrick plant, and an event at Vermont Yankee where both of the cooling system’s backup power generators were offline at the same time.

Still, the nuclear industry pushes the notion of an impending nuclear renaissance. It wasn’t true before Fukushima, and it certainly isn’t true after, but with even their supposed nemesis on the NRC helping them build new reactors and relicense old ones, why not keep working the system?

As noted here (but few other places), the December hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that was so dominated by the Jaczko cause célèbre was originally scheduled months earlier to track the progress of recommendations from the Fukushima taskforce. An August admonition from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) seemed to move the commissioners to put some of the recommendations on what passes for a fast track at the NRC, but even that has now been reversed by a majority of commissioners who voted themselves the ability to reject the very rules they previously ordered up. But all the attention in oversight hearings has been focused on Jaczko and his management style–learning the lessons of Fukushima and how that might improve US nuclear safety has been less than a footnote.

So, though Jaczko continues in his job with the public support of the White House, the nation’s regulatory agenda has already been altered. The nuclear industry may not yet have their head, but they’ve demonstrated they own the body.

And now a new year is upon us. The flip of the calendar will not wrap up the Fukushima disaster any more than it will end the parade of lesser events at American nuclear facilities. The nuclear industry will not decide to embrace safety upgrades and stricter regulation any more than the financial community will embrace nuclear power as a good risk. And no matter how many moves Gregory Jaczko makes in the direction of Bill Magwood or his industry masters, neither will ever like him. . . or consider calling off their well-practiced campaign to oust him.

Happy New Year.

The Party Line – August 19, 2011: Japan Nuclear Crisis Continues, Highlighting More Potential Dangers in US

Imagine, if you will, living somewhat close to a nuclear reactor—not right next door, but close enough—and then imagine that an accident at that reactor causes a large release of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere. Certainly scary, but maybe less scary because you know your government has computer models that show where the nuclear fallout will blow and fall, and they explain that the amounts that will blow and fall on you are negligible.

Sure, you might think twice about that reassurance, but it is not like they are saying everything is OK. The government, after all, did evacuate some people based on their fallout models. . . so they are on top of it.

Then imagine five months later, after you’ve breathed the air, drank the water, and tramped dirt and snow in and around your home, the government reveals that even though they had the models, and even though they knew the amounts of radioactivity pouring into the atmosphere from the damaged nuclear plant, they didn’t input the known amounts into the fallout model, so that when the government was reassuring people, it was doing so based on a minimum measurable number used to build the model, and not the actual amounts then being released. So, now, you find that not only have you been living in a place that was well within a zone now littered with hazardous fallout, you find that many who were evacuated were moved directly into the path of that radioactive plume.

While you’re at it, imagine that you’ve been eating contaminated beef, because the government failed to stop the distribution of radioactive rice straw. And, also, imagine you’ve been drinking tea containing three times the allowable limit of radioactive cesium because the government didn’t think they needed to monitor tea that was grown over 100 miles from the failed reactor.

Imagine, too, that your children are safe because the amount of ionizing radiation they are exposed to is under the government’s annual limit. . . because the government just increased the allowable annual limit twenty-fold, from one millisievert to 20 mSv.

Of course, as I am sure you have already surmised, if you live in many parts of Northern Japan, you don’t have to imagine any of this—this is your everyday reality.

This rather terrifying reality really isn’t limited to Northern Japan, however. Yes, that region has suffered the worst of the triple play that was a massive earthquake, a tsunami, and reactor meltdowns, but the contaminated food has been found all over Japan (and now there is word that tuna is also showing evidence of contamination), and in Tokyo, outside the evacuation zone and even the worst of the newly revealed plume models, a rainstorm ten days after the earthquake increased levels of background radiation in the city, and they have remained high ever since.

A professor at Tokyo University recently made a speech before the Japanese Diet in which he compared levels of contamination and exposure from the Fukushima disaster to that from the atomic blast at Hiroshima—the current crisis being upwards of twenty times worse.

