Deciphering the Lessons of Fukushima

Domenica asked author Fred Bortz for his thoughts on the one-year anniversary of the nuclear and natural disasters in Japan, which he discusses in his new TFCB title Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future (interior spread above; cover below). Here’s what he has to share with our readers.


A year ago yesterday, Japan experienced its most powerful earthquake on record. Then came the tsunami. All along the northeastern coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu, people fled to higher ground and watched helplessly as a huge wave roared ashore from the Pacific. Reaching a height of up to 128 feet in some narrow inlets, it swept buildings from their foundation and carried cars and trucks like bath toys in rivers of trash.

Like most Americans, I gasped as I watched videos of the devastation and compared it in my mind to the scenes after the 2005 Aceh tsunami in Indonesia. I knew the death toll would be high–it eventually reached about 23,000–but because of Japan’s legendary preparedness, I correctly anticipated it to be relatively small in comparison to the 300,000 fatalities in Aceh and a similar number in the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

But before I or anyone else had time to digest the initial casualty reports, a much more alarming piece of news came across the wire. The tsunami had washed away the backup generators that were supposed to maintain the flow of cooling water through the cores of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano attempted to calm an anxious populace. “We have declared a nuclear emergency state to take every possible precaution,” he told a press conference. “There is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak.”

He could not have been more wrong. One reactor was already in the early stages of a core meltdown, and two others would soon follow. The world was no longer comparing the event to Aceh and Haiti. Now two other locations came to mind, the sites of two previous meltdowns, Three Mile Island (TMI) in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986.

Having lived through those events at a safe distance–though at 200 miles from TMI, I recall a few twinges of concern–and having written about them in 1995 in my third book, Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure–and Success (W. H. Freeman, Scientific American Books for Young Readers), I knew what would follow in press reports and on talk shows, the web, and social media. We would all have to endure shrill calls from instant experts on one side to shut down all nuclear power plants around the world, and equally strident claims from equally instant experts on the other side that nuclear plants were safe and that Fukushima was an aberration.

I also knew that eventually the din would subside and new evidence would emerge, but the argument would remain unsettled. Difficult political choices will face future voters and policy makers for decades. And who are those voters and policy makers? They are today’s young readers–my audience.

They are the ones who will be charged with deciphering the lessons of Fukushima and applying them in a political and societal environment that is likely to be very different from today. I knew I couldn’t tell them what decisions to make about nuclear power in the future, but I knew I could give them tools that will enable them to make those decisions wisely. I couldn’t give them answers, but I could enable them to ask the most important questions.

And so within a few days of the meltdowns, I had a book proposal called “Lessons from Fukushima” ready to submit. Twenty-First Century Books promptly accepted it and put it on the fast track. Six months after parts of the island of Honshu lurched eight feet towards North America, we were busy polishing the manuscript and selecting illustrations for Meltdown!.

Over the next three months as the final layout took shape, we refined the text to reflect the latest developments and strategized about complementary Lerner eSource materials and information at my personal website. The book rolled off the presses in time to ring in 2012.

I’ve never had a project come to fruition faster than this one, nor have I ever felt more positive that my work will make an important impact for my young readers today and in the years ahead. I hope you read it and agree.