Lessons learned from Japan’s nuclear accident 

As we watch the heartbreaking coverage of the Japan nuclear crisis, we Americans are doing what we always do — searching for lessons that apply to us.

Thus far in this unfolding tragedy, on the heels of the earthquake and the tsunami, we have to decide what we’re going to do about nuclear power in this country. But the Japanese situation also shows us what happens when the central government is not honest with its citizens.

As a reporter who wrote about the nuclear disasters at Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl (and who visited both sites), I fully appreciate how frightening and deadly radiation can be. Also, our Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a history of being too close to industry and too undemanding when problems, such as two near-catastrophes at the Davis-Besse light water nuclear reactor in Ohio, came to light.

I also am convinced that nuclear reactors are far safer than they used to be, and that the environmental costs of coal and oil have to be countered with new nuclear plants, carefully regulated. There simply must be more technological research and development in this country.

There also must be more factual analysis and less hysteria when it comes to nuclear power and nuclear waste. (A New York newspaper irresponsibly used the scare headline “Panic!”)

President Barack Obama said the nuclear situation in Japan poses substantial risk to people in a 50-mile radius of the four reactors — meaning hundreds of thousands of people. But he stressed there is no expectation of harmful levels of radiation anywhere in the United States, including territories in the Pacific. (Do not start popping tablets of potassium iodide, folks.)

The 104 U.S. nuclear reactors, including the 23 that are similar to the four damaged Japanese reactors, are safe, the president reassures us. If that turns out not to be true, he will suffer greatly.

Our government is vastly superior to Japan’s government when it comes to telling citizens what is going on; it fell to U.S. nuclear experts to tell the world that the Japanese situation is more dire than its government acknowledged. Japan said its people were safe beyond a 12-mile radius of the nuclear plant.

The appearance of the Japanese emperor on television was so rare and so jarring that it caused great consternation. Rare TV appearances by our chief executive are not something we have to face.

Obama rightly emphasized our heartbreak for Japan and our strong alliance with the Japanese people. He noted that Americans are doing everything in our power to help Japan’s citizens. How wonderful that arch enemies of 70 years ago are good friends now — and what an indictment of the futility of war!

It is awe-inspiring to encounter the heroism and bravery of the reactor employees who are working desperately to prevent total meltdowns. It is also inspiring that the Japanese people have not panicked in a period of great turbulence and uncertainty, a testament to their calm nature.

It is disconcerting that Japanese citizens are not as concerned as the rest of the world that the utility company did not give a lot of information to its people. It is also worrisome that the Japanese government was reluctant for so long to seek international help for its nuclear crisis as well as humanitarian aid for its people.

We are left to wonder how we Americans would react in a similar situation. We have lost so much confidence in our political leaders that it is highly likely that Americans would be so angry they would not follow directions and would not believe whatever authorities told them.

So, lessons learned: 1. Cataclysms of nature happen. But it is alarming that we are so skeptical of our elected officials and so cynical that we do not trust them even in an emergency. 2. Investing in the future by funding research and development in our infrastructure is vital. 3. When government is not forthcoming, everyone suffers.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

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