More troubling still—for the Japanese, and anyone, frankly, that shares a jet stream with them—the last couple of weeks have seen evidence of a fourth meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi facility, and, perhaps even more disturbing, news of highly radioactive steam emerging from cracks in the ground around the reactor buildings. What makes that last point especially scary is that some believe this is evidence that the “corium” (the molten mess of fissile material that was once fuel rods inside of a reactor) has not only melted through the bottom of the containment vessel, but has started to burn through the concrete floor of the complex and is sinking toward the water table. (Images of Jane Fonda and Jack Lemon make this seem less serious to me, but you will hear others talk of this and reference The China Syndrome.) A constant leaking of a sort of radioactive smog is bad enough—it makes working on the cleanup go from ridiculously difficult to nearly impossible—but the bigger concern is an interaction between the corium and the groundwater that separates the hydrogen from the oxygen, causing a big explosion, sending more contaminants up into the atmosphere.

Such a scenario also sets up another imagination exercise: try to imagine just what effect this development will have on the already dubious plan to cover the breached reactor buildings with giant tarps. That’s one you will still have to imagine, because, as yet, there is no reported adjustment in the containment and cleanup plan from the Japanese government.

Of course, as terrible as this all is, it seems terribly removed from what should concern inhabitants of the mainland United States. After all, the US has not suffered this nuclear accident, it has no issues with leaking radioactive isotopes, America is a much larger and less densely populated country than Japan, and, after all, the dual disaster that caused the Fukushima reactors to meltdown is near to completely impossible for almost any of the reactors based in the US.

Except that none of that is true.

Though none have yet risen to the size and scope of the Fukushima disaster, the US has a long history of nuclear accidents. Some are of the instantaneous crisis variety, like Three Mile Island (to name only the most obvious of several), but many are of the slowly evolved, quietly revealed variety. For instance, just this week, health officials announced that radioactive tritium released from aging pipes at the Vermont Yankee nuclear facility had leached into the soil and has now been detected in the Connecticut River. In past years, strontium contamination had also been linked to the same plant. Vermont Yankee officials, now lobbying for a license renewal, have basically responded with “Pipes? What pipes?” and “Those are not our isotopes.”

And Vermont Yankee is just one of a long list of aging nuclear facilities built dangerously close to population centers. One third of Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor.

Feeling eerily similar to the Japanese response, the US government has met elevated readings of background radiation and radioactive isotopes triggered by the fallout from Fukushima with a decrease in the reporting of such data (and in some cases, an actual decrease in data collected). There is talk (behind closed doors, of course) of revising upward the acceptable amounts of radioactive contamination in certain foods. An AP report exposed a history of US government regulators working closely with the nuclear industry to weaken safety requirements and paper-over violations. And, even a series of relatively modest recommendations on how to enhance nuclear safety based on what has been observed in Japan is being slow-walked into non-implementation.

And maybe most disturbing of all, the very premise that is supposed to comfort us, that the meltdowns in Japan were the result of a catastrophic coincidence of events—an earthquake shutting off electricity to the plant, a tsunami knocking out the diesel back-up generators, thus leaving the facility with no way of powering the cooling systems—while already not wholly impossible in the United States, might turn out to be seriously flawed and overly optimistic. Evidence is beginning to emerge that some of the Fukushima meltdowns might have begun almost immediately after the earthquake, likely the result of multiple ruptures to the cooling system itself caused not by the tsunami, but by the tremor. In other words, even with full power to the plant, the cooling systems would have failed.

Reports right after the March earthquake in Japan found a disturbing number of US nuclear plants in active seismic zones, and found several near large population centers in the east to be even more vulnerable to earthquake damage than the two oft-cited California facilities. But here’s the clincher, those probabilities of whether a nuclear plant can survive an earthquake of a size likely to occur in a particular area are calculated on whether the tremor will damage the reactor core—those numbers do not factor in damage to the cooling system as the cause of a crisis.

How does the US government assess risk if a double whammy is not necessary? How does the NRC rate a facility if a breach of the containment vessel is not required to start a meltdown (or an explosion in an overheated spent fuel pool, for that matter)? As best I can tell, it doesn’t.

Imagination, as the song says, is funny. It makes a cloudy day sunny. It makes a bee think of honey. . . but it doesn’t cover-up reality when a real-world disaster continues to provide measurable data and cause considerable suffering. Governments on both sides of the Pacific might want to pretend that what we don’t know won’t hurt us, but the facts will prove that whether we know or not, the pain—both physical and economic—will be felt far and wide.

(A version of this post also appears at Firedoglake.)