UPDATED February 27, 2012
Why is it that trivial news stories (for example, reports on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress) often receive disproportionate coverage, while important news stories are sometimes neglected?
Here’s my vote for the most neglected news story of 2011: the radioactive contamination of hundreds of square miles of land around the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. Although most news outlets have reported some details of this story, I think it deserves much more attention than it has received.
This radioactive contamination is heart-rending, and its effects will be felt for decades — possibly centuries. The contamination is due to engineering hubris, and most nuclear engineers show few signs of having learned any lessons from the disaster. Considering the fact that a similar disaster occurred at Chernobyl in 1986, it seems entirely probable that other areas of our planet will suffer radioactive contamination in the future.
According to the Japanese environment ministry, the contaminated area — usually referred to as the “exclusion zone” or the “no-entry zone” — measures 930 square miles, an area almost as large as the state of Rhode Island.
On March 11, 2011, the nuclear power plants at Fukushima were hit by a powerful tsunami. Since the backup diesel generators were swamped, no electric power was available to shut down the reactors safely. As a result, the nuclear cores of three of the reactors melted down.
As is often the case in a disaster, the reaction of emergency workers was confused and stumbling. Some of the details are astonishing. The utility that owns the nuclear facility, Tepco, had long assumed that it was impossible for a tsunami to overwhelm the plant, so the official operations manuals had no information on how to address such an emergency.
During the early hours of the disaster, workers at the plant were communicating with their emergency headquarters…