How would a Fukushima-type nuclear accident in San Luis Obispo impact the California produce industry?

Fukushima Reactors BurningI was recently in Japan, and in the course of going about my usual visits with friends, I realized how broadly the nuclear accident has impacted Japan domestically, even outside of the accident area.

First of all, when it comes to farming, much of Northern Honshu is now on an unofficial “blacklist” among the typical Japanese consumer. Even though radiation measurements, official and unofficial, are only showing elevated radiation levels in very specific areas near the accident, the reputational impact has hit a much, much broader area.

This impact became clear when I suggested to friends that we go to a certain tofu restaurant. They politely demurred because they have a young daughter, and the soy beans for tofu that that restaurant uses are grown in Northern Honshu. It is notable that they were readily aware of where that restaurant sources it’s soy. So I went online and checked that area of Japan, but didn’t see any elevated readings anywhere nearby. Nonetheless the reputational damage has been done, for that farmland and that restaurant. We went elsewhere.

The impact became even more clear when my wife and I were visiting the resort (and farming!) town of Inawashiro. Although it’s in Fukushima province, Inawashiro is well away from the nuclear impact area, and shows no evidence of heightened radiation levels. My wife loves soba, so we went to a well-established local soba restaurant in town, where they make everything by hand. I like to eat local foods, and so I enthusiastically asked where the soba was from. The lady smiled and said that they found the best soba these days is from Hokkaido, and so that’s what they use. I pressed her a bit, and she said even that yes, the local soba was actually fine.

I’m guessing that they used to use soba grown closer to home, but had to stop doing that after the nuclear accident, in order to retain tourist business. Consider how painful that reality must be for them. But also consider that even though this area doesn’t show any signs of heightened radiation, it is gravely impacted through “guilt by association,” basically killing the domestic market for their produce. And in a way, it makes sense.

I bet that many Japanese consumers are thinking “Why take a chance?” along with “Can we really trust the government to tell us what is and isn’t safe, when they’ve lied to us so many times about what was really going on?” Thus when the accident is scary enough, and enough people are in active avoidance of all food products grown in a very broad area, then a cycle is in place where the retailers and restaurants avoid it as well, because develop a reputation of selling food that is potentially unsafe.

The end result is that for these farmers, their domestic markets are gone. They can try to sell at much lower prices on the international market, but given the costs of doing business in Japan, this might not be feasible. Understand that the produce they are selling is measured for radiation and is safe in that respect—we’re not talking about dumping radioactive food on other countries. But in Japan a premium is paid for high quality, domestic produce, and that market is wiped out for the conceivable future for a large swath of Honshu.

So that brings me back to California which, like Japan, is earthquake country, and which has two nuclear power plants on the coast, one near San Luis Obispo and another near San Diego. Both of these plants, being near the cost–like Fukushima is–are also very close to major earthquake faults.

In the case of a major earthquake that caused a Fukushima-type nuclear accident, one would think that the damage would be limited to the  farmland directly impacted by such an accident, based on radiation readings. That’d make logical sense, right?

But if we take the example of Japan, the emotional backlash against California product would be severe, regardless of what the experts with their Geiger counters say. People would get scared, and stay scared, for a long time about eating California produce.

Here’s the greatest  irony of it all: there is a safe, straightforward, cost-effective way for California to get rid of the need for nuclear energy. No I’m not talking about solar energy, although that has a lot going for it. I simply mean good old energy conservation. 

If more households took on home energy retrofits, especially for heating and cooling, and generally got smartly about how they heated and cooled, then the energy savings could be used to close down those nuclear plants.

Consider this: if you think the impact of coal fired plants is grave and long lasting, the impact of a nuclear accident is on another timescale altogether. To me it’s just not worth the risks, which based on Fukushima, we know are very real.

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