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A time of catastrophe, a time for education

On March 11 -- just days after the Bulletin's special issue on the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy was published -- I sat in my home office in Washington, DC, listening to NPR, my stomach knotting with each passing hour.

"… At least two nuclear power plants are in trouble, thousands of people have been evacuated from the area near those plants on the coast in Fukushima Prefecture. The situation seems especially bad at one nuclear plant in particular. …"

I wanted to remain optimistic, but my fear was that I would find myself -- as I am here, now -- writing this editor's letter introducing yet another special issue, the Fukushima Issue, on yet another nuclear disaster. As H. G. Wells wrote, "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

I emailed one of the Bulletin's Science and Security Board Members to pick his brain for contacts in Japan. And, from there, the rest has been history. And education. And catastrophe.

The Fukushima story is one that will emerge for months and years to come; the worst is behind us, but there are long-term problems that still must be addressed. In our Fukushima Issue, six authors provide a snapshot of where Japan and the international community stand six months on.

On the ground in Japan. Tatsujiro Suzuki, who assiduously offered daily updates on the Bulletin website during the days after the Fukushima disaster, opens the issue with his review of the Japanese government's 670-page report to the International Atomic Energy Agency and writes on the most pressing and challenging of its plans. Masa Takubo analyzes the country's nuclear policy and reviews the uncertain politics in a post-Fukushima Japan.

Psychology of safety and psychological aftermath. Frank N. von Hippel, who also contributed a piece for the Bulletin's Chernobyl issue in 1986, writes on radioactive releases at Fukushima, compared with that of Chernobyl, and also offers critical thoughts on handling the psychological effects of this disaster. Johannis Nöggerath, Robert J. Geller, and Viacheslav K. Gusiakov take a hard look at the anzen shinwa, or safety myth, embraced by the Japanese government and Japanese electric power companies -- and how it stifled honest and open discussion of the risks to nuclear installations from seismic events.

The response: US denial and new-media triumph. Edwin S. Lyman examines how the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has responded to the Fukushima crisis, challenging its claims that a similar event is unlikely to happen in the United States. And Sharon M. Friedman judges how the media has fared in its reporting of nuclear accidents and radiation, comparing the coverage of Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl.

The suggestions, analysis, insight, and reflection offered in these articles are not only useful for Japan, but for the 31 countries that have 436 nuclear power plants among them. As Robert Socolow wrote days after the Fukushima tragedy, "... scientists have only one job right now -- to help governments, journalists, students, and the man and woman on the street understand in what strange ways we have changed their world." The media, too, have a major role in ensuring that this information is clearly communicated and accessible to the public. Friedman writes that the coverage of radiation has never been as good as it was during and after the Fukushima tragedy, thanks in large part to the Internet. But, as we at the Bulletin see it, there still remains a hole: Those in genuine need of erudite analysis are, of course, those directly affected by the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese population. Stellar coverage by Western news outlets might win awards, but what is the point if those who most deserve the information never benefit from reading it? Thus, for this special issue, we have translated all six articles into Japanese, and they are available at no charge on our website.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a nonprofit organization, so we are very grateful for the generous donation from Rockefeller Financial Services to support editorial and translation work for this issue. I also want to personally thank Masa Takubo, who not only offered his expertise to our digital journal, but also worked tirelessly -- which is truly an understatement in his case -- to translate these articles for a broader audience. After all, in the race between education and catastrophe, we're rooting for education.



Mindy Kay Bricker is the editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Prior to joining the Bulletin in May 2010, she was with World Affairs journal, where she launched the publication's website and managed blogs written by top foreign policy experts. Before that she worked for seven years in Prague, where she wrote and edited for a number of publications, including Marie Claire, the International Herald Tribune, Time magazine, Christian Science Monitor, among others. She has reported from Iran, Uganda, and Bosnia, among several other countries. Her journalism degree is from the University of Missouri, Columbia.

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