In some respects the authorities here and in Japan have been completely crazy, not just in the aftermath of this disaster but every day since the dawn of the "peaceful atom" era of the nuclear age. Nuclear power is essentially an elaborate and unlikely way to boil water to turn turbines to create electricity. Its makers must mine, refine, and consolidate huge amounts of one of the deadliest materials on earth, uranium-235 (the less than 1% of naturally occurring uranium with 235 electrons; the leftover 99%, the less radioactive but nevertheless deadly U-238, becomes nuclear waste in the process). That U-235 and the plutonium created from it are dangerous at every stage of the process. In addition, constructing a power plant requires a huge amount of carbon-spewing conventional energy, so there's never been a lot of logic to building them to bridge our move to renewable energy.
The delusional premise behind nuclear energy is that we can create this material and then contain it for the duration of its dangerous phase. For plutonium, that's 24,000 years, or about 15 times as long as something called civilization has existed. For uranium-235, that's 700 million years, a time so vast it's basically forever.
Fifty years into the nuclear age, we've had four major reactor accidents, along with a host of minor ones and leaks and ventings, and we still don't know what to do with the nuclear waste that plants like the ones at Fukushima produce even when no accidents occur. This is the "spent fuel" that the U-235 quickly becomes. It's still intensely radioactive and toxic; it's only "spent" in the sense that it's no longer useful for boiling water in reactors. It's still useful for bombs, dirty or otherwise.
There are better ways to boil water.
The Guardian reports: "The power plant at the center of the biggest civilian nuclear crisis in Japan's history contained far more spent fuel rods than it was designed to store, while its technicians repeatedly failed to carry out mandatory safety checks, according to documents from the reactor's operator."
This news suggests incompetence and untrustworthiness, but most US nuclear power plants also have an overabundance of spent fuel rods in cooling ponds onsite. That's because the only plans for long-term storage of some of the more than 70,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste American nuclear reactors have produced, now heating those ponds, were also crazy. If there's one good, long-term reason to love Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama, it's that they put a stop to a plan to dump some of the stuff in seismically, hydrologically, and volcanically active Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a couple of years ago. Of course if the Republicans have their way, the dump will lurch back from the dead.
So in a disaster, unload the usual clichés and stereotypes. Do your best not to fill up the unknown with fantasy or fear. Don't assume the worst or the best, but keep an alert mind on the actual as it unfolds. Don't take scenarios for realities. Be prepared to reevaluate and change your plans again and again.
Which is to say that disaster is like everyday life, only more so.
Don't bring a lot of fear of the neighbors: if you're not rescuing them, they might be rescuing you, and afterward you may very well be building a community kitchen together in the ruins. In San Francisco, we have a website called 72hours.org, which acknowledges that you're likely to be on your own in a major disaster. There just aren't enough rescue personnel, firefighters, and so forth to respond on the scale such a disaster requires. So help yourself and the people around you.
In preparation, investigate local dangers, whether a refinery, a freight rail line on which toxics roll by, that big earthquake slated to hit New York, a floodplain, or a forest fire, and figure out what to do if the worst happens, since Japan reminds us that sometimes it does. And maybe you can even train your authorities not to panic in disaster and not to treat the rest of us like so many sheep and wolves. Try to ensure that they won't regard a major disaster as a major occasion for law enforcement rather than a time when civil society should pull together. Make sure they won't demonize or victimize the most needy in a crisis, as nonwhite people, undocumented immigrants, the poor, and the left-behind have been many times before.
Get a battery-powered, or better yet, hand-cranked radio and decide which media outlets you trust. Then sift through the news with care, because ordinarily useful news sources, too, fall prey to fear-amplifying rumor and government cover-ups and lies in a crisis. The left-wing media is no exception: I heard a fair amount of nutty nuclear stuff last week.
Learn some science about radiation, especially if you live near a nuclear power plant. And keep in mind that it's better to evacuate unnecessarily than undergo contamination unnecessarily. Don't forget to take Great-Aunt Helen. The triple disaster in Japan has offered countless reminders of just how vulnerable the elderly can be in an emergency.
If you want to do more, look into hazard reduction. This can mean learning how to turn off the gas lines in your home, or preventing a new nuclear power plant from being built in your neighborhood or on your planet. It can mean acknowledging that climate change is bringing us a superabundance of disasters—droughts, floods, heat waves, fires, rising seas, and more—and that we need to be better prepared than ever for calamity, even as we work to minimize the causes of climate change and its impacts.
And keep in mind that disasters start suddenly and end slowly. Some predict it will be five years before Japan recovers from the Sendai quake followed by tsunami followed by nuclear crisis. Remember as well that disasters often lead to permanent change. In that sense they're never over.
The US was permanently changed by 9/11 and Katrina; Ukraine by Chernobyl—or maybe it would be more accurate to say the whole world by Chernobyl. In 2006, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself said, "The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month… was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later."
In the wake of its present disaster, Japan may already be changing, and that may not be a bad thing. In its wake, the future of nuclear power may change, and that might be a very good thing. One thing we know now: we don't know yet.
Writer Rebecca Solnit lives in San Francisco, a city that has never had a major flood, heat wave, blizzard, or terrorist attack, though the panicky US Army did burn down about half the city in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. From 1988 to 2002 she was an antinuclear activist, and her book Savage Dreams is in part about that movement, while her 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster deals with major urban calamities.