Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mount Fuji in Red

Since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan two weeks ago, Guam has been worried about the possibility of nuclear radiation getting into Guam from either the water or from cargo from Japan. People are even concerned about swimming in the water in Tumon or on the western side of the island out of fear that the water might be contaminated.

Although almost everyone seems to say that Guam will most likely not be affected by the reactor problems in Fukushima, the issue is still an important once because it strikes at the core of whether or not nuclear energy can be considered a "safe" or "clean" technology. The fact that Japan developed nuclear power has always been somewhat controversial, because of how how radiation and nuclear weapons were used against them in World War II. But Japanese governments for decades have always been very clear that nuclear power was safe and clean and that there was nothing to worry about. That rhetoric has been sorely tested in the past two weeks, in the same way in which the rhetoric over the safeness of deep well drilling for oil was tested last year off the Gulf of Mexico. Nuclear energy can with the promise of an abundance of energy, but that promise has itself been challenged and questioned over the years. Nuclear energy is an incredibly expensive, dangerous and wasteful technology. The infrastructure used to create it sometimes boggles my mind. And even when the energy is created, the waste that comes as a result humans have no way to dispose of properly, except to hide it away for 10,000 or more years until it finally breaks down.

I cannot help but be reminded of one of Akira Kurosawa's final and often cited as one of his most personal films, Dreams. The film itself is really a number of short films or vignettes of dreams which have been there throughout his life. The one which strikes most closely to the tragedy in Japan today is his critique of nuclear power in Japan titled "Mount Fuji in Red." In that dream, Kurosawa's protagonist appears amidst a mass of people fleeing with whatever they can carry, as massive explosions take place behind Mount Fuji. He asks people what is happening but no one responds. Eventually he finds a woman and a child and a man who appears to be an executive who will answer him. The nuclear power plant has exploded and it's reactors are going one by one. Mount Fuji begins to glow brightly, appearing to almost erupt or shatter because of the fire that is consuming it.

They come to the edge of the water and scattered around them are all the belongings of all the people who had been fleeing earlier. The people are gone however, and someone remarks that they fled into the sea, the only place left to escape to. Someone notices the dolphins swimming away from Japan as well, but the old man remarks that they can't escape either, the radioactivity will get them too.

The women with two children shrieks that it is fine for those who have had long lives to die, but what about the children who haven't had a chance yet. What about the children where someone, because of their poor decisions, their lack of foresight, has deprived them of having a chance at life? She hopes that they are hung for their mistakes. The old man, who soon reveals that he is one of those men who is responsible for what has happened, one of the nameless men who paid off many and who hid much in order to create the illusion that nuclear energy was safe. He apologizes and prepares to kill himself by jumping into the ocean. The protagonist yells for him to stop, radiation doesn't kill you right away. The old man responds that waiting to die is not living. In a way that's the ultimate critique that Kurosawa and others present about nuclear energy, is that it is creating something which humans can't actually deal with, something which they can use and harness but not truly control. And so use of things such as nuclear power and weapons of massive destruction or even the lack of action on climate change/global warming have set the doomsday clock, and so human beings don't live anymore, but simply are waiting to die.

The old man eventually kills himself as radioactive chemicals in the form of colored clouds descend upon them. When the clouds first appeared, the old man waxed philosophically on the fact that while they were all dangerous or fatal to humans, people have still given them different colors. Here is the subtitles of the old man's comments from the version I have of the movie:

The red one. Plutonium 239. 10,000,000th of a gram causes cancer.


The yellow one is Strontium-90. it gets inside you and causes leukemia.


The purple one is Cesium-137. It affects reproduction. It causes mutations. It makes monstrosities.


Man's stupidity is unbelievable. Radioactivity was invisible. And because of its danger they colored it.


But that only let's you know which kills you.

I find it very interesting that as the tragedy in Japan is talked about all over the world, the earthquake and the tsunami naturally take center stage, and the problems that the nuclear reactors represent is almost completely forgotten. This is understandable since the activity around disasters is built upon the lure of its simplicity. That somehow you can participating in something simple and pure by worrying, being concerned, by donating money, and so it is never meant to be complex, and it is rarely meant to be more than an observing of tragedy and not really an understanding. This is especially so for those from First World countries where they unconsciously hope to salve their privilged souls by feeling compassion and sadness at what happens elsewhere, but always have trouble making any possible connections between their privilege and the chaos in the rest of the world. When you come from the top of the world, you may feel like the rest of the world unfairly blames you and your country for everything, but power, privilege and wealth always come from somewhere. I wrote about this last year in terms of Haiti and how despite the outpouring of compassion for the people who were suffering after the earthquake there and a constant almost pornographic discussion about how dismal and poor the country was, there was almost no discussion about what role the United States has played in helping create modern-day Haiti.

