New York Times reporter gives lecture on nuclear disaster
The aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan will be presented to the Portland public in a free lecture given by Ken Belson, a New York Times reporter with personal experience in the disaster.
Belson will speak at the Mercy Corps Headquarters (45 SW Ankeny St.) Wednesday, Nov. 2, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. The event was organized by Doug Smith of the Japanese Study Advisory Board, and is co-sponsored by the Portland State University Center for Japanese Studies. It will be held at Mercy Corps largely due to the organization’s extreme relief efforts immediately following the disaster in March 2011.
Belson was assigned to cover the Fukushima fallout story for the New York Times. Though he is officially a sports reporter, Belson had prior experience working as a business reporter at the Times’ Toyko bureau, and has numerous affiliations with the country. He aimed to center his report around the government’s response to the disaster and how the lives of ordinary Fukushima residents were affected; instead, he found a different angle.
Belson’s stories revealed that there was not enough responsibility taken by the Japanese nuclear industry and its regulators to ensure preventative measures for such a situation. The overseers of the Fukushima plant approved a license extension for the facility prior to the accident—an extension which in retrospect appears to have been extremely short-sighted. Many people already had safety-related doubts regarding the reactor.
“The overly cozy relationship between the regulators and the regulated is an important one. It’s very important that those sorts of controls not be corrupted,” said Ken Ruoff, director of the Center for Japanese Studies at Portland State. “If you change the names of the people involved, it’s an all-too-true story of people here in the United States, in some facets. It reminds one of the relationships in the U.S.’s financial services industry.”
Belson’s articles also touched on the worldwide nuclear power debate, which had been relatively dormant for years but has now become a hot topic in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Outcry against nuclear energy has started up again, rivaling the backlash that occurred following the famous Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. This will likely be a main point of Belson’s talk: With the negativity already associated with nuclear power exacerbated by yet another reactor disaster, what will the future hold for nuclear fusion as an energy source?
“If Japan decides against nuclear power, it raises the question of how they are going to provide energy in the future,” Ruoff said. “This is an energy production issue. Nuclear power is now under very significant question as a result of this disaster, but what exactly are the alternatives?”
“The entire modernized world is facing major issues about how to provide sufficient energy in the future. Japan, along with France, was at the forefront of nuclear energy. As a result of this disaster, all sorts of questions are being raised,” Ruoff said.
Supporters of nuclear fusion as an energy source argue that nuclear power plants produce very little waste; that they aid in the global effort to reduce fossil fuel consumption; that they are not as expensive as competing power sources; and that they do not emit greenhouse gases. Detractors cite the increased spending on nuclear sites for safety purposes, the relatively short lifespan of the reactors and the numerous disasters over the years that have caused irreparable damage.
“There are definitely fears attached to nuclear radiation, but there should be equal fears attached to burning coal or burning oil,” Ruoff said. “Are we really in a position to provide for our energy needs using only certain accepted sorts of energies in the near future?”
Additionally, Ruoff believes that it is important for people to remain aware of the accident and its fallout despite the fact that most of the United States has, in a sense, moved on from the disaster.
“Fukushima continues to be a far more significant issue in Japan than one would understand, even though it has dropped out of U.S. newspapers,” Ruoff said.
As Belson was and is well-versed in Japanese culture, he can share particularly valuable insight on how the accident has affected the country, as well as the effect it could have on the rest of the world.
“He has a tremendous amount of information about the nuclear disaster,” Ruoff said. “This is a very significant cosmic topic going forward.”