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What could be worse?

March 17, 2011

Each day the news out of Japan is that much worse than the day before. Desperate attempts to scoop loads of water out of the ocean and dump them from helicopters onto overheating spent fuel pools at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant failed today. So did a plan to spray the reactor buildings with water cannons normally used for crowd control. Neither the helicopters nor the cannons could get close enough to their targets because radiation levels were too high. The secondary containment around one reactor is now reportedly destroyed.

Thousands of people have been evacuated from around the plant, adding to the hundreds of thousands already made homeless by the earthquake and tsunami — events that would be dominating the news under any other circumstances but now seem almost like afterthoughts (or pre-shocks?). We keep hearing that Tokyo is not in any danger from radiation right now, but our Japanese friends have told us that people in Tokyo are under enormous stress, unsure of how to balance individual and family anxiety with their deeply ingrained sense of collective responsibility.

In less than a week, the Japanese economy, like the tsunami-ravaged coast, has fallen into shambles. Any natural disaster of this magnitude has vast social, environmental, and economic repercussions, and even without the destruction of the Fukushima reactors Japan would have faced a prolonged period of recovery and billions of dollars in costs. The nuclear crisis, however, threatens the very foundation of Japan’s economy, which has been organized, for better or worse, around nuclear power.

“Worse” has now arrived. We keep hearing from Japanese leaders (who are in an impossible position) and from “nuclear safety” experts (a term that is now the dictionary definition of “oxymoron”), that this is not the worst case scenario, that full core meltdowns at the plants are unlikely, and that even if one were to occur, there would not be Chernobyl-like consequences.

Is anyone actually supposed to take any comfort from that? Are the Japanese people — or any of us, for that matter — supposed to be reassured that the damage from this incident, if it ends here, will be “limited?” Limited to what? The displacement of and trauma to thousands of people whose lives will never be the same? The creation of an uninhabitable sacrifice zone many kilometers out from the hopelessly contaminated reactor site? Tens of billions of dollars of direct and indirect costs? The devastation of an entire national psyche?

And that’s not the worst-case scenario?!?

The case for nuclear energy, if there ever was one, has now collapsed. Far from being a cheap source of electricity, nuclear power has proven itself to be extraordinarily expensive. It is an ineffective answer to global warming because even if all other restrictions were removed we would not be able to build enough nuclear power plants to make a dent in carbon emissions in time to make a difference. Even worse, the proliferation of nuclear weapons is inextricably linked to the global expansion of commercial nuclear power reactors, which are not themselves bomb factories, but which produce the fissionable materials needed in bomb factories.

And now the things that “couldn’t happen,” or “couldn’t happen here,” or were such remote possibilities that they were worth the risk, have happened. There’s even an identifiable trajectory. Three Mile Island was a catastrophe narrowly averted; Chernobyl was a “unique” catastrophe unlikely to be repeated; Fukushima was the outcome of overwhelming natural events that could not have been anticipated.

Except, of course, that they could have been — and were — anticipated by opponents of nuclear power who have been aggressively demonized by the nuclear industry and its supporters as doomsayers and fearmongers. Even this week, nuclear energy propagandists on Fox have complained that the world is “overreacting” to Fukushima. I will not use the expletives that come to mind on IPPNW’s family-friendly blog.

What we have to focus on now (after helping the victims in Japan get through the acute stages of this crisis as best they can), is the real lesson of Fukushima. The industry — and governments invested in the industry — are already promoting the self-serving message that Fukushima can teach us how to make nuclear power operations still safer and less vulnerable to natural disasters.

The lesson we ought to be learning is that we are finished with this whole misguided enterprise and with the people who persist in promoting it. That it’s time (long past time, in fact) to halt the construction of any new nuclear power plants, to phase out and close down the ones that exist as soon as possible (and no later than the end of their current operating licenses), and to accelerate the transition to clean, sustainable, renewable systems for producing and consuming energy.

  1. March 18, 2011 11:55 am

    At this moment, Fukushima is potentially more dangerous than Chernobyl: 4 nuclear reactors with partial meltdown (reactor number 1 with almost a full meltdown possibly) plus 2 spent fuel rods pools boiling and burning.

    Nuclear safety experts are now like the three monkeys of Nikko: see no danger, speak no danger, hear no danger.

  2. March 17, 2011 2:21 pm

    We are sitting on ca 400 DYNAMITE-BARRELS of this type now on earth…The obvious changes in the planetary physics and it’s effects on environment and human constitution as well as on the magnetic and gravitational field…hazard-event-intensification on all the planet…should bring us to request for general protection of humanity,to let run out every nuclear intent as acceptable,secure technology …Sincerely…Peter Norbert Semrau,BioEng.grad.,Italy

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