10 July 2011

Nuclear Roulette

By Marguerite Finn

I have been putting off writing anything about the Fukushima nuclear disaster since it happened in March because events there have been unfolding so rapidly and unpredictably. During all this time the damaged reactors have remained out of control. That concept has been difficult for me to come to terms with. It conjures up reactors in continual meltdown and leaking radiation about which apparently nothing can be done. So much for man’s technological prowess.

Every day since the tsunami, the nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) has been battling to keep the reactors cool using tonnes of water. Now it is running out of space to store the highly radioactive water that has accumulated from its efforts. But we are told a solution is at hand. The French nuclear group Areva together with the US firm Kurion have come up with a new technological fix. They have created a magical system, which decontaminates water and then re-circulates the water to reduce reactor temperatures.

What do they do with the contaminants? As ever, it is the radioactive contaminants that are the problem but we are carefully not being told what will happen to them. Do they think we are idiots, or do they just not care?

That’s the bit of magic that we just cannot take on trust.

To process the estimated 250,000 tonnes of water that will have been contaminated by the time the crisis ends will cost over 50 billion yen ($600 million) – and here is the bit that really alarms me: Tokyo Electric says it “hopes the new system will help achieve its goal of bringing the plant to stability by next January”. Next January? That means that the nuclear reactors at Fukushima will remain in an unstable and uncontrolled state for another seven months at least – and that’s if everything goes as well as possible, which is by no means guaranteed.

Even while the drama of Fukushima is being played out, other accidents are happening around the world – many of them due to extreme weather conditions triggered by climate change (the sort of things they say will never happen here). In Nebraska in the US, for instance, two nuclear power plants are threatened by the rising floodwaters of the Missouri River. A massi
ve melting snow pack and heavy rains have forced federal officials to release water at rates about double previous records from six reservoirs on the upper Missouri River from Montana through to South Dakota. And the threat is not over yet as these very high water release rates are expected to continue well into August.

Meanwhile, the nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos in New Mexico is threatened by a raging forest fire surrounding the plant which has forced thousands of people to flee the town of Los Alamos. Which plant will be at risk next? And where? Impossible to say, because we do not know what will happen in an era of climate change. Last time it happened, our ancestors were buffeted by it in the same way as the rest of the planet was. Yet this time we presume to control it when we cannot even control its effects on one of our more hubristic inventions!

Given the continuing uncertainty, it is not surprising that public support for nuclear power has declined around the world and that the governments of Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Thailand and Malaysia have cancelled their planned nuclear power stations in the wake of the accident. This is the precautionary principle in action and the people in those countries are to be praised for persuading their governments to abandon nuclear power. As Shakespeare said:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,

which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
is bound in shallows and in miseries”.

Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive” showed that the societies that survive crises are those who take radical and challenging decisions that fundamentally change them. Those that can’t or won’t just disappear. Thus the Norse Greenland settlement collapsed in the 1400s and disappeared because the chiefs and the bishop insisted on retaining their prowess instead of facing the need to change, and retained in the end only the privilege of being the last to die. In Iceland, faced with a similar crisis of soil erosion and politics, the population cooperated to institute harsh agricultural changes, and has survived. In the Pacific, the Tikopia Islanders, faced by overcrowding and loss of soil in the 1950s, developed population control and intelligent gardening to survive. Easter Island’s communities were so besotted by their rituals and tribal rivalry that they didn’t change and fizzled out. Huge stone statues and nuclear reactors are eerily equivalent.

At TEPCO’s AGM on 28 June, institutional shareholders decided their shares would fare better if the company stayed with nuclear power, rejecting the challenge to diversify their electricity sources. Those pieces of paper won’t feed any of us or house us the next time Gaia strikes.

All that is very far from home but how can we, in this country, have any confidence that we will face the challenges we have created in our lust for endless electricity via nuclear power, when our government decided to bury the facts about Fukushima by an on-going concerted PR exercise as soon as the disaster began.

Again, do they think we are idiots or do they just not care?

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