Unlike most, I don’t think that the worst is yet to come in Japan. Based on what I have read, I believe that what we have seen so far is likely going to be most, or all, the damage there is going to come out of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear accident combination. And that is a already a lot.  With maybe 15K people dead, half a million homeless, $200bn in damage, I don’t understand why the media focuses so much on a potential major nuclear accident with casualties in Tokyo, something that I can’t see how it would happen.  There’s enough non nuclear tragedy to focus on and to help with right now than to make people panic over a highly unlikely event.

I am an entrepreneur, and a big part of my life is assessing risk.  After obsessing with the Japanese problem (I have dear Japanese friends, Fon has employees in Japan, and Japan is our second most important market at Fon) my own impression is that we have a 20% chance of Fukushima being a Chernobyl. A significant but not overwhelmingly high chance. And even if the worst happens and it is a Chernobyl, because Fukushima faces the ocean, the prevailing winds are westerly and it is surrounded by mountains, I just can’t see how Tokyo (or any major city) would be affected by the nuclear accident. In the case of Chernobyl, Kiev, a major city that is half the distance to the accident than Fukushima is to Tokyo, was not affected. Kiev went on with its life after Chernobyl.

And then there is the anti nuclear panic that we are seeing these days. People around the world are very concerned about nuclear power and I can understand the psychology of this.  People fear what they fear, not what is more likely to kill them.  People fear planes more than cars, and flying is safer than driving.  Coconuts kill more people every year than sharks, and I don’t see people reacting to coconuts as they react to sharks.  Going back to nuclear, it is hard to argue that Fukushima is representative of the nuclear power plants of today. The Fukushima nuclear plant was built in the 60s.  It is so old that it should have been decommissioned last month and somehow it got an extension to operate.  The regulators who approved this are probably feeling horrible right now. But if there’s anything Fukushima should teach us, it should be not to avoid nuclear energy, but to be more careful with nuclear, to understand the risks.  Nuclear energy is dangerous, but it is clearly not as dangerous as driving a car for example, and nobody is advocating an end to the car industry.  We drive because we love the convenience and we try to minimize risks, and the same should be true of the nuclear industry.  Nuclear energy is cheap and climate neutral.  But it is risky, and to build nuclear plants in seismic faults, as it is done for example in Japan and California, is a questionable practice. Fukushima shows us that all our precautions were not enough.  What I hope that comes out of this nuclear accident is:  no major radiation leaks a la Chernobyl (i.e. that the 20% does NOT happen), a reassessment of the industry practices and safer plant design.  I also hope that this leads to more investment in solar and wind, alternatives that while not as efficient are certainly safer and simple.  And of course more energy conservation in general.  In the meantime my heart is with those heroes who are fighting the nuclear accident right now at the risk of their own lives.

Lastly I would like to say that I know that this article may come back and haunt me if in the next hours we do have a major escalation of events in Fukushima and Tokyo has to be evacuated.  But I am not saying here that is impossible that this happens.  I just think that at a time in which media goes on and on about how dangerous the situation is,  I felt I had to argue why they may be exaggerating.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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Joi Ito on March 17, 2011  · 

I think this is a good and pragrmatic post.

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Vincent Oberle on March 17, 2011  · 

While I mostly agree with you, I don’t think we can say that Nuclear energy is cheap and climate neutral. Nuclear power plants are horribly expensive to build, and consume a lot of CO2 for their construction. This part has to be included when considering nuclear energy.

