The Story of a Nuclear Disaster

By David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. New Press. 309 pp. $27.95

In 1982, less than four years after Three Mile Island’s partial meltdown, members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) resisted the need to plan for worst-case scenarios at nuclear plants. The chances of a radiation leak causing widespread death, one member said, were “less than the possibility of a jumbo jet crashing into a football stadium during the Superbowl.”

Unfortunately, at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011, that jumbo jet came down. In “Fukushima,” two scientists, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group, recount the unlikely story of an earthquake that unleashed a tsunami that caused three nuclear meltdowns.

‘Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster;’ by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (New Press)

“Fukushima Daiichi unmasked the weaknesses of nuclear power plant design and the long-standing flaws in operations and regulatory oversight,” the authors write. “It is the saga of a technology promoted through the careful nurturing of a myth: the myth of safety. Nuclear power is an energy choice that gambles with disaster.”

“Fukushima” reviews the unpredictable, unprecedented events that unfolded in Japan on March 11 three years ago: a “station blackout” at a plant that needed electricity to prevent disaster; heroic workers MacGyvering solutions to never-imagined problems; and the bumbling of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the Japanese government and the NRC after the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Though the book’s language is often technical — readers should be prepared to grapple with hydrogen explosions, probabilistic risk assessments and the need to install filters in the hardened containment vents of boiling water reactors — its message is unabashedly activist.

“TEPCO and government regulators were merely the Japanese affiliate of a global nuclear establishment of power companies, vendors, regulators, and supporters, all of whom share the complacent attitude that made an accident like Fukushima possible,” they write. During accidents at other plants in the United States, “the story line would differ, but the outcome would be much the same — wrecked reactors, off-site radioactive contamination, social disruption, and massive economic cost.”

What’s most terrifying is that the outcome is still unknown. “It is difficult,” a man with a 4-year-old daughter living not far from the Fukushima exclusion zone told this reviewer in 2013. “We do not know the effects of radiation on small children.”

While less technical, more personal books about Fukushima exist — among them, William T. Vollmann’s superb “Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan” — “Fukushima” is a great guide to yesterday’s nuclear disaster that could happen tomorrow.

Justin Moyer