I know from first-hand experience that the Japanese people are intelligent, resourceful and far-sighted. But events of the past week show there is simply no way to adequately prepare for a nuclear disaster.
From 1987 to 1989, I worked as a teacher in the Hienuki district just south of Morioka in Iwate prefecture, one of the areas impacted by Friday's earthquake. Iwate is the largest, poorest and least populated of Japan's prefectures.
Living in isolated mountain and coastal communities, the people of this region are known for their determination and resourcefulness. They are survivors of a hard physical climate, of war and famine, and, even in the face of natural disaster, they are very well organized.
I can imagine my Iwate neighbors just as the earthquake hit. They turned off all flammable fuel sources and left their buildings. The pre-appointed leaders grabbed their white hard hats and coats, and they called roll to assure that each person was accounted for.
The process of damage assessment would then start, with a pre-determined plan for assessment, notification to higher authorities and dissemination of information at centralized places in town. These drills were practiced annually in my office and in the schools where I taught.
Away from the all-destroying tsunami, I imagine that these would have been reassuring activities. Without electricity, running water, telecommunications, and transportation, people throughout Iwate and the Tohoku region are looking to one another for strength to cope with devastating loss, grief and uncertainty. For nearly a million Japanese in evacuation centers and fleeing the disaster zones and thousands in make-shift shelters remaining waiting for rescue, it will be yet another cold and frightening night.
I'm devastated by the news that in the midst of this struggle for survival, my Japanese neighbors must also deal with an unprecedented nuclear disaster. While heroic workers and military personnel attempt to contain the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, it is clear that constant low-level and sporadic high-level radioactive releases from the crippled plant are a significant public health threat.
There is no safe level of radiation exposure, and the health impacts worsen with length of exposure and higher levels of radiation. It is clear to me that the well-rehearsed disaster drills won't protect my Japanese neighbors from these long-acting radioactive elements released into the environment.
Devastated families will not be able to keep indoors, as directed by the government officials, and perhaps hundreds of thousands will be caught outside, attempting to flee this latest threat to their health and safety.
The catastrophe unfolding in Japan right now tragically illustrates why nuclear must be treated differently from any other energy source.
Current Wisconsin law contains important safeguards to Wisconsin's public health and ratepayers. We must continue to oppose repeal of these important protections. Concerned citizens must work to improve the safety of the radioactive waste storage pools and operation practices at our Wisconsin reactors.
Let's hope that key United States policymakers and Wisconsin legislators are paying attention to Fukushima. It is a lesson we don't want to be forced to live through again.
Kleiss, of Madison, is the executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility Wisconsin.