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.