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Opinion: Japan could have avoided this nuclear horror

The evidence against nuclear plants in quake country was there. It was ignored.

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A child holds a sunflower as he joins anti-nuclear power plant demonstrators on April 30, 2011. (Sam Yeh /AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Why did the only country to endure the mass death and radiation of atomic bombs have to experience the worst peacetime nuclear horror?

In Japan, my home country, we have gone from Hiroshima to Fukushima. We have seen the mushroom clouds and the wastelands of 1945 on black-and-white film. And now we have seen, over and over and in full color, the four crippled reactors in Fukushima, an ongoing threat to human life.

More than seven weeks after March 11, the death toll stands at 14,616 with 11,111 still missing. The aftershocks still come. And now even the air is a threat, as radiation continues leaking from the damaged nuclear plants.

My shock on March 11 was shared by the 78,200 residents who lived within 12 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It was shared by 130 million Japanese across the country and hundreds of millions all over the planet.

On our television screens, we have seen survivors too: baffled children, weeping spouses, old women devouring meager rations and sleeping on gymnasium floors — women who were 10 years old in 1945. We have seen farmers from the Fukushima area who have been forbidden to sell their lettuce and spinach, out of fear of radiation.

Fishermen cannot go fishing since high levels of radioactive iodine have been found in fish caught at Ibaragi, halfway between the reactor site and Tokyo. They have done this work for generations. Now, they might never do it again.


The answer is simple: because engineers and executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) — which operates the Fukushima complex — along with bureaucrats and Japanese government officials, ignored history.

Japan is earthquake country.

Since ancient times, we have suffered from large earthquakes and strong tsunamis. Today, along the hundreds of miles of Japan’s coastline, there remain stone markers called tsunami stones. Some are six centuries old, from before Columbus ever saw America. 

History tells us that the threat of quakes and killer waves did not stop in the modern era.

In 1896, the Meiji Sanriku earthquake, magnitude 7.6, struck off the coast of northeast Japan and unleashed a very high tsunami (some records show the highest point at an astonishing 125 feet). The epicenter of that quake was almost the same as the current one. Victims numbered about 27,000.

But even after that disaster, most survivors rebuilt their houses on the same coast line. Some moved even closer to the sea, where so many earned a living.

In 1923, the Kanto earthquake hit Tokyo and the Kanto area. The magnitude was 7.9. Fierce winds drove a firestorm through the city, destroying thousands of houses. When it was over, at least 100,000 were dead.

That year, the coast of northeast Japan went relatively unscathed. Residents, apparently, thought earthquakes were a thing of the past, but 10 years later another one came. The second Sanriku earthquake struck in 1933. The northeast coast was battered hard.

Again, many were killed. And again, thousands of coastal houses were destroyed.

Yet, there was one good thing about those years: no nuclear power plants in Japan. Or anywhere else on the planet. Those extraordinary technologies would come only after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.