Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima Daiichi


Each August, I try to mark my country's choice to unleash the nuclear genie in 1945 by obliterating the cities and people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This year, it seems appropriate to highlight that that the survivors of this signal event have chosen to speak out about Japan's current dependence on nuclear power.
NAGASAKI, Japan — In 1945, Masahito Hirose saw the white mushroom cloud rise from the atomic bomb that incinerated this city and that left his aunt to die a slow, painful death, bleeding from her nose and gums. Still, like other survivors of the attacks here and in Hiroshima, he quietly accepted Japan’s postwar embrace of nuclear-generated power, believing government assurances that it was both safe and necessary for the nation’s economic rise.

That was before this year’s disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan confronted the survivors once again with their old nightmare: thousands of civilians exposed to radiation. Aghast at the catastrophic failure of nuclear technology, and outraged by revelations that the government and power industry had planted nuclear proponents at recent town hall-style meetings, the elderly atomic bomb survivors, dwindling in numbers, have begun stepping forward for the first time to oppose nuclear power. ...

“Is it Japan’s fate to repeatedly serve as a warning to the world about the dangers of radiation?” said Mr. Hirose, 81, who was a junior high school student when an American bomb obliterated much of Nagasaki, killing about 40,000 people instantly. “I wish we had found the courage to speak out earlier against nuclear power.”

NYT, August 7, 2011

There are environmental prophets like George Monbiot who have concluded that some increase in nuclear power generation is the only available "bridge" to a global society that has given up fossil fuels for renewables. In the linked article he makes his best case. But Japanese survivors bring moral force to a debate in which the pr0-nuke arguments more and more seem to require willful disregard of the limits on human capacity to achieve technical and moral perfection.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the more that comes out about Fukushima Daiichi's multiple meltdowns, the more it is proved that both the power company and the government lied repeatedly about dangers they knew were real and present. Why? Because numerous very human mistakes were made -- and admitting the truth would have added to the already staggering toll of the earthquake and tsunami.
In interviews and public statements, some current and former government officials have admitted that Japanese authorities engaged in a pattern of withholding damaging information and denying facts of the nuclear disaster — in order, some of them said, to limit the size of costly and disruptive evacuations in land-scarce Japan and to avoid public questioning of the politically powerful nuclear industry. As the nuclear plant continues to release radiation, some of which has slipped into the nation’s food supply, public anger is growing at what many here see as an official campaign to play down the scope of the accident and the potential health risks.
The people responsible for nuclear safety didn't dare -- in the crunch -- to tell the people who might be harmed the truth that their precautions had failed. This seems to be a pattern in relation to nuclear energy: the authorities in most countries deny and obfuscate as long as they can. And errors are not rare: in California we've got a reactor which was licensed despite earthquake supports installed backwards.

Though in many countries, including the U.S., Japan, and the United Kingdom, nuclear generating plants are privately owned, it is impossible to build them without government protection against liability. Insurance companies aren't willing to be on the hook for the potential costs of a mishap -- something no engineer in his right mind can really promise given the history of a meltdown every decade or so. And the costs spread out over a country's whole life. Back in March, long before the worst of the Fukushima situation was known, Craig Bennett described how the disaster rippled outwards:
Following the incredibly expensive evacuation, there has been a suspension of sales of food from the area, and now even fears about drinking water in Tokyo. These measures will hopefully ensure the health impact remains minimal.

As well as being incredibly distressing for the people living nearby, this is all costing a fortune. Add to it the clean-up costs, more stringent safety regulations and an inevitable increase in insurance arrangements, and the economics of nuclear will be forever changed. And they weren't particularly healthy to start with.

... No nuclear power station has been built without state cash ... No subsidies means no nuclear. Supporting nuclear means getting behind taxpayer-funded subsidies ...
My emphasis. And that's one of the worst aspects of these things, on top of the actual dangers. Technocrats like nukes -- they trust themselves to do it better next time. But ordinary people have pay for them. And in general, when democracy is working, we don't want them, especially if we have to live near them.

Nukes only get built when the wishes of the neighbors can be discounted and run over. Neighbors seldom enthuse about the cooling tower down the road; they worry. NIMBYism may look unattractive --selfish -- but it is a natural response to a dangerous technology whose owners and sponsors have repeatedly been shown to be over-optimistic at best, and more likely just liars.

Nevada NIMBYism has prevented the U.S. from sinking nuke waste in the ground, a much contested "solution" to the inevitable waste disposal conundrum. Nuclear promoters have to claim they'll find a magic solution to waste disposal, though no answer have turned up over the last 60 years. Fukushima wouldn't have been so dangerous if it had not had pools of radioactive waste sitting around -- U.S, nukes mostly have those too, since we have no national plan for disposing of the deadly stuff. Nuclear engineers always hope a solution to the waste is just around the technological corner, but so far, nothing convincing.

If something goes wrong with a nuke, experience has shown over and over that authorities lie and minimize. They don't trust people with true information.

Nukes are a deeply anti-democratic solution to the problem of human generated global warming. They seem to require lies to get built, to require disguised promises of tax dollars to run, and require companies and governments to deceive in a crisis. I'm just not so desperate yet about climate change to be willing to go there; let's get serious as a society about renewables -- that's hard enough to achieve and a damn sight less dangerous.

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