The day after the disastrous level-nine earthquake that triggered the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear crisis, March 12, an Israeli expert on air quality and poisoning, Professor Menachem Luria, told Israeli Channel 2: “From what we can gather, this disaster is even more dangerous than Chernobyl.”
At the time, his was a minority opinion in the scientific community; very few believed that a nuclear accident as bad as the 1986 meltdown in Ukraine would occur again. “I think that’s basically impossible,” said James Stubbins, an expert at the University of Illinois, and many others agreed.
Yet, as we are now slowly coming to realize, Fukushima is worse than Chernobyl. In a revealing recent feature article published by al-Jazeera, Dahr Jamail conveys the comments of Arnold Gundersen, a senior former nuclear industry executive in the United States.
- “Fukushima is the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind,” Gundersen asserts. “We have 20 nuclear cores exposed, the fuel pools have several cores each, that is 20 times the potential to be released than Chernobyl … The data I’m seeing shows that we are finding hot spots further away than we had from Chernobyl, and the amount of radiation in many of them was the amount that caused areas to be declared no-man’s-land for Chernobyl. We are seeing square kilometers being found 60 to 70 kilometers away from the reactor. You can’t clean all this up.”
The Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), the operator of the crippled plant, now grudgingly acknowledge that their timeline for bringing the situation under control, by the end of the year, “may be” unrealistic. They also acknowledge that Fukushima has “probably” released more radiation than Chernobyl. Both have come under strong criticism in the past for withholding information and releasing overly optimistic estimates.
Yet even scientists working at the plant apparently have trouble comprehending the severity of the crisis. Last week, they attempted to install a filtration system to decontaminate and recycle the vast amounts of highly radioactive water accumulated as a result of the continuous efforts to cool the reactors. Fukushima is running dangerously low on storage capacities for the used water. However, the system jammed after just five hours of operation.
- “The company said that the sprawling system, which is designed to siphon oil, radioactive materials and salt from the water used to cool the reactors, was shut down because of readings that indicated one of the filters had filled up with radioactive cesium,” The New York Times writes. “The rapid depletion of a filter that was supposed to have lasted several weeks suggested the presence of far greater radioactive material than anticipated.” 
According to another New York Times report, the Japanese government was initially in complete disarray over the crisis, issuing contradictory orders and finding itself unable to make use of available resources. Coordination with Tepco, which was in a state of panic itself, faltered. The plant manager likely prevented a greater calamity by disobeying an order to stop using sea water to cool the reactors.
- “We found ourselves in a downward spiral, which hurt relations with the United States,” a close aide to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan told The New York Times. “We lost credibility with America, and Tepco lost credibility with us.” 
Reportedly, American pressure for more information and concerted action eventually helped jerk the Japanese authorities from their shock. This narrative carries the seeds of another narrative which most of us would very much like to believe: a story of international cooperation and the coming together of the world’s finest technological achievements to combat a natural disaster.
Yet American officials were also caught unprepared. Most continue to deny outright that the radioactive pollution will have a palpable effect on the United States. Recent reports, however, indicate that infant mortality rates in eight major cities in the northwestern United States, where the fallout was greatest, jumped 35% in the four weeks following the accident. This is consistent with the biological effects of radiation. 
Previous reports have indicated the presence of radioactive particles in rainwater as far east as Massachusetts, and in milk and other products throughout the country. The American authorities, as indeed most authorities in the world, appear to be in denial. Many important reports continue to be classified, and there is a sense that governments are lying to their people for lack of a better response.
In all likelihood, the scope of the disaster continues to evade us. There is little doubt that “the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind” will force us to learn painful lessons, and that we are only just beginning to grapple with its meaning.
Some of the consequences are fairly mundane, if hard to pinpoint very precisely yet, in that they are economic and technical. The nuclear industry will be doing some major soul-searching, and seems set for a period of decline; numerous countries are already reconsidering their reliance on nuclear plants. The global economy will face reshuffles, as will the global energy market.
