Monday, April 23, 2012

Thinking of Fukushima on Earth Day


Yesterday was Earth Day according to whoever makes this kind of stuff up (the way I figure, every day is Earth Day, I've never been anyplace else). Here in the San Francisco Bay Area summer has arrived: it was hot as heck on Saturday, but Sunday dawned foggy and cool. In Berkeley, just opposite the Golden Gate, it pretty much stayed that way. To those of us who like living on the left edge of the East Bay, this is a pleasant thing.

Late last week I biked by the west entrance to the UC Berkeley campus on my way to work, as I do most days, and found the customary anti-nuke vigil in its customary place with the usual vigil-holders holding their customary banners. I wrote about these folks a while ago, in a post titled TV Debate on Nuclear Weapons Needed Now. I took the post title from the text on a banner they've been bringing to vigils for more than thirty years, and pointed out how sadly off the mark I thought that message reads nowadays, no matter how well-meaning. (A TV debate? Really?)

Well, here's the thing. These steadfast elders have made a new banner to complement their customary set.

(I want to make a joke along the lines of Papa's Got a Brand New Banner, but I can't figure out how to work James Brown into a post on Earth Day and nuclear power plants and oil spills. Aaaaaaanyway...)

The new banner reads: Fukushima - Earth's Nuclear Warning!

Still a little on the corny side, eh? But I'd say it's on point, nonetheless.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdowns are, of course, a disaster that isn't yet behind us. Here, from Fukushima Daiichi: Inside the debacle from Fortune magazine and published on CNN.com late last week:
More than a year has passed since a massive earthquake and a series of tsunamis triggered the worst accident at a nuclear power plant since Chernobyl in 1986, but the epic debacle at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station remains front and center in Japan, at the very core of a historic debate over the future of nuclear energy [...]

[...] The epic disaster at Fukushima Daiichi represents failure at almost every level, from how the Japanese government regulates nuclear power, to how TEPCO managed critical details of the crisis under desperate circumstances.

[...]

On December 16, [former Prime Minister] Kan's successor, Yoshihiko Noda, announced that the stricken reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station had reached "a state of cold shutdown." Japan's worst-ever nuclear accident, the Prime Minister said, had finally been brought under control.

The moment was meant to be a calming milestone, psychological balm for a wounded country in the process of trying to heal. The only problem with it, as workers today at the nuclear power plant, will tell you, is this: it wasn't true then, and it's still not true today. "The coolant water is keeping the reactor temperatures at a certain level, but that's not even near the goal [of a cold shut down,]" says an engineer working inside the plant. "The fact is, we still don't know what's going on inside the reactors."
On the side of the Pacific Ocean where I live, the SF Chronicle recently reported the results of a scientific analysis out of CSU Long Beach: Fukushima radiation found in California kelp. Yep, it took a while to complete the analysis, and Iodine 131 has a short half-life so it's more or less gone now, but the sobering point is not to be ignored: what happened there happened here too. It's a small world, after all.

So you'd think the lesson Earth administered last year would be pretty well assimilated by now. You'd think that a national government that was part of last year's epic failure would proceed with due caution going forward.

You'd want to think again.

Here, from the lede of a NY Times article datelined 13 April, Japan Seeks to Restart some Nuclear Power Plants:
Hoping to avert potentially devastating summer power shortages, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Friday that his government would seek to restart two nuclear reactors, in what would be a first step toward ending an almost complete shutdown of the nation’s nuclear power industry.
When you consider how governments tend to respond to crisis that don't lend themselves to neat solutions, Prime Minister Noda of Japan doesn't look like an outlier. Of course it's not just Japan's regulators and government officials who shut their eyes to risk in order to meet massive demand for (cheap) energy. Consider the Washington Post of this past Thursday, Two years after BP oil spill, offshore drilling still poses risks:
Two years after a blowout on BP’s Macondo well killed 11 men and triggered the largest oil spill in U.S. history, oil companies are again plying the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Forty-one deep-water rigs are in the gulf. The vast majority of them are drilling new holes or working over old ones, while the other behemoths are idle as they await work or repairs. A brand new rig — the South Korean-built Pacific Santa Ana, capable of drilling to a depth of 7.5 miles — is on its way to a Chevron well.

But three recent incidents in other parts of the world show just how risky and sensitive offshore drilling remains.

[...]

Many experts say that even with tougher regulations here in the United States, such incidents are inevitable.
It's stories like these that make me wonder whether people are capable of identifying and empowering leadership to reimagine and reconfigure human relations with the rest of the planet ... in time to stave off a reset precipitated by human-induced catastrophe.

It's the 'one year later' stories like those about Fukushima and the Gulf oil spill that make me wince when somebody suggests I have a Happy Earth Day...





Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Nuclear meltdown abroad and at home
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
TV Debate on Nuclear Weapons Needed Now

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