Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Japan's disasters, natural and human

The astonishing natural tragedy of Japan's 9.0 magnitude earthquake and 30 foot tsunami has now been accompanied by another, much more human-constructed, terror as the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi continue to disintegrate and explode radioactive material.

The eventual scale of this nuclear disaster is, as yet, to be realised.  But, with an increasingly worst-case-scenario of core meltdowns, extensive atmospheric exposure and mass evacuations, the sheer folly of nuclear energy is there for all to see.  

It's usually only in hindsight, as with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, that the 'obvious case' against nuclear plants gets serious attention.  And, as we're now seeing, elementary issues over the Japanese plants seem to have gone wantonly unaddressed.

How could the Japanese authorities ever have permitted the concentration of so many coastal-sited reactors knowing the perennial threat of regional quakes and tsunamis?

Where are so many nuclear refugees now expected to go as the exclusion zone extends further and further from the plant?

If the dangers of nuclear energy seem all-too-evident to an alarmed public, the argument for abandoning it has still not been accepted by some 'environmental realists' who see nuclear as the only viable option to the bigger calamity of carbon-inflicting climate change.

While recognising the extent of Japan's nuclear disaster, and what might yet be learned from it, notable green advocate Mark Lynas insists that any wholesale criticism of the nuclear industry "may not be entirely fair."
"The majority of the world’s nuclear plants are not situated in seismic areas which present a threat along the scale of that faced by earthquake-prone Japan. Those which may be affected by tsunamis are likely even fewer in number. Moreover, the Fukushima plant is 40 years old and was due to be mothballed in February – it was given an extended license, just as has happened in the UK, Germany and many other countries – because no-one could agree on newer, safer designs at the same time as power shortages loomed."
This argument over nuclear location may be partially valid.  But it still doesn't make any other nuclear plant assuredly safe.  Just remember Windscale.  Nor does the age limit of Fukushima and the prevarications over its extended life, always based on economic expediency, provide much in the way of mitigation.

Lynas's associate, iconic activist George Monbiot, maintains a similar, if still qualified, defence of nuclear energy (just updated with an additional clause denouncing the siting of nuclear plants in such volatile places).

It's a position which Greenpeace and many others within the green movement convincingly reject - and regret, given the particular influence of Monbiot and Lynas as popular environmentalists.

What seems beyond doubt, even to these eco-veterans, is the potential catastrophe now unfolding and the glaring incapacity of humans to deal with nuclear emergencies.

And with this official desperation comes the official lies and subterfuge.  Little wonder we're now seeing a global government effort, as in France and Germany, to offset public anxiety and distrust.

As Michael McCarthy notes in the Independent:
"The reason is an industry which from its inception, more than half a century ago, has taken secrecy to be its watchword; and once that happens, cover-ups and downright lies often follow close behind. The sense of crisis surrounding Japan's stricken nuclear reactors is exacerbated a hundredfold by the fact that, in an emergency, public trust in the promoters of atomic power is virtually non-existent. On too many occasions in Britain, in America, in Russia, in Japan – pick your country – people have not been told the truth (and have frequently been told nothing at all) about nuclear misadventures."
While the Japanese authorities may be doing all they can to stem this crisis, the nuclear industry in Japan have displayed: 
"an identical culture of nuclear cover-up and lies. Of particular concern has been the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), Asia's biggest utility, which just happens to be the owner and operator of the stricken reactors at Fukushima.

Tepco has a truly rotten record in telling the truth. In 2002, its chairman and a group of senior executives had to resign after the Japanese government disclosed they had covered up a large series of cracks and other damage to reactors, and in 2006 the company admitted it had been falsifying data about coolant materials in its plants over a long period."
It's an endemic trait within the industry.  As McCarthy neatly puts it: "Secrecy came with nuclear energy, like a birthmark".

Like the radioactive carcinogens now seeping from Fukushima, the detection of corporate greed around the nuclear business is increasingly evident.

In the US, a mercenary nuclear lobby has preyed on hyped public fears over energy supplies, utilising big-business-leaning legislators to help bend government regulators to its will:
"Add to that the ongoing concern about peak oil, energy costs related to foreign fuels and the environmental problems associated with petroleum/coal energy sources and the shameless lobbyists for nuclear power have never had an easier task getting their product online."

"That may have changed in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.  With the event at that plant, the world was once again graphically reminded of the dangers of nuclear power.  The question is, can we the citizens of the planet, successfully mobilize against a corporate effort to impose this expensive, inefficient, dangerous and ultimately deadly form of power generation?"
Meanwhile, the people of a decimated and radioactive Japan are reliving past horrors, trying, in their amazingly quiet and dignified way, to contemplate the forces of natural catastrophe and the fallout from those built on misguided human design.

There are viable, alternative technologies.  Perhaps the Japanese tragedy might stimulate radical new movements for an end to nuclear madness.  


*  Some more here on TEPCO's shocking record of negligence and secrecy.

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