Obama Should Push to Internationalize Fukushima Clean-Up
The Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami will likely be the costliest natural disaster in history once a full account can be taken of the lives lost, the property damaged, and the consequences to the environment, all of which have been exacerbated by the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. A total of almost 30,000 appear to be dead or missing because of the earthquake and tsunami; the health effects from the release of radiation at Fukushima are likely to remain minimal by comparison. Nonetheless, the release of millions of gallons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, the creation of an exclusion zone around the facility, and the possibility of many more months of emergency efforts needed to stabilize the cooling of Fukushima’s nuclear fuel are dimensions of the disaster that continue to create anxiety and cast a long shadow into the future.
The timing of the Fukushima incident has for better or worse coincided roughly with the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the only other level 7 nuclear incident according to the International Nuclear Event Scale. Although experts will debate the comparative seriousness of Chernobyl and Fukushima into the future, the volume of nuclear fuel held at Fukushima, the level of radiation already released there, and the ongoing difficulty maintaining cooling demonstrate that it is clearly a very serious situation that could have widespread environmental effects.
However, there is a dark irony in the debate comparing the two incidents, for although many experts have been quick to conclude that Chernobyl was much more serious, there are few who have pointed out the relatively dismal failure of remediation efforts secure the safety of the Chernobyl site from the further release of radiation into the environment. Despite the universal acknowledgement of the seriousness of that accident, the Ukrainian authorities managing remediation at Chernobyl have had startling difficulties raising the billions of dollars needed to fund the construction of a new containment structure that can prevent the decrepit one currently in place from collapsing in a plume of radioactive dust.
Japan, with its massive economy and powerful export sector, certainly gives cause for hope that its ability to fund a comprehensive nuclear clean-up will be greater than that of Ukraine, which has stood on the brink of national financial crisis for years. But Ukraine is the only nation in the world to have voluntarily surrendered to foreigners a formidable nuclear weapons stockpile in the interests of global security and demilitarization. A fair trade would appear to dictate that the global community try to help with the overwhelming costs of managing a perpetual clean-up that has little hope of reaching “green field” status. If Ukraine can provide us a historical lesson, it must be that unless leadership emerges to confront a challenge to the health and environmental security of the world, Japan will be left to fend for itself in the remediation of the Fukushima site.
It is unlikely that the Japanese would ever explicitly request that an international effort be undertaken. Japanese stoicism, which was so awesomely on display in their calm handling of the recent natural disasters, would require that any sacrifice be taken before aid is requested. But regardless of how effective the Japanese response to Fukushima, the nature of such an accident is that there will be environmental consequences to neighbor countries and the entire world, with the result that total control of the remediation by the Japanese will exclude important stakeholders. Moreover, the very nature of nuclear technology has historically been that experts have frequently made important decisions affecting the public and then defended the basis for those decisions without allowing shared responsibility. That model of action has been rejected by experts in the OECD and many other nations because it generated a significant public backlash and widespread suspicion about nuclear technology, impeding the political process surrounding the approval of new nuclear projects.
An effort must be undertaken to internationalize the long-term remediation at Fukushima in order to provide transparency, accountability, and to provide assistance, and because of our close relationship with Japan, the United States should step forward as a partner in making that happen. Before that begins however, the Japanese must be persuaded to allow such an effort to go forward and to allow the international community to participate meaningfully in a process that promotes transparency and fosters consensus. That is why President Barack Obama must take the first step. The White House should engage in quiet diplomatic efforts to align the sentiments of decision makers in Japan, in its neighbors such as China, in European nations, and within the United Nations and IAEA behind a structure that can facilitate international participation in the Fukushima response.
While there are certainly significant roadblocks to the agreements needed to put an international structure in place to address Fukushima, success appears possible given the already significant openness of the Japanese government as well as the relatively great ability of the Japanese to handle the Fukushima response on their own. Furthermore, an international response to the Fukushima crisis is worth undertaking because it could create a model that could be applied in the future if a similar incident were to occur in a nation much more poorly equipped to handle such a crisis. But aside from the substantive assistance that the world can render to the Japanese, a formal international response to the crisis would demonstrate to the Japanese and the global public that environmental stewardship is a shared burden that can be better managed through collective action and cooperation among states. That is a message that might turn a frightening disaster into cause for hope.
This article was submitted for publication in the Harvard Law Record’s April 2011 issue.