New Internationalist

Japan’s tragedy: a wake-up call?

Think technology. Who tops? Think state-of-the-art perfection, precision, punctuality? Most people would say ‘The Japanese’. With the Germans and the Swiss providing close competition.

Nuclear power is, of course, hugely different from a bomb, but if there ever was a country to experience the devastating effects of radiation up close, it was Japan. To me it’s ludicrous, completely unbelievable, that the Japanese government, after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could ever dream of using nuclear facilities on their soil. Yet they did. And for the people of Japan, it’s like a terrifying nightmare happening all over again.

Governments, all governments, are famous for playing down the figures when a human-made disaster occurs. So real numbers are underestimated deliberately, in order to prevent panic and/or public outrage. And although earthquakes, tidal waves and tsunamis are unpredictable, putting nuclear reactors in an earthquake- and tsunami-prone country is, to my mind, asking for trouble. It’s definitely a human-made catastrophe, not a natural disaster.

Days after the tragic triple disaster hit Japan, the newspapers, our newspapers, the national Indian media, were full of interviews. Indian scientists assuring us that all is well with Indian nuclear facilities. We are safe, they promised us.

'Failure'. Image by Erich Ferdinand under a Creative Commons licence.

If the Japanese, with their precision, their electronic and technologically perfectionist set-up cannot safeguard their people, how can we? Do our scientists think we, the people, are absolute and utter fools that we should buy their inane statements as the truth? It’s exactly like the emperor’s new clothes. Even a child can spot the absurdity of the situation, the hollowness of those utterly irresponsible assurances. The bare-faced lies.

We are also being deluged with the usual arguments – it’s not so easy, those are simplistic peacenik, loony left solutions, the world needs nuclear energy for peaceful development, etc, etc, etc.

In the early 1970s, my husband’s uncle, a NASA scientist, did extensive work on solar power. Nominated for the Nobel Prize for a discovery called the Thekaekara constant, he tried his hardest to persuade the then US government to invest more in solar energy – the most progressive, sustainable solution for the future. His research was scuttled because large oil companies lobbied against solar solutions, fearing they would threaten their profits.

A Russian scientist shared his views. She lived in the USSR. For them to share secrets at the height of the Cold War would have been treason. They met a few times. Cried on each other’s shoulders. Neither the US nor the USSR wanted their solutions or backed their ideas. Matthew Thekaekara predicted that the African, Asian, South American countries, those with sunshine on their shoulders, could be transformed. But no-one listened. He died disillusioned with NASA, the scientific world and the US government.

Today there is more than enough evidence that renewable energy is the way forward. Solar, wind, hydro energy projects are safe, clean and efficient. But people within governments, with a vested interest in promoting nuclear power, continue to push it as a necessary evil, even when conceding it’s a safety hazard.

A few centuries from now, if civilization as we know it still exists, history will judge us harshly. People will regard our circa as the weird time when humans seemed hell-bent on self destruction. On annihilating their own planet, leaving desolate wastelands for future generations. A time when corrupt scientists, venal politicians and merchants of death formed a diabolic triumvirate, sacrificing the Earth on an altar of money and power.  

I’m aware that this sounds over-the-top. Because throughout history, wealth and power have been the pivot on which governments revolved. But never before has the Earth been so willfully, so totally poisoned and polluted to a point where nothing will be left for posterity and for future generations.

I wrote this piece a week ago, but didn’t send it out because I thought I sounded rabid. Having a rant as usual with no solutions to offer.

This morning I read a report from The Los Angeles Times: ‘Japanese emergency crews are scrambling to contain rising levels of extremely radioactive water that has leaked into tunnels and basement equipment rooms at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, putting up dangerous new obstacles to workers trying to bring the reactors under control. Workers were using sandbags and concrete panels Tuesday in a desperate attempt to prevent the contaminated water from further spreading through the plant or into the nearby soil and ocean.’

I remember reading the famous Chief Seattle speech which leaves you feeling awed and ashamed of what humans can do to each other and to the Earth. I changed my mind. Decided to send this blog out. We can’t go on saying there’s no alternative to nuclear energy. If governments spent a fraction of the arms and defence budget on clean alternative energy, we would not need dangerous nuclear reactors.

Nuclear disasters are the ultimate in annihilation. They destroy the Earth forever. For how much longer can they go on? How can we let them get away with it? When will we ever learn?

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