Despite Accidents, Japan Is Unlikely to Nix Nukes

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Remember the China syndrome? Hardly anyone does, because nuclear meltdown is no longer a major fear in the U.S. But Japan Thursday faced the worst nuclear emergency in its history, after an accident at a fuel processing plant put 14 people in the hospital and forced mass evacuations. Officials said that a nuclear reaction may still be continuing inside the Tokaimura fuel processing plant, which was evacuated after workers saw blue flames rising above a batch of fuel and complained of nausea. Radiation levels 15,000 times higher than normal were reported around the plant, the site of Japan’s previous worst nuclear accident two years ago, when 35 workers were contaminated by an explosion. Local schools were ordered to keep their windows closed, and 300,000 people living in the vicinity were advised to wash off any rain that fell on them.

But incidents that might spark a national panic in the U.S. are unlikely to alter Japan’s pattern of energy use. "The U.S. nuclear industry basically self-destructed under political and economic pressure because it couldn’t run plants safely enough to satisfy the public," says TIME science editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt. "But Japan is unlikely to change course because they’re economically dependent on nuclear power. Generally they’ve made it work for them, but nuclear fuel is dangerous and the price of using it is that there will be accidents every now and again." But a government that plans to supply almost half of the country's energy needs with nuclear power by 2010 may have to do some fast talking. After all, fear of radiation resonates deeply in the land of Godzilla — and Hiroshima.