Learning from Fukushima

SUBHEAD: We should all look at the increasingly sceptical view towards nuclear power in Japan as the disaster unfolds.

By Nirmal Ghosh on 5 April 2011 for The Straights Times - 

Image above: Still frame of destroyed nuclear plant in game "Stalker - Shadow of Chernobyl". About as slose as you can get to the real plant is in a computer simulation like this one that details the entire site including the abandoned city of Pripyat. Fro (http://thehiat.blogspot.com/2010/11/abandonment-in-games-stalker-1.html).

James Lovelock was never far from my mind in Japan last week. The originator of the Gaia hypothesis which maintains that the Earth is a living self-regulating organism a few years ago came to the conclusion that human beings are incapable of or do not want to adapt to mitigate global warming. Therefore, given that we want business as usual, we need energy – and more of it given the growing needs of countries like India and China.

Since we want to continue enjoying life as we know it, we have to build more nuclear plants regardless – because we are all going to fry anyway when the Earth inevitably heats up several degrees. I am putting this in simplistic and even facetious terms, but you get the drift. I highly recommend James Lovelock’s book "The Vanishing Face of Gaia".

It is visionary, realistic - and sobering. At a cafe in Tokyo, as young men and women chatted and laughed around us (belying an undercurrent of concern as the population gets a crash course on the arcane details of radioactivity), I met with Yu Tanaka, one of Japan’s lonely breed of anti-nuclear activists. He spoke of the entrenched nuclear power industry in Japan – a cozy club of big corporations (power utilities and construction), bureaucracy, politicians and the media. Later, I met with Mr Tetsuo Saito, a physicist and PhD holder from Princeton University who has been minister of environment and now sits in the opposition. Even he agreed there was no longer a consensus in Japan about the safety of nuclear power plants.

 Nuclear power debate
 Use Google News and key in "Nuclear, Japan, Fukushima" and you will come up with a mass of articles discussing nuclear power. UN talks on climate change are under way right now in Bangkok, and Fukushima has put a cat among the proverbial pigeons. The nuclear renaissance – over 300 plants are planned around the world – is partly driven by the need to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from coal-burning power plants.

But the critics say if you go back to look at Chernobyl in 1986, and then fast forward to Fukushima 2011 which is still unfolding (there seems to be something inherently wrong about a system that keeps going even if you flip the OFF switch?) it warrants a pause for serious thought. The big question is what we use from our menu of options – from the benign (solar, wind, waves) to the dangerous (coal, nuclear). Somewhere in the middle is hydro power. And at the root of it is our hunger for energy. It is this – the key input that maintains our life as we know it – combined with the big business interests, that leaves us with only dangerous solutions.

Somewhat like how the entrenched interests of the US auto industry delayed the development of fuel-efficient or electric cars, if the resources that go into nuclear power (or indeed the importing of oil) were to be diverted to renewable energy, remarkable achievements are possible. This is especially so in Japan with its long coastline. Will the still-leaking radioactive water from Fukushima force this kind of revolution? The debate rages. See this article for an critique of George Monbiot’s views: http://links.org.au/node/2246

Hugh Gusterson in an article last week for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, wrote "Countries with other energy options, strong democratic structures, and powerful environmental movements will probably de-emphasise, and maybe eventually renounce, nuclear energy. "Switzerland has already suspended plans to build new reactors, and Germany's Angela Merkel, responding to large antinuclear protests, announced plans to close seven reactors pending further evaluation of their safety and to reconsider plans to extend the lives of Germany's oldest reactors.

"In the meantime, countries with weak environmental movements and weak regulatory norms seem to be proceeding as if nothing has happened." As the Fukushima nuclear disaster unfolded, Turkey announced plans to go ahead with two reactors, and we can surely expect China, Russia, and India to do the same.

 It seems supremely ironic to me that Japan – the only country ever to be struck by nuclear bombs, twice – should be facing a nuclear disaster which is the result of its own marriage with nuclear energy. I mentioned this to a friend on Saturday as we left an evacuation centre housing people from the 20 km exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. "Yes" she said. "We are idiots if we still do not learn."


1 comment :

  1. It's interesting that you would mention James Lovelock. I have deep respect for the guy after watching Gaia Symphony 4 by Jin Tatsumura, but let's not forget the conflict of interests that guides his perception of nuclear energy.

    James Lovelock hates wind power generators in the middle of his beautiful Cornwall or Devon property. Some people don't see them as eyesores but as a symbol of harmony and futuristic symbiotic technologies. This is not the case for James Lovelock. It's not a love hate relationship, it's a hate/hate relationship he has with them.

    If only James Lovelock perception of them in the scenery was a positive one, he would probably be a proponent of renewable energy by now.

    Too bad the old man has this limitation in his ability to flex his mind and see differently. Unfortunately no one is immune to old age and becoming inflexible and set in their ways.

    I hope the guy turns around and realize his mistake. Had his property (he replanted trees and created a living ecosystem) been in Fukushima, he would probably have wished he had never let the nuclear industry exploit and take advantage of his aging views.