[Viewpoint] When technology lets us down

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[Viewpoint] When technology lets us down

A little more than 32 years ago, on March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island accident occurred in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Two days before the anniversary, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) released an environmental impact review that approved two nuclear reactors to be built in the United States, the first since the Three Mile Island accident.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan was severely damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The release of radioactivity continues, and the shock of the accident is not likely to subside soon. People have fled the area and become wary of the food produced nearby.

While authorities repeatedly say there has been, so far, little impact on human health, people are not reassured.

Last Thursday, when parents in Tokyo were warned against giving tap water to their children, I visited several convenience stores in the Higashi-ginza neighborhood of downtown Tokyo. Bottled water was long sold out, and canned beer was also scarce. It was hard to sense much anxiety over the frequent aftershocks, which are at least felt. Radioactivity, which is invisible and is only detectable with special devices, is the enigmatic enemy that all of Japan has come to fear.

Two weeks after the devastating earthquake, the intangible aftershocks just keep on coming. The authorities keep employing the expression “beyond expectations” to justify their inability to control the situation. But it’s hard not to conclude that they took the disaster too lightly, and their “expectations” were what the man on the street calls wishful thinking.

The tsunami caused far more damage than the earthquake. However, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) had prepared for a 5.4 meter (17.7 foot) tsunami at its Fukushima plant. That was well below the 9.1 meter tsunami that the Tohoku Electric Power Co. had prepared for at its Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant.

Were there precedents for the great quake and tsunami of 2011? In the 9th and 16th centuries, there were records of tsunamis on a similar scale. Only half a century ago, a great tsunami hit Japan following an earthquake in Chile.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant runs some of the earliest nuclear reactors in the world. There has been considerable technological advances for plants to survive earthquakes and tsunamis, but it’s unclear if all the newer technologies were retrofitted into the Fukushima plant. The need to add earthquake-resistant features was raised over 20 years ago, but the industry expressed concern about the costs. It was only five years ago that the Fukushima plant received a full refurbishment.

The problem was the excessive confidence Japan had in its technology. Atsushi Kasai is one of Japan’s nuclear energy pioneers, a former laboratory chief at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency. In an interview with Asahi Shimbun, the nuclear expert expressed regrets and a sense of responsibility for the lack of wisdom of young researchers.

“The younger generation appeared to believe that nuclear accidents cannot occur,” he said. Young researchers believed that “such a situation was ‘impossible’ and appeared confident that Japanese technology ranked at the top in the world,” he said.

Tepco’s early responses may be a result of such beliefs. Immediately after the accident, the United States offered to provide technical assistance, but Tepco turned it down, insisting that it could resolve the situation on its own. When it was inevitable that seawater would have to be used to cool the reactors, which would render them useless in the future, it dillydallied for 30 crucial hours, making everything worse. A nuclear safety investigator predicted a meltdown, but emergency steps were delayed because Prime Minister Naoto Kan was visiting the site by helicopter.

We need to pay attention to the fact that there has been little discussion of giving up on nuclear energy altogether. Civic groups held a rally in downtown Tokyo demanding a suspension of the country’s nuclear energy program, but it is hardly a mainstream opinion.

The Japanese certainly understand the risks of nuclear accidents but are not openly against nuclear energy for very pragmatic reasons. It is a matter of choice between indefinite anxiety and the awful idea of losing a lifestyle made possible by abundant power.

Also, global warming from carbon dioxide emissions is a major challenge for our planet’s future, and thermal power stations using fossil fuels cannot be our sole source of electricity. Energy conservation is an obvious solution, but we need to ask ourselves how far we are willing to go. It won’t be easy to give up a lifestyle we have grown accustomed to.

As for solar power, wind, tidal motion and geothermal heat, it will take at least two to three decades for them to become major energy sources. We need to focus on the safety of nuclear power plants rather than question the need for nuclear energy.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Tae-wook
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