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Lessons From a Meltdown

In the Shadow of Fukushima

by NIRMAL GHOSH

The ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is the first nuclear accident of the information age. Millions of consumers of TV, online and print media around the world have been getting a crash course in the arcane details of radioactivity.  

And so they should. There are plans around the world to build as many as 350 new nuclear reactors, partly to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from coal-fired power plants. Only a few are being shelved or delayed as the nuclear industry and governments closely watch developments at Fukushima.  
But the Fukushima debacle has reignited a long-overdue debate about nuclear power. At the root of it all is our hunger for energy – the key input into our system and lives as we know it.  The big question is what we use to meet that need from our menu of options – from the benign (wind, solar, waves, natural gas) to the dangerous (nuclear and coal).  Somewhere in the middle is hydro power.

But truly long term planning has never been a forte of our species. So the urgency of our energy needs combined with the entrenched interests of big corporations – in this case the nuclear, construction and ancillary industries – has left us with a Faustian pact with only the most dangerous solutions.  

Ever since the reality and cost of global warming and the dangers of greenhouse gases – principally CO2 – became clearer around the time of the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, nuclear power has enjoyed a renaissance.  

But the domino effect of Fukushima is plain for all to see. On Monday Japan’s government announced an expansion of the exclusion zone around the power plant. Already hundreds of thousands have been evacuated from the exclusion zone and now live like refugees, unable to return perhaps for a very long time indeed, to intact homes and the daily paraphernalia of their lives.

More than a month after that fateful March 11 afternoon, bottled water still vanishes from the shelves of convenience stores in Tokyo by mid morning; imports of water have soared. Tourism has plunged. Exports of Japanese food produce from Fukushima and surrounding prefectures have plunged as countries impose bans or checks for radioactivity.  Radioactive elements found kilometers from the power plant in the soil, indicate that an area possibly bigger than New York City may well be a no-go zone for years. Radioactive elements in the ocean are a different worry; though they will disperse rapidly, they will also be carried far by ocean currents and species.  

The damage wrought by the tsunami will take years to repair, but it was a one-time event and the consequences can be defined and dealt with even as earthquakes continue. But the nuclear crisis remains open-ended.  

To argue as some have, that nobody has so far received a lethal dose of radiation is to deny the reality that even low level doses can trigger lethal cancers later. Radioactive iodine attacks the thyroid; cesium-137 goes to the brain and muscles; strontium-90 goes to bones. And there is the other small matter of nuclear waste, which nobody quite knows what to do with.

Scientists are still arguing about the real death toll of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Environmental author and columnist George Monbiot has sparked a storm by turning pro-nuclear and stating that the ‘’official’’ death toll from Chernobyl was only 43, and further cancer deaths could be due to other causes.  

But as the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl approaches on April 26, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organisation are being challenged by scientists and doctors citing evidence to suggest that up to 500,000 people may have already died as a result of the catastrophe, and another 30,000 people are expected to die of cancers linked to severe radiation exposure in 1986.  

‘’In truth, nuclear power and its deleterious effects are a medical problem of vast dimensions – the greatest public health hazard the world will ever see’’ writes scientist and author Dr. Helen Caldicott on her website.  

Just over two weeks after the deadly tsunami, I met with Yu Tanaka, one of Japan’s lonely breed of anti-nuclear activists, in a Tokyo cafe. I put to him the proposition of the pro-nuclear lobby that coal was more dangerous because more people die in coal mines every year, millions suffer from respiratory problems because of fossil fuel emissions, and CO2 drives global warming.

Coal and nuclear are false choices, he said. In the case of Japan, neither is needed. A study by Tokyo University has shown that Japan with its extensive coastline and technological skills, can develop a smart grid and exist on only renewable energy – if it devotes as much resources to developing renewables as it does to the nuclear industry or to energy imports.

I met a man at an evacuation centre in Tokyo, who had worked for the Fukushima Daiichi plant. He was living out of a prefabricated exhibition space with cardboard packing material as a wall, and wouldn’t give his name but said he felt ‘’disappointed and betrayed’’ because he had always been led to believe the plant was safe.

He said the fact that the plant was out of control was even more worrying that the danger of radiation. That goes to the heart of another key issue – the supposed infallibility of technology. Do we really believe that concrete and steel storage containers in some cases buried in the Earth, can withstand the tectonic movements of the Earth’s crust itself? Or is our technology really just a wing and a prayer?

Anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, professor and author of two books on aspects of the nuclear industry, on March 16 wrote ‘’We have now had four grave nuclear reactor accidents: Windscale in Britain in 1957, Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979, Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986, and now Fukushima.’’

‘’Each accident was unique, and each was supposed to be impossible.’’

‘’Countries with other energy options, strong democratic structures, and powerful environmental movements will probably de-emphasise, and maybe eventually renounce, nuclear energy’’ he wrote.

‘’In the meantime, countries with weak environmental movements and weak regulatory norms seem to be proceeding as if nothing has happened.’’

Dr Caldicott on her website wrote of ‘’A tidal wave of blow-back from the nuclear industry around the world, which has been rocked back on its heels by Fukushima but is now regrouping.’’

‘’There are claims that radiation is good for you; that nuclear power is still the only answer to global warming; and that fears about the safety of nuclear power are unwarranted.’’

‘’Let us be clear: there are billions and billions of dollars at stake for the nuclear industry. The industry will not walk away from that money without a fight.’’

In Tokyo on April 10 there was a protest against nuclear power – specifically the restarting of the utility Chubu Denryoku’s Hamaoka nuclear power plant southwest of Tokyo in Shizuoka Prefecture shut down at the time of the earthquake, and against Tepco, the utility that owns the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

A previous protest against Tepco drew around 1,200 people. Reports say some 3,000 turned up on April 10. That’s an improvement, but still nowhere near the vigorous questioning of the nuclear industry in Europe where tens of thousands show up at protests. In Japan a cozy circle of big utilities, construction companies, bureaucrats, politicians and the media have ensured that public debate over the nuclear question is lukewarm, Tanaka said.

In Tokyo last week as I left an evacuation centre housing refugees from the Fukushima exclusion zone, it struck me as supremely ironic that Japan – the only country ever to be struck by nuclear bombs, twice – should be facing a nuclear disaster which was the result of its own marriage with nuclear energy.

I mentioned this to the Japanese friend with me.  

‘’Yes’’ she said. ‘’We are idiots if we still do not learn.’’

NIRMAL GHOSH, a writer and conservationist based in Bangkok, is a senior foreign correspondent for The Straits Times. He is also a Trustee of conservation NGO The Corbett Foundation in India, has written three books on wildlife, and runs the website www.indianjungles.com. He can be emailed at tigerfire@yahoo.com.

A version of this article was first published in The Straits Times (www.straitstime.com) on April 9, 2011.