2011 has not passed quietly. We witnessed massive grass-root protests, a natural disaster and nuclear accident, the end of the Iraq War, and the still-threatening collapse of the Euro. All will continue to transform the political and economic trajectories of their respective regions for years to come. Nevertheless, if the fourth reactor unit of Fukushima collapsed after another earthquake, the radiation from the resulting disaster would affect the people of Tokyo and Yokohama—an impossible evacuation zone—as well as East Asia and the rest of the world. I explain below why I believe this is the most serious issue to respond to as we enter 2012.
The Arab Spring, originating in Tunisia, has spread through Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Iran, and affected almost every country in the North Africa-Middle East region. Young Arabs have turned a new page and erased their negative image that permeated in the West throughout the last decade. Change in these countries will continue to be slow and will not always amount to progress, but we must acknowledge that we are witness to the 21st century revolution. And other protests sparked outside the region: in New York and eventually across the world the Occupy movement protested inequality, while in Russia a new generation voiced its disapproval of political cronyism. Time chose the Protesters for its Person of the Year.
A month after Mubarak stepped down in Egypt an earthquake triggered a tsunami that drowned part of Japan and heavily damaged four reactors in the Fukushima-Daiichi complex. The first three units experienced a core meltdown. In the fourth reactor a hydrogen explosion blew the top off of the containment structure. Storage pools balanced on the second floor of the crippled building contain 1,535 spent fuel rods, all of which are still highly radioactive.
The United States officially left Iraq several weeks ago; the country may lapse into civil war. The many sects of Iraq’s population will continue to disagree and such a young democracy with weak or nonexistent institutions is at great risk of resorting to violence. Afghanistan is still a very weak state as well. A civil war would trigger political instability in Iran and Pakistan and embroil the already volatile region so integral to global security.
The conflict over the Euro has been well documented in 2011. I do not need to reiterate the continent’s financial dilemmas here. Obviously a collapse of the Euro would disrupt the global economy, slowing growth and destabilizing much of the world.
To be sure, these conflicts all threaten to disrupt lives and our society’s futures in different ways. A broken Euro could cause a financial collapse that could crush markets until 2020, and plunge millions back into poverty. A civil war in Iraq or Afghanistan would likely last for decades, while a destabilized region—extending to Iran and Pakistan—could define the first half of the 21st century of global security.
Nevertheless, my biggest lesson from 2011 was to learn that even one mistake from any of the hundreds of nuclear power plants in the world would cause a tremendous human and environmental loss for centuries. If the fourth reactor unit at Fukushima collapses and the radioactive spent fuel pool spills, the magnitude of the disaster would make a financial meltdown seem trivial.
I stress that this disaster scenario is not far-fetched. Both the Japanese and U.S. Geological Survey predict an earthquake will hit Japan within the next year. The fourth reactor will not withstand more damage. 25 years later after the accident at Chernobyl, radiation has still not been contained in the area; experts believe that the fourth reactor, which lacks a containment house and a strong support structure, will have a greater radioactive impact than that disaster.
In the case of the structure collapsing, we will be in a situation well beyond where science has ever gone. The scope of the disaster will be immense. The Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area would become an impossible evacuation zone. The radiation contained in Japan’s reactors is many thousands of times greater than the radiation contained inside even the most potent nuclear weapons and will certainly spread through Japan and neighboring countries. Japanese industries will collapse and endanger the entire economy of Asia. Agricultural production, in Japan and likely in the United States and Canada, will be endangered by high levels of radiation; regulatory agencies may raise the allowable amount of radiation in food. Finally, radiation would alter and damage ecological systems across the world.
Such a scenario would mark a turning point in human history. All of us pray and hope that a strong earthquake will not come for a decade, when the reactors can be repaired, but the calendar of the planet has its own rules under which all human beings and living-beings exist.
I have been pleased to hear that many foreign scientists, including the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have visited Japan to assist with assessment efforts. But while their brief visits helped minimize panic in Japan and in the United States, more serious attention is needed. The Japanese government needs to invite and give full access to an independent assessment team of structural engineers, nuclear scientists, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and geologists to evaluate the stability of the fourth reactor and search for feasible solutions, if any exist. The rods must be kept cooled with constantly circulating water to avoid decay heat, but that option isn’t available in the current situation. The group should be comprised of participants from the United States, Canada, German, France, South Korea, and Russia.
The destiny of Japan’s people and land is at risk, but we all have a stake in finding a workable solution to the problems presented by the damage at Fukushima, especially the precarious state of the fuel pool atop the fourth reactor.