Susan Stranahan

Susan Q. Stranahan, a 1968 graduate of The College of Wooster, shares her insight about the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster at the Wooster Forum on Tuesday evening in McGaw Chapel.


Fallout from Fukushima Eloquently Chronicled by Wooster’s Own Susan Q. Stranahan

Distinguished alumna shares excerpts from her recent book at latest Wooster Forum event

15 October, 2014 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — In the aftermath of two cataclysmic nuclear power plant disasters, an unlikely storyteller emerged. Susan Q. Stranahan, a 1968 graduate of The College of Wooster, found herself on the front line of the Three-Mile Island accident in 1979 as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where the newspaper's compelling coverage of the disaster and the events that followed earned a coveted Pulitzer Prize. More than three decades later, she was invited by the Union of Concerned Scientists to help provide a historical account of the 2011 Fukushima triple reactor meltdown. That led to a book, titled Fukushima: The Story of a Natural Disaster, excerpts of which she shared with students, faculty, staff, and area residents at the Wooster Forum Tuesday evening in McGaw Chapel.

Stranahan, who proudly acknowledged the role of her Wooster education in preparing her for a career as a journalist and an author, described in gripping detail the toll of Fukushima. "The actions of those who responded were heroic," she said. "If not for those heroes, the disaster would have been much worse."

Stranahan provided a captivating account of the events of that fateful March day in 2011, beginning with a devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake and followed by a 45-foot tsunami that overwhelmed the sea wall, disabled the power grid, and crippled the plant's operation.

"Nobody thought that multiple reactors would lose power simultaneously," she said. "Everyone thought that things would be back online in a short time. Batteries provided an eight-hour backup, but power was not restored for nine days."

The pumps used to provide cooling water were powerless, and the reactors were sizzling. Evacuations were ordered, and many people left with only the clothes on their back, said Stranahan, only to find out later that their neighborhoods would be classified as "difficult-to-return zones," perhaps "never-to-return zones," she explained.

At one point, a decision was made to inject nearby seawater to cool the reactors, but government and utility officials dithered about such an unprecedented action. It was then that one of the many heroes, Plant Superintendent Masao Yoshida, who had initiated the seawater injection, quietly disobeyed the order to suspend the process. That decision, said Stranahan, while praiseworthy, came too late to prevent the reactor core from melting.

The consequences of the accident continue to this day and will likely persist for decades to come, according to Stranahan. "The cleanup will last for at least another decade and the cost will likely exceed $250 billion," she said. "There is also a major problem with contaminated water, which is complex and growing. And there's simply no place to dispose of the radioactive waste."

So what about the future? On that topic, Stranahan was less than optimistic. "No one can get close enough to Units 1, 2 or 3 to know their status," she said. "It will be years before anyone knows what happened in those reactors."

On a global scale, Stranahan was equally uncertain. "Until the public demands safer reactors and more attentive oversight, the lessons of Fukushima will be ignored."

Still, there are vestiges of hope, thanks in large part to people like Stranahan, the history major with a liberal arts education, who continues to think critically, report meticulously, and write poignantly in the hope that her words will someday bring about meaningful change.