In case of Japan, as a First World power, the story is slightly different, but still there seems to be a clear lack of understanding. The nuclear energy issue is serious, far more serious than the natural disasters because it is not something which is an Act of God, but rather an Act of Man. It is something which can and should be dealt with and shouldn't be ignored the way the world ignores the nuclear waste that is produced to provide nuclear power.

Below is a recent article by Ralph Nader on the nuclear power issue.

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Published on Saturday, March 19, 2011
CommonDreams.org
Nuclear Nightmare

by Ralph Nader

The unfolding multiple nuclear reactor catastrophe in Japan is prompting overdue attention to the 104 nuclear plants in the United States—many of them aging, many of them near earthquake faults, some on the west coast exposed to potential tsunamis.

Nuclear power plants boil water to produce steam to turn turbines that generate electricity. Nuclear power’s overly complex fuel cycle begins with uranium mines and ends with deadly radioactive wastes for which there still are no permanent storage facilities to contain them for tens of thousands of years.

Atomic power plants generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Over forty years ago, the industry’s promoter and regulator, the Atomic Energy Commission estimated that a full nuclear meltdown could contaminate an area “the size of Pennsylvania” and cause massive casualties. You, the taxpayers, have heavily subsidized nuclear power research, development, and promotion from day one with tens of billions of dollars.

Because of many costs, perils, close calls at various reactors, and the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979, there has not been a nuclear power plant built in the United States since 1974.

Now the industry is coming back “on your back” claiming it will help reduce global warming from fossil fuel emitted greenhouse gases.

Pushed aggressively by President Obama and Energy Secretary Chu, who refuses to meet with longtime nuclear industry critics, here is what “on your back” means:

1. Wall Street will not finance new nuclear plants without a 100% taxpayer loan guarantee. Too risky. That’s a lot of guarantee given that new nukes cost $12 billion each, assuming no mishaps. Obama and the Congress are OK with that arrangement.
2. Nuclear power is uninsurable in the private insurance market—too risky. Under the Price-Anderson Act, taxpayers pay the greatest cost of a meltdown’s devastation.

3. Nuclear power plants and transports of radioactive wastes are a national security nightmare for the Department of Homeland Security. Imagine the target that thousands of vulnerable spent fuel rods present for sabotage.

4. Guess who pays for whatever final waste repositories are licensed? You the taxpayer and your descendants as far as your gene line persists. Huge decommissioning costs, at the end of a nuclear plant’s existence come from the ratepayers’ pockets.

5. Nuclear plant disasters present impossible evacuation burdens for those living anywhere near a plant, especially if time is short.
Imagine evacuating the long-troubled Indian Point plants 26 miles north of New York City. Workers in that region have a hard enough time evacuating their places of employment during 5 pm rush hour. That’s one reason Secretary of State Clinton (in her time as Senator of New York) and Governor Andrew Cuomo called for the shutdown of Indian Point.

6. Nuclear power is both uneconomical and unnecessary. It can’t compete against energy conservation, including cogeneration, windpower and ever more efficient, quicker, safer, renewable forms of providing electricity. Amory Lovins argues this point convincingly (see RMI.org). Physicist Lovins asserts that nuclear power “will reduce and retard climate protection.” His reasoning: shifting the tens of billions invested in nuclear power to efficiency and renewables reduce far more carbon per dollar (http://www.nirs.org/factsheets/whynewnukesareriskyfcts.pdf). The country should move deliberately to shutdown nuclear plants, starting with the aging and seismically threatened reactors. Peter Bradford, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) commissioner has also made a compelling case against nuclear power on economic and safety grounds (http://www.nirs.org/factsheets/whynewnukesareriskyfcts.pdf).

There is far more for ratepayers, taxpayers and families near nuclear plants to find out. Here’s how you can start:

1. Demand public hearings in your communities where there is a nuke, sponsored either by your member of Congress or the NRC, to put the facts, risks and evacuation plans on the table. Insist that the critics as well as the proponents testify and cross-examine each other in front of you and the media.

2. If you call yourself conservative, ask why nuclear power requires such huge amounts of your tax dollars and guarantees and can’t buy adequate private insurance. If you have a small business that can’t buy insurance because what you do is too risky, you don’t stay in business.

3. If you are an environmentalist, ask why nuclear power isn’t required to meet a cost-efficient market test against investments in energy conservation and renewables.

4. If you understand traffic congestion, ask for an actual real life evacuation drill for those living and working 10 miles around the plant (some scientists think it should be at least 25 miles) and watch the hemming and hawing from proponents of nuclear power.

The people in northern Japan may lose their land, homes, relatives, and friends as a result of a dangerous technology designed simply to boil water. There are better ways to generate steam.

Like the troubled Japanese nuclear plants, the Indian Point plants and the four plants at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon in southern California rest near earthquake faults. The seismologists concur that there is a 94% chance of a big earthquake in California within the next thirty years. Obama, Chu and the powerful nuke industry must not be allowed to force the American people to play Russian Roulette!

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. His most recent book - and first novel - is, Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us. His most recent work of non-fiction is The Seventeen Traditions.

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