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Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012
HAVE YOUR SAY
After Fukushima disaster, readers split on the atom
Some readers' views on Michael Radcliffe's July 24 Zeit Gist article, "How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the atom":
The 'nuclear village' voice
Michael Radcliffe's Zeit Gist piece is misinformed, irresponsible and reactionary. Prompted, perhaps, by the "Flyjin" piece ("'Flyjin' feel vindicated, worry for those left in Japan ," Zeit Gist, June 12) and the spate of antinuclear activity that has hit Japan, Mr. Radcliffe may have been moved to respond as he did as a gesture of support to an already beleaguered Japan. If so, the string of misinformation and unsubstantiated opinion end up dishonoring a nation desperately in need of new direction informed by the realities of the man-made disaster.
As the weekly Friday protests continue to grow throughout Japan, expressing not only desire for change in energy policy but for a more responsive political process, Radcliffe's cheerful praise of the status quo is not only blinkered but also insulting to the mothers with children, office workers, seniors and students who are discovering new purpose as citizens.
Mr. Radcliffe's yardstick for assessing Fukushima No. 1's destructive capacity is effectively reduced to one outcome: immediately identifiable deaths. His rant revolves around this misguided measure, revealing a vision that recognizes only the 'spectacular' as index of reality. Following this logic, a year-and-a-half after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima-Nagasaki, Mr. Radcliffe would have counted only those who had died from the blast and its immediate effects, leaving invisible and uncounted tens of thousands of others who suffered myriad radiation-related afflictions as hibakusha until their deaths.
His piece makes no mention of the large body of research that gives the lie to what might as well be the industry position regarding the safety of nuclear energy. The deception comes from willed misapplication of the ABCC Hiroshima-Nagasaki studies. Considered the 'gold standard' of radiation studies, they focus on the aftermath of atomic bombs, which gave off high-level radiation in a very short time period. As Shoji Sawada of Nagoya University observes, "The Hiroshima studies never looked at fallout: They looked at 'gamma rays and neutrons emitted within a minute of the explosion,' but did not consider the effects of residual radiation over time, effects from inhalation or ingestion that are more severe."
The nuclear complex of government, power companies and scientists insists on the validity of the Hiroshima studies for determining exposure damage, which by design did not detect the long-term effects of low-level exposure and ingestion through air, water, soil — and, therefore, food. In fact, the Life Span Study of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, the successor to the ABCC, supports a Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model (under which cancer rates increase with exposure and there is no identifiable level below which exposure can be proven to be safe).
Numerous studies by independent researchers designed to address such exposure conclusively testify to the damage wrought by nuclear power plants in their normal course of operations, not to mention in times of disaster. One of the most prominent, a 2007 German government study, showed conclusively that children living within 5 km of such facilities were more than twice as likely to develop leukemia. Studies of children downwind of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington have shown greatly elevated rates of thyroid cancer.
As for Chernobyl, even the IAEA, whose central mission is to promote the use of nuclear reactors, estimates around 9,000 long-term cancer deaths from Chernobyl, while the massive work of Yablokov, Nesterenko and Nesterenko, which draws on Slavic language reports, estimates close to a million "excess" deaths. The BEIR VII (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) report of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2005) reconfirms the LNT model.
To those who claim that the health effects of radiation exposure are negligible, even too small to detect given that cancer has multiple causes and we live in a world full of toxins, we might say: True, it's difficult to prove that your cancer or mine was caused exclusively by Chernobyl or Three Mile Island or living downwind of Hanford or by atmospheric testing in the Pacific or now, by Fukushima, but why would we want to be adding more famously long-lived radionuclides to those already released and enhance the synergistic mix of carcinogens?
Mr. Radcliffe's "mistake" reflects the relentless workings of the nuclear-industrial-government-academic complex, born and spread throughout the United States, now widely disseminated and embraced throughout the world. In sharp contrast to its avowed nonnuclear policies, postwar Japan became its muted poster boy, with 50 reactors and the creation of Rokkasho in Aomori as nuclear dump site to the world, all in a nation the size of California.
