Some Thoughts on Fukushima

A few days before I left Tokyo, Japan’s Self Defense Forces made their first attempts to douse a fire in one of the Fukushima reactors.  The drama was broadcast live on NHK. Helicopters carrying huge scoops of seawater one by one approached the damaged nuclear power plant stretched out below them like a wounded dragon belching white smoke.  Dangling on long lines from the helicopters, the scoops released the water while the wind dispersed it into a fine spray that seemed to settle everywhere but on the source of the fire.  The helicopters looked like mosquitos, the scoops their long proboscises that could not quite reach the outsized target.  Scenes from some old Godzilla film came to mind:  The angry monster stomping through the streets of Tokyo swatting aside airplanes like so many insignificant insects.  Although the Fukushima plant is not a living creature but a device created by man himself, there is something archetypal about this battle of men to bring under control a monster of their own making.

The battle is not yet over.  As of this writing, workers are attempting so far unsuccessfully to seal up a crack from which radiation is thought to be leaking.  The rest of Japan waits and watches.  They attempt to resume the “normality” of their daily lives and go about their business as before.  But the cracks are there and won’t be mended soon.

Some people are moved by these events to reconsider nuclear power as the answer to Japan’s energy needs.  A recent JANJAN article by citizen reporter Umigata Masashi [<>%5D tells of an anti-nuclear power demonstration held in Tokyo on March 27 with 1,000 people in attendance.  He reports that while he has participated in such demonstrations before, this time was different because the future of Japan is now truly hanging in the balance.  The demonstrators called for cessation and eventual closure of Japan’s nuclear power facilities, even if this means all Japan’s energy needs cannot be met.  According to the reporter, the safety of food, water, and health must take priority.  He ends the article with this prayer:  “Oh God and Buddha, we beg of you, please stabilize and cool the nuclear reactors, contain the radiation and stop things from getting any worse.  We cannot take this anymore.”

Other people are moved by these events to come out even more strongly in favor of nuclear power, which to the Tree‘s editorial staff seems a premature move.  The internet is jumping with articles and posts by self-styled “experts,” whose main purpose seems to be to allay fears and keep everyone from turning against this form of energy production.  The Tree notes with interest, however, that if there is one thing certain about nuclear power at this moment, it is its uncertainty.  No one yet knows the outcome, short- and long-term, of Fukushima.  Isn’t it therefore too soon to be reassuring anybody about the safety of nuclear power?

Something else we’ve noticed in this literature is a tendency by some of these “experts” to describe their own pro-nuclear views as “rational” or “realistic” as opposed to the anti-nuclear view, which is guided by “panic” or “perception.”  A case in point:  In a March 24 set of interviews with “experts” by Fortune [<>%5D, the following comments appear:

From David Crane:  “It’s simply not realistic” to solve America’s energy needs by developing solar and wind power.  And “it would be an overreaction” to shut down every nuclear plant while safety issues are studied.

From Nathan Myhrvold: “You know, with nuclear, you always have to make the distinction between the perceptual and the real….From a perceptual standpoint, there’s an enormous amount of concern…about the events unfolding in Japan: Could this affect us? Of course it could. But there is no logical reason that this particular incident has to change the way we as a society feel about nuclear power any more than it should change the way we feel about living near the seashore.”  And, “Lurching from one disaster to another, acting in fear and panic, is a stupid way to run a society.”  And therefore, “I am confident that a rational decision would say, ‘Nuclear power is a super-important part of our future.'”

Even the editor, Geoff Colvin, introducing the interviews, climbs aboard the “rationality” bandwagon:  “the danger is that the world’s response to the events at Fukushima may not be rational.”

But just who are these “experts” who claim the label of “rational” for themselves, and who have appointed themselves to decide for the rest of us what is “logical” and “real”?  Well, David Crane is the CEO of NRG Energy, which owns nuclear power facilities in Texas, while Nathan Myhrvold is the founder of Intellectual Ventures, which invented TerraPower, a company developing a new kind of whiz-bang nuclear reactor.  In other words, they both have a major financial interest in seeing to it that nuclear power remains a viable option in America’s energy future.  The Tree wonders if these men are truly capable of unbiased “rational” thinking under the circumstances.  Just who is it that has a clearer view of reality here?  Those whose vision is filled daily with scenes of a smoking and intractable Fukushima Daiichi, or those whose vision is partially blocked by dollar signs?

As Myhrvold says, “We can’t afford to allow panic from a particular situation, no matter how tragic, to close our eyes to what could be superior technical solutions.”  Indeed.  And especially, we would add, if you’ve got a whole lot of money invested in those very same solutions.




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2 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Fukushima”

  1. Kirsti Kaldro Says:

    The whole money/energy connection is worth exploring. I wish we could hear more about why wind and solar are so impractical. Is it just that money has not been invested in that direction, or that those types of power are not profitable?

    • tokyotree Says:

      I do not know the answer to your question, which is a good one. To me it is glaringly obvious that nuclear power is the impractical choice. I find it a little odd that wind and solar are not being pursued more actively, and that those promoting nuclear power use the argument that coal contributes to global warming, and thus is far more harmful in the long run than a Fukushima-like disaster, as if the only choice for energy production were between those two. But it’s a circular argument: Because someone in the past made the decision to invest in nuclear over other forms of “clean” energy, nuclear is now more readily available than the other forms. And because nuclear is now more readily available than other forms, nuclear is still the best choice. Huh? I guess this is what they mean by “renewable” energy!

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