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Two Meltdowns: Fukushima and the US Economy

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More than a year after a tsunami swamped the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plants, the radiation peril continues -- reactor 4 is teetering on the edge of collapse, which would force the evacuation of one-third of Japan's population. The meltdown at Fukushima parallels the meltdown of the US economy.

On March 11, 2011, Japan experienced a 9.0 earthquake. The six nuclear plants at Fukushima -- about 136 miles north of Tokyo -- survived the quake but were swamped by a 45-foot wave that overwhelmed the 19-foot seawalls. Fukushima units 5 and 6 were in cold shutdown for maintenance and Unit 4 had been deactivated. Units 1,2, and 3 lost power and were unable to cool down properly; they experienced full meltdown. This was a catastrophe but there was a robust containment system that minimized the spread of contamination.

As part of the maintenance process, the 1535 fuel rods in Fukushima reactor 4 had been removed and placed in a pool of water outside the containment system. The aftermath of the tsunami severely damaged the building. This April, Senator Ron Wyden toured Fukushima and warned that another big earthquake could further damage unit 4, producing "an even greater release of radiation than the initial accident." (Since March 11, more than 1000 significant earthquakes have struck Japan.) In January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan warned of the possibility of a nuclear disaster and said that a meltdown at unit 4 would force the evacuation of Tokyo and close half of Japan. (On April 15th, the European Union Times reported that the Japanese government had engaged with in discussions with China and Russia about the migration of 40 million Japanese because of the "extreme danger of life threatening radiation poisoning.")

The United States is not facing a nuclear crisis, but we are struggling with an economic crisis. The meltdown at Fukushima helps clarify our own meltdown.

The saga of Fukushima-Daiichi follows the famous arc of the failed project: unwarranted enthusiasm followed by unmitigated disaster and then random retribution (search for the guilty, punishment of the innocent, and promotion of the uninvolved).

After the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese were not enthusiastic about nuclear power. As chronicled by New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, the United States decided to convince Japan to build a nuclear power plant. After a twenty-year campaign, public attitude shifted and nuclear power was embraced as "the fire of hope in the twenty-first century." Japan powered up Fukushima unit 1 on October 10, 1970, and built 53 more reactors. An atomic cult assured citizens that nuclear power was safe. Enos observed, "The myth of total safety went beyond public relations and degraded the [nuclear] industry's technical competence."

After the Great Depression, Americans were not enthusiastic about going into debt or giving too much power to the financial sector. Beginning in 1980, President Reagan convinced Americans that we did not have to sacrifice in order to have a good life and we began to believe we could borrow our way to riches. Reagan also convinced Americans there was no need for financial regulations and one-by-one all the depression-era safeguards were eliminated. An economic cult, the Chicago School of Economics promoted deregulation by arguing that markets were inherently self-regulating and no matter how severe the setback, markets would quickly return to equilibrium.

In both cases, unwarranted enthusiasm led to unmitigated disaster. Fukushima-Daiichi was a level 7 nuclear event -- the most serious since 1986's Chernobyl meltdown and potentially the most serious in history.

The US economic disaster began in 2000, with a housing bubble where prices increased astronomically and millions of investors rushed into the market. In 2007, the bubble burst as prices plummeted and investors defaulted. On September 15, 2008, the Lehman Brothers investment bank filed for bankruptcy, causing a global financial panic. On September 18th, the Bush Administration presented an outline of a bank bailout plan to Congressional leaders, but the damage had been done: the US economy had experienced a meltdown.

In both cases, unmitigated disaster was followed by random retribution and little change. The Japanese government consistently understated the gravity of the situation -- it took them four months to admit that a meltdown had occurred in Fukushima reactors 1,2, and 3. Prime Minister Kan was replaced but his successor, Yoshihiko Noda, restarted nuclear plants and 36 continue to be used.

In December 2008, one month after the US presidential election, the Bush administration admitted that America had been in a recession since December of 2007. In February of 2009, Democrats passed an economic stimulus bill, but when the economy did not quickly rebound, Republicans began to blame Democrats for America's economic woes. The 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, claims that it is President Obama's fault that "America is not working." Meanwhile the financial institutions that caused the meltdown have grown more powerful.

Japan's nuclear tragedy and America's economic crisis follow the same tragic pattern: A naïve population was seduced by a cult and abandoned common sense. That resulted in a meltdown. In the aftermath, a confused electorate didn't understand what had happened, accepted bad advice, and little changed. Paving the way for another meltdown.