Fukushima: A Nuclear Threat to Japan, the U.S. and the World

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The wholesomeness of much of Japan's food supply has come under question. Farmers have been forced to destroy crops and dispose of dairy products. Because of continuing contamination of seawater, the healthfulness of seafood from the Pacific Ocean is in question. Japan is already a net food importer. In response to a continuing shortage of Japanese home-grown food, the Japanese government may encourage importation of even more foreign food, which is likely to increase the price of food in a nation where food is already an extremely expensive commodity. Worldwide, increased competition for food is likely to affect prices, causing some people in marginal economies to go hungry.

Japanese manufacturers are increasingly in competition with other Asian countries. With the domestic Japanese industrial base severely damaged by the earthquake, delivery of Japanese-manufactured products to the U.S. has been disrupted. Some U.S. plants using Japanese parts have been forced to slow down or halt production. They will probably recover when Japan begins exporting a full supply again, but in an already shaky economy, that could take months. If severe enough, the postponements could cause demand to disappear.

Some industries where Japan now has a predominant position are already threatened. Pre-Fukushima Japan produced a significant percentage of the world's supply of silicon wafers, the base on which integrated circuits and memory chips are made. Because of the earthquake, it has been estimated that wafer supply has diminished by 25 percent.

A shortage of silicon wafers is likely to cause the price to rise, thus increasing the price of chips worldwide, which would have impact on the price of all sorts of goods from jumbo jet airplanes to programmable coffee makers. Korean manufacturers said they would fill the void. If customers establish supply agreements with new manufacturers in Korea, return to their former suppliers in Japan will become even more difficult.

Japan is a culturally unified nation, with more than 98 percent of its population sharing the same ethnicity. It also is a nation where the social norm is to achieve consensus and conform to standards. Japanese people are careful about expressing dissent or participating in controversy. Yet, we are seeing increased, almost unprecedented criticism of TEPCO and the government beginning to be expressed. If this is possible in such a polite and restrained society, imagine the response to a similar disaster elsewhere.

Increasingly, reports of heroic workers, dubbed the Fukushima Fifty by the press, have made their way into Western news media. There may be as many as 1,000 workers who are sacrificing themselves to prevent additional damage and repair existing damage to the nuclear reactors. It is possible some of these workers have been exposed to so much radiation that their lives will be changed in unforeseeable ways. It is likely many of these workers will suffer the long-term effects of radiation exposure, including increased likelihood of leukemia within a few years and other cancers as much as a decade or more from now. DNA damage to workers could become apparent only when these workers have children.

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