THE LONG-TERM FOLLY OF NUCLEAR ENERGY
Once again, we humans are facing a social-environmental calamity due to the potential meltdown of the Japanese nuclear power plant, in the wake of the 8.9-magnitude earthquake. The non-nuclear explosion at the crippled plant, wherein the failsafe-backup system failed, brings about this circumstance. If, however, the reactor core cannot be cooled in time, there will be a nuclear explosion that, in all likelihood, will wreak a similar destruction on the Japanese people, as did the atomic bombs in World War II. Although the context is dramatically different, the results will be essentially the same. Herein lies a critical lesson that we steadfastly ignore. Namely, we are not in control—Nature is.
Look at it this way: In our search for “national security” and cheap energy in the United States and abroad, we are introducing concentrated nuclear waste into many ecosystems, an introduction the impact of which is global in scale, extremely long term in consequences, and complex in the extreme. And there is no safe way to render harmless or to contain the concentrations we are creating.
In addition, today’s burgeoning population is focused in centralized metropolitan areas that are increasingly served by nuclear power plants. What does this exponential growth in and consolidation of the human population mean? What is history trying to teach us to which we continually turn a deaf ear and a blind eye? Negating this informed denial is the once-terrifying meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, the consequence of which, although locally graphic in the extreme, rode the winds that distributed strontium-90 throughout the Soviet Republics. The rest was dispersed as fallout over Northern Europe and worldwide. Strontium-90, which is found in waste from nuclear reactors, is considered one of the more hazardous constituents of nuclear wastes. Further, strontium-90 has a half-life of 29.1 years,1 which means for it to disappear from a given area would require 58.2 years.
Although Strontium-90 may be inhaled in trace amounts as a contaminant in dust, the main intake pathway is with food and water. Chemically similar to calcium, it tends to be deposited in bone and blood-forming tissue (bone marrow). For this reason, it’s referred to as a “bone seeker.” Internal exposure to strontium-90 is linked to bone cancer, cancer of the soft tissue near the bone, and leukemia.2
That said, the meltdown at Chernobyl was not potentially so dangerous as was the buried nuclear dump that blew up near Chelyabinsk in the southern Ural Mountains in late 1957 or early 1958. It killed the land surrounding Chelyabinsk—over an area of roughly 1,000 square kilometers (621 square miles)—perhaps for centuries to come. All that was left standing after the explosion was a stark landscape of chimneys.
Then came the dangerous accident at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, at the Three Mile Island power station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in the U.S., where a cooling malfunction caused part of the core to melt in reactor number 2, destroying it. Although some radioactive gas was released a couple of days after the accident, fortunately, there were no injuries or adverse health effects3 —at least none reported. Even if the today’s moment-to-moment crisis in Japan has a relatively benign outcome, will we, the human species, actually learn anything from it or will we elect to trudge blindly along our unconscious trajectory?
We continually introduce thoughts, practices, substances, and technologies into the environment, and we usually think of these in terms of “development” related to a commercial strategy for the use or extraction of a given resource. Whenever we install something in the environment, such as a nuclear power plant, it’s not only immediately and forever out of our control but also determines how the environment responds to our presence and cultural necessities. It’s therefore our responsibility to pay close attention to the potential consequences of what we introduce—with humility not our usual arrogance. After all, the consequences of our actions become our bequest to the children of today, tomorrow, and beyond.
Our so-called “management” of the world’s resources is always to maximize the output of material products. Consequently, we both deplete the resource base and produce unmanageable “by-products,” often in the form of hazardous “wastes.” In unforeseen ways, these “by-products” are altering how our biosphere functions. In reality, however, there is no such thing as a “by-product.” There is only an unintended product, one that is generally undesirable. Witness the growing pollution of the world’s air, soil, and water—all non-substitutable components of the global commons and thus the birthright of all life forms.
Our introductions represent our level of consciousness as well as our sense of responsibility to all generations—not just our immediate self-interest, although that’s usually the sum total of our focus. Our initial introduction is our pattern of thought, which determines the way we perceive the Earth and how we act toward it—either as something sacred to be nurtured or only as a commodity to be converted into money. Thus, our patterns of thought affect the long-term productive capacity of the ecosystems that serve us.
Clearly, we not only lack control but also have not the slightest idea of how to deal safely with the concentrations of the nuclear wastes we are producing—those we purposefully bury (hide) in the soil, where they pollute the ground water, or those that escape into the rivers of wind circumnavigating the globe, where, despite our best efforts at containment, they insidiously pollute our home planet.
Instead of controlling our human population, curbing our addiction to so-called “cheap” energy by changing our thinking and thus our personal behavior, and committing our efforts to produce safe, clean solar and wind energy, we cling steadfastly to unsafe, harmful nuclear energy. In so doing, we continue along the speedway of irresponsibility, creating thousands of tons of nuclear waste annually through the military-industrial complex and its patently unsafe technology. If we persist along this course, the biosphere will eventually adapt to high, generalized concentrations of radioactivity, but most life, as we know it, will likely not be here to see that adaptation take place.
As the old saying goes: History repeats itself. What is not said, however, is that history repeats itself until its lessons are learned. Can we finally access the humility to accept the lesson history has been trying to teach us? Or, in the worst-case scenario, will it require a calamity of such extraordinary proportions that we are left with no alternatives but to accept the lesson? The Israeli statesman Abba Eban observed that, “History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” It is my sincere hope, with respect to our reliance on nuclear power plants, that this momentous Japanese tragedy will serve to raise our collective level of consciousness for the benefit of all generations.
Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.