No Word for Tsunami: Imagining the Unimaginable

By Rory O'Connor and Richard Bell

Tsunami is a Japanese word -- one sign of the island nation's intimate relationship with the destructive forces of the ocean that surrounds it. Despite the fact that the word is one of the few from the Japanese language to attain universal use, "tsunami" didn't even appear in Japanese government guidelines and standards for nuclear plants until 2006. The New York Times reports, "[d]ecades after plants -- including the Fukushima Daiichi facility that firefighters are still struggling to get under control -- began dotting the Japanese coastline."

And as the New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert recently pointed out, the word "meltdown" appears nowhere in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's glossary of atomic-related words and phrases -- although a Google search for the past month showed more than 1.93 billion hits for the word.

How can this be? How can words in such common use not even exist in the parlance of nuclear developers and regulators?

The answer is simple: they speak a different language from you and me -- and have a totally different mindset. The language of Nukespeak, as we have pointed out for decades, (ever since co-writing the book Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Visions and Mindset) is one of euphoric visions and euphemistic language, and its mindset renders it impossible for them to "imagine the unimaginable," much less plan ahead adequately. Hence nuclear proponents have no words to describe events they deem impossible to happen -- although in the real world, outside their limited imaginations, tsunamis and meltdowns do in fact occur.

So American regulators at the NRC don't even list a word that everyone else in the world uses to summarize the horror of what can ensue if uranium fuel at the core of a commercial nuclear power plant is left uncooled long enough for it to melt. And Japanese regulators -- despite the fact that clashing tectonic plates that produce tsunamis surround their country -- were content to build offshore breakwaters and other protective barriers designed to guard against typhoons, but not tsunamis.

Japanese government and utility officials also claim they couldn't be expected to have anticipated the size of the recent magnitude 9.0 earthquake or the huge tsunami that followed. Yet even a much smaller earthquake could have created a tsunami large enough to create huge problems at Fukushima -- something managers at Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant owner and Japan's biggest utility, were well aware of.

Are the nuclear developers and regulators stupid or evil? Did they willfully put hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars at risk? Or were they simply unable to imagine, and thus to prepare for, a worst-case scenario they literally had no words or concepts for?

Judge for yourself. "We can only work on precedent, and there was no precedent," Tsuneo Futami, a former Tokyo Electric nuclear engineer who was the director of Fukushima Daiichi in the late 1990's told the Times. "When I headed the plant, the thought of a tsunami never crossed my mind."

Both the earthquake and the tsunami at Fukushima exceeded the criteria used in the plant's design. Why? Because for decades, nuclear proponents ignored reality and instead "clung to older scientific precepts for protecting nuclear plants, relying heavily on records of earthquakes and tsunamis, and failing to make use of advances in seismology and risk assessment since the 1970s.... Over the decades, preparedness against tsunamis never became a priority for Japan's power companies or nuclear regulators," the Times concludes.

George Orwell argued that controlling language was the ultimate tool for getting people to accept the unacceptable -- like the catastrophic risks of operating nuclear power plants. Without the words to describe it, elected officials, government regulators, investors, and nuclear utility plant operators literally cannot imagine a worst-case accident scenario at a nuclear plant. In such an imaginative vacuum, it's all too easy for everyone involved to minimize the risks involved -- resulting in the previously unimaginable results that we have seen at Three Mile Island, at Chernobyl, and now at Fukushima.

O'Connor and Bell blog about the nuclear mindset at