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.
Though the aftermath of Fukushima will be with us for decades, and perhaps generations, immediate attention to this matter is imperative to save lives, provide knowledge that will avert a similar disaster elsewhere, and minimize domestic and worldwide economic impact.
After almost a month, there continue to be more questions than answers. There has been marginal success in cooling the at-risk reactors and little success stemming the flow of radioactive waste water. We have no credible estimate of the impact this disaster will have on the Japanese economy in particular or the world economy in general. There have been no credible steps in the U.S. or by the International Atomic Energy Agency to begin learning from this event and its aftermath and to apply those lessons to avert or minimize future tragedies.
The Japanese authorities, with the help of other experts, will have to muddle through this disaster, making up solutions as they go along. Hopefully, the damaged reactors will be brought under control before serious permanent harm is inflicted on national and international resources.
Looking to the future, as fossil fuels are depleted and become more costly, the world inevitably will become more dependent on nuclear power. It is likely that another nuclear disaster will occur sooner or later. Depending on ad-hoc solutions to disasters of this magnitude is shortsighted at best. In the U.S., we have seen no concerted response by U.S. regulators and nuclear power operators to re-examine safety standards in the 104 nuclear plants in this country. Most of them are decades old, some are based on the same design as Fukushima, and some sit on or near fault lines as unstable as those in Japan.
What is needed, in our opinion, is a permanently staffed, international nuclear rescue team. The team could have a core staff of full-time team members with stand-by team members, drawn from government and industry experts, who would be activated in the event of a disaster. The team would be furnished with the scientific, technical and equipment resources necessary to address an equivalent or a worse level of nuclear disaster than Fukushima. It would create scenarios, plans and tactics for remediating disasters when they occur. It would train to prepare to respond to a nuclear accident as a cohesive unit.
Such a resource would not provide a fool-proof solution to inevitable nuclear disasters. However, it is a necessary first step in controlling the potentially cataclysmic effects of a Fukushima-scale, or worse, nuclear reactor tragedy. After Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island and Now Fukushima, failure to prepare in advance for another such tragedy would be foolishly self-destructive.
Steve Brozak is President of WBB Securities, an independent broker-dealer and investment bank specializing in biotechnology, medical devices and pharmaceutical research. Henry Bassman is a Managing Director at WBB Securities.