Fifty years ago, The New England Journal of Medicine ran a grim and gripping article outlining the ways in which an explosion of a thermonuclear bomb would overwhelm any medical response. Given our failure in the intervening years to achieve nuclear disarmament and to block the proliferation of nuclear materials, policy makers and emergency response planners would do well to brush up on the author’s key point: “there is no cure, only prevention.”
More than a year has passed since the horror of Fukushima with its earthquake and tsunami, which caused a meltdown of nuclear reactors. The consequences are still unfolding. People outside the 12.4-mile evacuation zone are not safe. TEPCO, the utility that owned the reactors, is bankrupt. Cleanup of the site will take at least 40 years; the catastrophe will cost more than $64 billion.
The Japanese people have voted to close nearly all of the remaining nuclear reactors. Can the U.S. learn the lessons of Fukushima? Among them, the dangers to people living near the reactors, the futility and inadequacy of large-scale evacuation plans and the critical importance of moving spent fuel from onsite cooling pools to dry-cask storage. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been urged to adopt new licensing regulations to prevent failures like those of Fukushima.
The new Vogtle plant in Georgia, the first new reactor granted a license in 40 years, was supposed to await requirements reflecting a solution to problems learned from Fukushima but the license was granted without heeding those precautions. Neither Congress nor the NRC has adapted stricter safety requirements despite the Fukushima disaster.
A year after the Japanese tragedy, no progress has been achieved in improving the ability of first responders and medical professionals to react with greater knowledge and more sophisticated proposals for coping with any U.S. catastrophe.