And contrary to Mr. Radcliffe's assertions, nuclear power is not a "clean" energy source by any stretch of the imagination. As Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service puts it, "If the toxic radiation emitted daily from every nuclear reactor and other commercial nuclear facilities were the color and texture of oil, or smelled like natural gas, or came out as black soot, no one would ever again confuse nuclear power with 'clean.' "
Carbon dioxide, which in fact is emitted at various stages of nuclear power production, including transport, is hardly the only pollutant that poses a threat to life and our planet. Tritium, cesium, strontium, plutonium and a dozen or more deadly pollutants produced by nuclear power generation are a disaster away from dwarfing the daunting concerns of carbon dioxide. Add to this the intractable problem of nuclear waste disposal, whether in terms of transportation or containment, and the claims of cleanliness become absurd.
Like gas, oil and coal, uranium is a nonrenewable source of energy, whose reserves total less than one-third of that of oil. But its capacity to make life unsustainable for a long period of time is singular.
The focus has been on Japan, but as nearby China builds new reactors at fever pitch with Southeast Asia following its lead, the devastation, actual and potential, is never simply local. As scholars, teachers, and oftentimes residents, we too have strong ties to Japan, and seek solidarity with those involved in the weekly Friday protests, the people of Fukushima, expats in Japan and all people living in this land we love — not by echoing industry sentiments, but by squarely confronting the deadly nuclear-industrial-government-academic complex that has hijacked a nation rebuilt on principles disavowing nuclear destruction.
JAMES A. FUJII
Failure to understand is Japanese
Thank you for this common sense.
The demise of trust within Japan is a great concern. The NAIIC (Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation) Report has failed to understand that the problem is international, not "made in Japan." But the failure to understand is Japanese.
Explanatory education is needed. For further comment, see www.gepr.org/en/contents/20120723-05/ (Japanese translation expected soon).
Monkeying around with atoms
I would agree with the author of the article, but there are two factors he conveniently omits. First is that the disaster was man-made. It was not a freak-of-nature accident. It was sheer incompetence and greed that caused the Fukushima meltdown. Second is that nuclear power is only cost-effective if you don't calculate the processing and storage of the nuclear waste.
I also believe in nuclear power, but not in the hands of a government or a company with economical gain as a goal. This basically makes me believe that mankind is not ready for nuclear power because we are not responsible enough.
A nuclear power plant should be operated by a group of technicians without any interference from accountants and policymakers.
If the author were to research a little bit more, he would find that most of the current design of reactors are a very bad compromise, and that scientists advised against using the (now antiquated, but at that time new) designs for civilian use when the power plants were being built.
As usual, politicians ignored the scientific research because the answer was not what they wanted to hear. They wanted to make the promise of electricity so cheap you would not need to meter it. They made that promise but could not keep it.
The only solution to this problem would be to have a new breed of politician who actually understands technical knowledge and respects scientific viewpoints, along with a nonprofit body that monitors and operates the nuclear reactors. Good luck finding that.
The reason those old reactors (not only in Fukushima or in Japan, but worldwide) are still in use is that they are very profitable. The investment is already paid back and most of the reactors are now older than their projected life span when designed. Every day that those reactors keep working is a profit for the operating company.
Nuclear waste is such a big problem again because of political decisions made when building the reactors. The current crop of reactors are designed with the ability to produce weapons-grade nuclear material. This was more or less understandable in the time of the Cold War, to the extent that building weapons that will make the world inhabitable for the next few thousand/millions of year is understandable, of course. A politician's mind works in mysterious ways.
So do I back nuclear power? No, not anymore, because we, the barely-out-of-the-tree evolved monkeys that we are, have proven that we do not have the responsibility to play with such destructive forces — especially so in the case of Japan.
ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, an international nuclear fusion project) is a step in the right direction, but that has been delayed (by Japan and France infighting) for years. Japan finally gave up its not-so-attractive bid on the building of the reactor recently.
Again, Mr. Radcliffe should do some research on the whole process, and again, I can only conclude that Japan is not a politically adult nation.
NAME WITHHELD UPON REQUEST
Media balance sorely needed
Excellent! If it were possible to shove my hand through my monitor to shake yours, I would do so, sir!
I also compliment The Japan Times for having the guts and fairness to run your different calm and rational article; very few of JT's rivals would, since sex and fear sells! In fact, I don't even believe there are any nuclear-neutral/pronuclear media outlets in Japan!
I only wish this concise article could be run in all media and press organs in Japan just as a token of media balance to calm the consternation and misery. Japan badly needs such reasoned voices nowadays to keep their passionate fears from throwing the baby out with the bath water, and running back to "safer" fossil fuels.
So far, so good, so far, so good . . .