It has the potential, however, to go much deeper than that, shaking the very foundations of our sense of collective security. Certainly if some of the worst-case predictions materialize, and a sizeable part of Japan turns into a nuclear desert, we’ll face urgent questions about where we are heading as a species; this may happen even in a more optimistic scenario.
It is possible, for example, that people’s trust in the state system will be shaken, and on many levels. This is not to say that the predominant current form of political and social organization will disappear, at least in the near future. But it has been under stress for quite some time now, and this disaster seems capable of bringing the existing stresses into public attention; so far they have been mostly confined to academic discourse.
A few leading anthropologists and political theorists have concluded that the current state system (whose origins arguably lie in the distant 1648 when the treaty of Westphalia was signed) is obsolete, and that it is incapable of adjusting to the ever more fluid borders and rapid rates of communication that come with globalization. Their argument is that new types of organizations, some criminal while others representing legitimate economic, political, and other interests, will rise up to challenge the national state; we have started to see some of this in the proliferation of multinational corporations, international political organizations, and international crime networks of the last decades.
But while these former developments draw on the positive aspects of globalization – the availability of new resources to which new types of structures are better adapted – there is also a darker side. It is visible in Fukushima. The new possibilities have led to the manufacture of technology that is too powerful to control; its effects cannot be confined to national borders – and what better example than Japan of the fact that, to paraphrase John Donne, no society is an island nowadays.
Add to this that increased global interdependence comes with increased global vulnerability to crises in distant parts of the world, and we have a situation where our sense of security is not guaranteed any more.
The concept of the state, in a sense, offers a counter-balance to all these powerful and often blind forces, a regulatory mechanism that we like to believe works well and in the public interest.
This is part of why the scale of the Fukushima disaster is so hard to grasp, both for experts and for lay people. In the face of the increased vulnerability of modern societies, we desperately need something that gives us a sense of security. What better safeguards than progress, technology, and order, exemplified by the spectacular ability of nation states, separately and in concert, to mobilize unprecedented resources to achieve an urgent goal? And where a more safe expectation for all these forces to produce the desired effect than in Japan, one of the top industrialized world economies and a paradigm of social cohesion and discipline?
In many ways, Fukushima is the perfect paradigm for the failure of our source of security at its finest. The confusion and panic of the government and industry officials in the wake of the disaster should humble us all. So should our face to face encounter with our limitations, and the contrast with how we like to imagine ourselves.
In some of our most popular science-fiction narratives, the best astronauts of the leading world powers destroy asteroids that threaten the Earth with nuclear weapons (Armageddon grossed over half a billion dollars, attesting to our eagerness to consume the images; suffice it to mention that early on in the Fukushima crisis, some observers suggested nuking the reactors).  Yet in reality, we can’t deal with a sizeable pile of radioactive waste, even long after the chain reaction has stopped.
Gundersen’s conclusions speak loudly: “Somehow, robotically, they will have to go in there and manage to put it in a container and store it for infinity, and that technology doesn’t exist. Nobody knows how to pick up the molten core from the floor, there is no solution available now for picking that up from the floor.”
So do those of Dr Sawada, another scientist interviewed by Dahr Jamail: “Until we know how to safely dispose of the radioactive materials generated by nuclear plants, we should postpone these activities so as not to cause further harm to future generations.”
Fukushima is worse than what we are being told. There is no doubt about that. How bad exactly it is may not become clear for years. Debates about its meaning are likely to stretch much longer. The crisis brings some fundamental questions about our system of social organization to the fore, and the answers may influence what the world looks like in the future.
1. Fukushima: It’s much worse than you think, al-Jazeera, 16 June 2011.
2. Tepco Halts Filtering of Tainted Water at Japanese Plant, , The New York Times, 18 June 2011.
3. In Nuclear Crisis, Crippling Mistrust,, The New York Times, 12 June 2011.
4. Is the Dramatic Increase in Baby Deaths in the US a Result of Fukushima Fallout? , 10-12 June 2011.
5. When The Fukushima Meltdown Hits Groundwater, , Rense, 27 March 2011.
Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.
Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.