It’s way too early to say that Japan has found its Tony Hayward — the feckless former CEO of BP, who became the face of the company’s obtuseness and denial during last year’s disastrous Gulf oil spill. But it does appear they’re auditioning for the part.
The leading candidate at the moment appears to be Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, who explained to reporters covering the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that the reactor “remains at a high temperature” because it “cannot cool down.” That’s a statement that has the virtue of being undeniably, unassailably true—and still being utterly meaningless. In other news: The U.S. stock market declined earlier in the week because it stubbornly refused to rise.
Edano also informed reporters that, “with evacuation in place and the ocean-bound wind, we can ensure the safety.” That too is true, but with the evacuation radius expanding from 3 km to 10 km (1.9 mi. to 6.2 mi.) and the number of evacuees jumping from 3,000 to 14,000, locals do have the right to worry about what “in place” means. And if you’re relying on something as fickle as the wind to keep you safe, well, you haven’t quite sealed the deal on safety.
It didn’t help matters that earlier in the day, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan assured President Obama in a telephone call that there were no leaks of radiation outside the reactor. That was entirely true too — but only until 8:22 PM ET, when the AP reported that radiation levels outside the Fukushima facility were actually eight time normal. A level that high was not as alarming as it seems, since officials hastened to add that the average person would have to stand at the gate of the grounds of the plant for 70 days to absorb the total allowable rate for the year.
The AP cited the exceedingly credible pediatrician Irwin Redlener, who runs the disaster preparedness institute at Columbia University, as agreeing that this poses no immediate danger. But Redlener did warn that over time, the leak could raise thyroid cancer rates among the local populace.
None of this is to say that Japan is reaching anything like it’s Brownie-heckuva-job moment. Understanding political spin is different from understanding engineering and science. The Japanese are very, very good at designing and building nuclear plants and very, very cognizant of the fact that their island nation sits atop four different tectonic fault lines. But it is to say that as a state of emergency — which was already declared at the Fukushima Daiichi plant — has now also been declared at the nearby Fukushima Danai site, the situation is imponderably fluid. If you don’t live in Japan, be glad for that this week; if you do live there, be glad that the people running the show probably have the technical ability to wrestle this crisis to the ground.