Might it be conceivable that someone who jumped from the top of the SkyTree could actually enjoy his fall, even up until the last millisecond?
So far, so good . . . After a few seconds, he could even think, "Surely, this is not so dangerous?"
When things are not going badly, this is a typical way to react toward people who are trying to advocate in favor of a cautious stance: To be sure, the thinking goes, they are afraid because they are not thinking things through logically.
As nothing or almost nothing has happened as of now, nothing is going to occur — this sense of safety grows, and will be at its highest level just before the crash. It is always like that with catastrophes, and in the aftermath, it is also always the same tune: "We did not think that this little problem could have happened."
Most often it is not a serious technological problem that caused the accident. Usually something very basic went wrong. Thus there is no responsibility — it is just bad luck.
Hopefully the impact of the Fukushima accident will be limited in its extent, even though it will be larger than that predicted "objectively" by Mr. Radcliffe. At least the impact won't be as extreme as it could have been, in comparison to what is still potentially looming here in Japan, in France and in the United States, etc.
Planes normally don't crash, but from time to time they do. To be sure, only a tiny percentage of them do crash. Despite this risk, we board planes and when an accident happens, a few hundred people die, for human and technical reasons.
Chemical plants normally do not leak, but we all remember Bhopal — and there are a lot of other examples of chemical accidents in which a great number of victims suffered, such as in Toulouse, France, a few years ago.
In nuclear plants, normally reactors do not melt. But they can. And whenever one does, anywhere on Earth, the victims will number in the thousands.
Officially, it has been claimed that there were only a few fatalities from the Chernobyl accident. Certainly, some people who worked on the site during the crisis are in good health today.
But in the meantime, in many places far from Ukraine, the number of people dying from cancer is abnormally high. This is the case, for example, in some regions in France, as well as in Jura (along the French-Swiss border), due to the consumption of mushrooms. There, the population of children has registered a higher than average number of thyroid problems.
The decision to start nuclear power generation was not based on green arguments. Only a relatively small amount of investment has been directed, on a world scale, on renewable energies such as solar and wind, especially compared to the amount spent on research into nuclear plant technology. And these costs are not factored into the supposed low cost of nuclear energy — and that's even before mentioning the issue of dealing with the waste.
We must hope that no large nuclear accident will ever happen, since, if one did occur, the outcome would be horrific. And terribly costly. Let's remove ourselves from this threat as far as possible.
Thus, the people of Japan asking us to stop taking this huge risk — even if the terrible event has only a very low probability of occurring — are wise.
Moreover, it really is possible to rely on renewable energies, not at such a higher direct cost compared to the nuclear option, and at a much higher level of safety.
If during the transition period we need to share electricity, it is clear that people of Japan are prepared to do it. They would agree, for example, to reduce the excess use of electricity in public spaces, and to turn off the huge flashing ad signs, so that it would be possible to keep air con working for those people in danger of suffering heatstroke.
It is self-evident that the allocation of a scarce resource should be made carefully. People are ready to do that, but the elites in power always find excuses not to do it. There is enough electricity for the real need of everyone in Japan without nuclear power, but it is the incapacity among our elites to organize the sharing that is dramatic. And this is the case at the world level — the last example was (at the Earth Summit) in Rio in June.
For me, the growing number of Japanese people asking openly for a country free from nuclear energy is a good thing. And if they succeed, their success, far from driving foreigners to leave Japan, will instead lead some to return and encourage still others to come.
Hastening Japan's Greek moment
Amen, on all of your points. Letting all the existing reactors, whether old or new, sit idle costs a ton of money and uses a substantial amount of electricity. This policy also provides no electricity, and thus no value, to the country. Each year they continue this will bring Japan's Greek moment to fruition much more quickly.
My major remaining point of concern with Japan's nuclear industry involves not the equipment, but rather the dearth of adequate disaster-response training and exercises at the plants. Fukushima No. 2 and Onagawa seemed to handle the earthquake without major failures. However, I haven't seen any indication in the press that lessons learned from the inadequate responses of the workers at Fukushima No. 1 have been applied to Japan's other plants.
My training in nonnuclear engineering operations taught me not to completely trust remote indications, and also to drill regularly on worst-case scenarios. It's a lot of work, but absolutely necessary to keeping the workforce on their toes and prepared for worst case scenarios.
An insult to the victims
Michael Radcliffe makes some sweeping and rather astonishing statements in his article. He refers to the current situation in Fukushima as an "imagined nuclear crisis" and seems to be saying that if there was ever any crisis, it is now effectively over.
