Should we call the Fukushima meltdowns a nuclear disaster?

A year ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima meltdowns, I prepared a proposal for a middle grade book called “Lessons from Fukushima: The Promise and Risks of Nuclear Power.”

My editor at Twenty-First Century Books accepted it, and put it on the fast track, but wanted a more marketable title. The result was Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future, which was released in time for the first anniversary of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, the precipitating event for the meltdowns.

The book takes a middle ground about the future of nuclear power, recognizing the need for strong regulation and advanced safety systems, but likewise noting that nuclear power is currently the only alternative we have for replacing fossil-fuel plants on a large scale, and is likely to remain the best alternative for many years.

Now I’m beginning to give talks about the book, and I have had some interesting feedback, some of it challenging the use of the term “nuclear disaster.” The challenges take two forms. Some people rightly point out that the meltdowns were not exclusively technological failures. They could have been avoided with better regulation and licensing procedures. Others point out that the documented death toll from the meltdowns is zero–or arguably very small even considering cancer deaths in the long term.

I have to agree with the argument that this was not a failure of technology alone. No technology is perfect, which is why we put regulations in place to make sure the public is safe even if the technology fails.

Still, I argue that we need to consider Fukushima a disaster, given the massive evacuation and spread of radioactive contamination. And since that resulted from nuclear technology, we should call it a nuclear disaster.

On the political level, anyone trying to argue that the words “nuclear” and “disaster” do not apply will have little credibility. Even if poor regulation and licensing procedures were largely responsible for the meltdowns, and even if the loss of life due to radioactive exposure is indeed negligible, this was a massive technological failure that made the natural disaster of the earthquake and tsunami considerably more difficult to recover from.

No matter what we call it, though, in the end we do have to digest the Lessons from Fukushima. And we do need to grapple with the promise and risks of nuclear power. I hope my book delivers on what that original title suggested, even if buyers pick it up because it says “Meltdown!” and “Nuclear Disaster” on the cover.