Fukushima

by David Lochbaum, et al.

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Author: David Lochbaum
Author: Edwin Lyman
Author: Susan Q. Stranahan
Author: Union of Concerned Scientists
Publisher: The New Press
Copyright: 2014
ISBN: 1-59558-927-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 320

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This is a very interesting book, and I can recommend it, but there are two things you should be aware of up-front. The packaging does not necessarily make clear what expectations you should have of it going in.

First, the subtitle (The Story of a Nuclear Disaster) should have appended to it And Its Implications for US Nuclear Power Policy. This book is very concerned with the impact of the Fukushima disaster on US policy and nuclear regulation, to the point where I think more than half of the book is about US agencies, nuclear regulatory history, and US reaction. There's nothing wrong with that, of course: the US should take a hard look at its own nuclear energy policy given the events at Fukushima, and it's a worthy topic for a book. But if you go into this book expecting a broader perspective, you will be disappointed. For example, I think the fact that France has a lot of nuclear power was mentioned maybe twice in the whole book, and French reaction was never discussed at all. There is a very detailed examination of exactly what happened at Fukushima (more on that in a moment), but most of the policy implications are examined purely from a US perspective. Even Japanese nuclear policy gets somewhat short shrift.

Second, note that the fourth listed co-author is the Union of Concerned Scientists. For those not familiar with US environmental groups, the UCS has a reputation as an anti-nuclear advocacy organization. I don't think that's entirely fair; I think the UCS's position on nuclear power is better summarized as holding that it is theoretically possible to run a nuclear power plant safely, but the actual US nuclear power industry is not very close to that standard, and it would require much tighter regulation and more investment in safety systems to reach that standard. But be aware that the authors of this book have a clear position on the adequacy of current nuclear power safety standards, namely that they aren't. And they don't try to conceal that position in this book. Personally, I prefer authors to be open about their perspective in books like this, but your mileage may vary.

There, disclaimers out of the way. I bought this book for a specific reason: I had followed some of the news coverage at the time of the earthquake and tsunami, and then (like many people, I suspect) lost track of the final outcome as the story fell out of the news and I started ignoring people who didn't understand how large the Pacific Ocean is. Now that we've had the benefit of several years of analysis and thoughtful reconstruction of events, I wanted to know what had actually happened. I'm happy to say that this book delivers quite well on that front. Roughly the first half of the book is a detailed blow-by-blow description of exactly what happened at Fukushima, at least as well as we've been able to reconstruct, told as an engrossing and dramatic narrative. There may be a little too much interleaving of reactions within the US government, which I suspect will particularly annoy non-US readers, but the level of factual detail is excellent, clear, and well-explained.

What I wasn't expecting, but was pleasantly surprised by, is that it's also a great story. There's tension, conflict, heroism, hard choices, and moral quandries, and the authors do a great job conveying factual information while still giving the reader the sense of being in the middle of the unfolding drama. They resist the urge to disclose all the results of later analysis in the middle of the story, which may provide a slightly less clear view of the disaster, but which makes the telling far more compelling. I usually read non-fiction more slowly than fiction, but Fukushima dragged me in. I found myself grabbing moments to read just another few pages.

Unfortunately, this is only about half the book. The other half is a mix of other things that won't have as broad of appeal: an analysis of the challenges of US nuclear regulation, a history of the US nuclear power industry, and a presentation of the authors' opinions about the best path forward for regulation of nuclear power in the US. Since I'm a US citizen and resident with an interest in both nuclear power and regulation of nuclear power in my country, I found this interesting, if not as engrossing as the rest of the book. But it felt a bit oddly tacked on, and I think it's a stretch to say that it's part of the story of Fukushima.

The authors try to draw that link by presenting the Japanese nuclear power industry as heavily influenced by their US counterparts, and their regulatory problems as similar to the problems in the US, but there is nowhere near enough detail about Japanese regulatory practices here to support that conclusion. I think the largest weakness, and the most obvious gap, in this book is the lack of detailed analysis of the history and players in the Japanese nuclear regulatory environment. This is an odd miss. If one is concerned about regulatory inadequacy, Japanese government policy is far more obviously part of the story of Fukushima than US policy. I can only speculate that the authors had inside sources for the US policy discussions but not for the Japanese policy discussions (and, sadly, fall back on painting with a rather broad brush and making unsupported generalizations about Japanese regulatory approaches in a few spots). The result feels like two partly-unrelated books stacked and partly shuffled together.

So, there are parts of Fukushima that are rather disappointing, particularly for non-US readers. But I still recommend it as a great detailed history of the actual incident and a summary of what we now think happened. That summary is unfortunately sketchy and still very unclear, but I don't think that's the fault of the authors. The inside of a nuclear power plant during a meltdown is a very difficult environment to measure or analyze, and there's a lot of data that we will probably never have. Some details may never be known. But what we do know, and how that knowledge unfolded, is told very well.

This is the only book-length treatment on Fukushima I've read, so I can't compare it against other books on the same topic. But it satisfied my curiousity nicely. If you have a similar curiosity, I recommend this book to your attention, although be aware of its approach and its US-centric analysis going in so that you're not surprised by a mismatch of expectations.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-03-23

Last modified and spun 2015-03-24