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XL on March 17, 2011  · 

You don’t need any comparation, what it’s happening it’s horrible,

Both accidents are completly different…

Fukushima Now it’s the largest threat to Japan. They need to solve a lot of problems, but if they don’t control Fukushima, Japan never will be the same…

In Chernobyl they only had problems with one station, here they had problems with 6…
The consequences of Chernobyl disaster affected to a larger area than Japan, so the consequences of Fukushima are unexpected…

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Eddie Rodríguez von der Becke on March 17, 2011  · 

Absolutamente de acuerdo contigo Martín. Por fin alguien que no se deja llevar por la paranoia mediática y la ignorancia. Parece que los medios occidentales ya olvidaron el terrible terremoto y el tsunami, y la única tragedia de Japón es nuclear (que todavía no mató a nadie)… y le recriminan al gobierno y los medios orientales no darle tanta trascendencia (como si no tuviesen otras cosas de que ocuparse ante semejante tragedia y cantidad de desaparecidos y muertos…)

El problema nuclear es grave, pero se está trabajando mucho para que no pase a mayores, esperemos que no empeore, pero yo soy básicamente optimista.

Abrazos desde el sur.

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kemi242 on March 17, 2011  · 

I still have an optimistic view of the situation. I think it won’t be Chernobyl, but it is bad enough to be the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.
They now have the power connected to the cooling systems, so if they restart them, the plant may be back in control.

@XL: The Chernobyl reactor was larger, and graphite moderated, in Fukushima they have smaller, water moderated reactors, and there are only minor problems in unit 4 to 6.

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mjuan on March 17, 2011  · 

I agree with your idea that it is a question of evaluating risks. We enterpreneurs are used to do it all the time (at least in our business realm) but it seems that general public looks for absolute safety, what is quite unrealistic, instead of accepting that it is better to understand our risks and make informed decissions

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XL on March 18, 2011  · 

Kemi 242

We agree

But this minor problems in 5 & 6 could be bigger if one of the “ultra” damaged units start a heavy emission of radiation that it avoids to work in the nuclear plant.

In any case the consequences are horrible, you have a huge area that has been affected, and we don’t know wich are going to be exactly the real consequences…

In my opinion this crisis has been not well managed, it has been managed with japanesse style…

There is a fact that they must analize, the consequences to pregnated woman, and to the babies…

So they should evacuate all families with babies or with pregnated woman… from a larger area than normal people…

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haim on March 18, 2011  · 


You have a point. A nuclear accident is always good material for the media, no surprises here.
As any system, a nuclear plant needs to be well maintained and updated.
We do not know all the details, but if all the 3 cooling systems failed, something went very wrong.
They should have being prepared for a catastrophic event like this tsunami, an even for worst than that, if such thing exists.

We had accidents in dams too, which we can say “it s only water”, but it also killed people and damaged the environment. (just google dam accidents to find these events).

Our society can not function only with solar and wind sources.
They surely can contribute, but it is not enough.
We need energy, and nuclear energy is a good alternative to oil.
We need to find better and safer ways to handle it and manage the nuclear waste and residuals.
Is Exxon and BP doing any research in that area? Probably not.

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Louis Kahn on March 18, 2011  · 

Is it too much to ask that people don’t engage in activities that, if they fail, or some combination of accidents produces unexpected or uncontainable situations, that the result is that the environment is fucked up for possibly thousands of years? I am setting aside for a moment the fallout for living things affected at the time.

It is that hard to understand that cheap nuclear power is one of the greatest selfish acts that humans have come up with. The ultimate expression of ego gone nuts?

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Leo Kah on March 22, 2011  · 

Sorry, but this is the worst article, i have read on your blog.
Arguing from the point of an entrepreneur, i can only dismiss the nuclear power plants as a technology of a past century. It has caused people and the environment massive problems. it has failed many times before and has been proven to be at least one number too big for humans. as an entrepreneur I would call for innovation and not embrace something as nasty as this. (please inform yourself about long term after effects of chernobyl around chernobyl.) for the most part, we don’t die of this – it’s the next generation, that suffers. I am sure the future generation will call nuclear power plants: “the dark middle age of technology”. There are unsolved problems, that come with this technology, and these problems will last for hundreds of years. – I actually believe, the hole premise of the technology is wrong.
Greatings from Germany – Ole

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