Before the devastating magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, its epicenter of Sendai was at the middle of another gripping event that rocked the nation. At the center of that story, which dominated headlines for weeks, was a 19-year-old native of the area caught cheating on his university entrance exam. The breach prompted a massive response from authorities who remanded the young man to the custody of the Kyoto prefectural family court some 400 miles away from his hometown where he awaits trial to this day. Japanese officials behind the arrest saw it as the ounce of prevention that would save them from applying a pound of cure to fix the cracks in their exam-driven educational system. Others viewed the punishment as being so heavy-handed that it tipped the scales of justice. This was just a kid who made an all too human mistake. Sure the authorities overreacted, but the young man's arrest and transport via helicopter safely away from the tsunami's kill zone may have actually spared his life.
Had Japanese government authorities reacted to the breach at the Fukushima nuclear power plant with equal zeal, we might not be looking down the barrel of a melting nuclear core today. In the critical early hours of the disaster, the power plant's owner, TEPCO, chose to save its corporate assets at the expense of everyone and everything else. Instead of moving right away to cool the reactor with seawater, it waited for hours in fear that the saltwater would ruin the precious equipment they had invested in. Since then it's been a chain reaction of tragic errors that should have prompted the government of Prime Minister Kan to sideline the private power company and take command. Unfortunately fear of political fallout in upcoming elections that could result from taking charge of this nuclear nightmare has rendered the government as useless as the damaged reactors themselves.
While the word "Fukushima" is fast becoming a synonym for "too little, too late," maybe part of the solution to this major problem lies in previous lessons from Sendai. The Japanese government should at least apply the same standard to its nuclear power industry that it uses for would-be college kids caught sneaking a peak at their partner's test paper. If this were an exam, both TEPCO and the government would surely be called out for cheating the public of safeguards that should go well beyond seawalls. The scary thing is this is not a test. When you mix radioactivity with mammoth tidal waves and earth shattering quakes, an ounce of prevention just doesn't measure up to the task at hand. It's time to apply a pound of cure to nuclear power stations before the cancer they've spread over the years grows. It's time to lock them down, because like that poor kid from Sendai, it may just spare our lives.
As Japan rises from the rubble left behind in the wake of the obliterating wave that wiped away entire cities and towns along the northeastern coast of the country, there are signs of hope shining through the despair. The question is will Japan choose to build on that hope and forge a future driven by viable alternative energy resources, including self-sufficient smart homes and more? That would be a choice we could all live with.
The writer lives about 165 miles downwind of the TEPCO Fukushima Daichi Power Station.
Related article by this author:
Lingering Fear in a Shaken Country (Baltimore Sun)
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