He makes this statement notwithstanding that a genuine crisis unfolded in the days after the 3/11 earthquake (even the Japanese government has acknowledged how dire the situation was in the immediate aftermath of the quake) and that the plant faces serious ongoing and unresolved issues, such as: how to dispose of contaminated water; how to deal with the thousands of new and unused nuclear rods; what to do if another earthquake occurs in the same region and the already damaged reactors are further compromised structurally; and when the surrounding area will be fit for human settlement again.
On the last point, it's not clear if he is saying the no-go zone is unnecessary or at what level any exclusion zones are appropriate, but the impression he gives is that everyone is being far too conservative and the levels of radiation in Fukushima are nothing to be concerned about. This, despite conflicting information on the subject, particularly where babies and small children are concerned. Is Mr. Radcliffe prepared to go and live indefinitely within the 20 km zone with any children he may have?
Mr. Radcliffe says that "the relatively minor effects of the Fukushima accident can really be appreciated when compared to the hideous health consequences of the use of other major energy sources." Granted, he may argue that he is comparing the comparative effects of nuclear energy with other energy sources when making this statement, but to describe the effects of the Fukushima "accident" even in this context as "relatively minor" is to ignore and belittle the pain and suffering borne by the many thousands of people directly affected by the accident through, amongst other factors, loss of property, forced abandonment of their hometowns, loss of community ties, psychological stress and loss of employment.
I challenge Michael Radcliffe to visit some of the people living in temporary housing in Tohoku due to relocation from the Fukushima "hot zone" and tell the people that he considers their suffering to be "relatively minor." Mr. Radcliffe may also want to read some of the reports that the Japanese government he seems to trust so much has commissioned itself and revisit his use of the word "accident" to describe the events that unfolded at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Other words such as "negligence," "incompetence" and "wilful default" come to mind.
Mr. Radcliffe goes on to say that "the real tragedy of the Fukushima accident is that many normal people have been whipped into a fever pitch of extraordinary apprehension about nuclear power." Is this a poor and tasteless attempt at facetiousness? Is he saying that there was no need for people to ever evacuate the area around Fukushima No. 1 plant? Is he saying that he thinks the plant is now safe?
It is true that many people are apprehensive, some perhaps with less rational grounds than others, but for those who once lived close to the plant and for many others who recognize that there are still many unknown facts and a future filled with uncertainty, how is it surprising that people are apprehensive? In this context, emotive phrases such as "whipped into a fever pitch" are hollow and condescending. The real tragedy, in my view, is the tragedy of the lives that have been irreparably and detrimentally affected by this event.
Moreover, Mr. Radcliffe seems fairly confident that the health effects of Fukushima are minimal, such that one wonders if perhaps he has a crystal ball and can see into the future, when any affects on the health of the people of Tohoku will actually become apparent.
Mr. Radcliffe closes his facile piece with his own little vote of confidence for more nuclear power in Japan. No mention of the cost that is going to be incurred by Japanese taxpayers to safely close down Fukushima No. 1. No mention of the precarious state of the damaged reactors and the very real potential for major complications to occur in the many years that it will take to close down the plant. No mention of the fact that Japan is one of the most earthquake- and tsunami-prone countries in the world. No attempt to consider alternative sources of energy or the likely future demands for energy. All because . . . what happened in Fukushima was all relatively minor.
Keep up the good work
I applaud your call for reason and your reporting of the actual facts of the situation. It is my hope that Japan does not close down its vital and safe source of electric power. The truth is refreshing. Keep up the good work.
One only has to look at the hysteria in Germany that is closing its entire nuclear power generation infrastructure. The likelihood of a Fukushima-type scenario occurring in Germany is equal to that of another Tunguska event hitting Berlin. This is a perfect example of media-induced hysteria over a tempest in a teapot!
Don't feed the trolls
There was so much wrong with that article that it doesn't deserve an answer. The most disturbing thing about it was the fact that it was what is called in Internet parlance a "troll": an outrageous statement whose sole purpose is to elicit a visceral response. The only rule to follow in such a case is "Don't feed the trolls."
My question is, why would The Japan Times publish such a simplistic troll disguised as an opinion piece in times like these?
I hope it will not fool too many of the readers into getting upset and making ill-thought-out rejoinders. It was designed to push people's buttons, so please don't fall into that trap.
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