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Fukushima disaster response frighteningly similar to Chernobyl, Three Mile Island

NBC's Robert Bazell visited Fukushima in May 2011, and witnessed the tragic the effects of the nuclear disaster firsthand. People were forced to leave their homes in the area surrounding the plant due to high radiation levels.    

By Robert Bazell
NBC News

The terrifying atmosphere of crisis, confrontation and lack of communication in the days following the accident at Fukushima burns through the report on the crisis just released by an elite commission set up by the Japanese government. The document details anxious moments when officials even considered the evacuation of Tokyo.  One of the world’s largest cities, Tokyo is home to almost 9 million people.  How an evacuation could be accomplished can only be horrific guesswork.

The government set up the panel run by the Rebuild Japan Initiative with full investigatory powers in response to the ever-increasing evidence that Tokyo Electric Power, owners of the plant, and the government, had been far from forthcoming in describing the unfolding disaster and its implications for the public.  The report, first obtained by the New York Times and slated for release later this week, is likely to be the best history of the accident for years.

During my time at NBC I covered the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima almost a year ago.  Despite major differences, there are frightening similarities.  In each case due to both a lack of information and a desire to calm the public, authorities offered false reassurances.  Only Chernobyl led to immediate deaths and huge numbers of additional cancer cases in the years since.  There was almost no radiation release from Three Mile Island, but it took years to discover how close the meltdown had come to releasing a catastrophic amount.  The health effects from Fukushima have so far led to relatively few worker injuries at the site and a hypothetical but small risk of additional cancers in many parts of Japan in the future.

When I began covering Fukushima, I tried to be reassuring.  Despite the confusion described in this latest report during the first few days after the accident, there was increasing verifiable evidence that radiation in significant amounts was not spreading beyond the immediate vicinity of the plant.  But when I later returned I had more of a sense of how tragic the effects were on the 80,000 people who were forced to leave their homes in the 12 mile area surrounding the plant.  I am including video reports from the months after the accident; one dealing with the immediate effects of the disaster and the other with the nature of the future cancer risk.

No one in Fukushima has shown signs of illness from radiation exposure, but more than 80,000 people have been turned into radiation refugees. Robert Bazell's report from June 2011.

What are the lessons?  Nuclear power is attractive because it releases no greenhouse gases to increase global warming.  But because of concerns about safety it has always been enormously more expensive than other sources of energy, and Fukushima will make it even more so.  Accidents by definition happen when unexpected events strike, whether through human error or natural events like the monstrous tsunami that struck Japan.  These three accidents show that severe nuclear accidents are thankfully rare.  But consequences often exceed our worst fears.