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Jacques Attali

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The International Community Must Intervene -- in Japan

Posted: 03/30/11 03:16 PM ET

PARIS -- Once again, a local problem is becoming a global crisis. Just as California was the epicenter of the subprime mortgage crisis that shook the world, so too the nuclear waste leaks at the Fukushima plant in the wake of the earthquake are posing a threat to others far beyond Japan's borders.

And just as the international community had to come together to stem the financial meltdown from contaminating the entire world economy, it must now intervene in Japan to prevent radiation from poisoning the planet.

The situation is serious. If the spent fuel pools (SFP) storing irradiated fuels from the reactors in Fukushima give way as a result of a new aftershock or by overheating, huge quantities of radioactive material -- either as a liquid or gas flowing into the sea, air or subsoil -- will be released. In the case of the containment vessel of the third reactor, considerable quantities of plutonium might escape. In this event, parts of Japan will become largely uninhabitable, and radiation will spread out across the globe through the food chain or carried by the wind and sea currents.

Like the American financial institutions that spawned the subprime mortgage crisis, Japan's nuclear crisis is largely the result of forsaking prudence for profits. Knowing better, the Fukushima plant was nonetheless built on an earthquake fault on the seacoast vulnerable to tsunamis. Worse, six plants were bundled together like toxic mortgages, inviting disastrous contagion, sidestepping safety regulations.

Since the beginning of the disaster, the same regulatory authorities and utility executives who exposed the public to such danger have compounded error upon error in the effort to save their damaged assets, leaving the spent fuel pools exposed to the open air without cooling, causing irreparable damage to those with systems of protection still intact.

A mixture of pride and arrogance -- along with a penchant for secrecy and lack of transparency -- has led the public and private authorities in Japan to refuse international aid while hiding the scope of the disaster, both from their own people and from the international community. Courageous but underpaid workers were left with the highly dangerous task of figuring out how to cool the reactors, an ad hoc task for which they were not trained.

Now, in order not to admit that they covered up the truth to the outside world they have endangered, these same officials are refusing the cooperation of foreign experts.

On the other hand, it is bewildering that the "international community," which is so quick to intervene at the slightest violation of human rights, remains, in this case, totally complacent. When the facts were finally known in the subprime mortgage crisis, coordinated action was swift on a global scale.

In this case, Japanese officials are merely asked in their own polite etiquette what the real facts are. No one insists when they refuse outside help in order not to spread panic, and to salvage their costly investment.

All of this is absurd. The nuclear industry as a whole, like global financial markets, cannot possibly be saved if the disaster is not brought under control quickly. The recent German elections that turned on that country's nuclear exposure only foreshadowed the reaction to come across the globe.

There is thus an urgent need to establish a global consortium of nations and experts with the competence to intervene to stem the damage. Our Japanese friends must accept such intervention as quickly as possible without feeling offended or humiliated by our insistence. Confidence can only be restored when the real facts are known through an objective "stress test."

As this consortium is assembled, the international community should not wait to send in planes, helicopters, fire hoses, robots, drones and cement mixers to contain the disaster before a total meltdown takes place.

To draw on another analogy in today's news, the world has the "responsibility to intervene" when a sovereign nation cannot or will not protect its own people and when the danger extends beyond borders.

© 2011 GLOBAL VIEWPOINT NETWORK; DIST. BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES.