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Hope for a better energy future

A large sign over the entrance gateway to the evacuated town of Futuba reads “Nuclear power: The energy for a bright future.” So reports Sara Barczak of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy on the anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on March 11 four years ago.
March 28 is also the 36-year anniversary of another, serious nuclear accident, at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania.
In Japan, following a magnitude 9 earthquake off its Pacific coast, tsunami waves destroyed the plant’s seawater cooling pumps and flooded the emergency diesel generators. With back-up power to critical safety systems depleted within hours, the reactors’ radioactive cores melted and explosions released large amounts of radioactive material into the environment.
Three hundred thousand people fled or were evacuated. But in the haste, confusion and communication mix-ups during the evacuation, 263 nursing home residents were “forgotten” for several days and 50 other patients died within two weeks.
On March 1 this year, the Japan Times reported more than 1,600 persons from the area to have died since then, from indirect, stress-related illnesses attributable to the nuclear catastrophe. After four years, 136,000 residents are yet “languishing in temporary shelters far from their radioactive homes.”
Despite lump sum payments offered by the nuclear utility if people return, and although for many of them the evacuee stipends will expire this month, fewer than 15 percent want to return to their homes, especially families with children. The paper asked that national government resources be provided to fund needed healthcare and livable compensation for them.
Medical consequences of radiation, and its long persistence in the environment, are serious and well known. Whether released in massive quantities in major accidents or routinely as low-level emissions from operating power plants, radioactive elements’ pathways into the food chain and human body can be hidden for a long time. Being cumulative, however, and each exposure adding to the risks, cancers and other illnesses develop in many exposed persons.
Food in contaminated zones can remain poisonous for a long time. This is known from western Europe where soils in some areas, more than thousand miles from Chernobyl, still have fallout lingering, and unmarketable food 29 years after that plant’s explosion. As Helen Caldicott, a physician, said of some of the principal emissions from Fukushima, such as tritium, cesium, strontium 90 and plutonium: They will be swirling in the earth’s atmosphere and oceans, endangering humans and all living beings for centuries.
A “bright energy future” through splitting atoms for electricity has not materialized in the way the nuclear engineers envisioned. To its downsides in accident risk, cost and mountains of radioactive waste from which future people must be shielded for thousands of years must now be added its enormous thirst for water, precious and getting scarcer as droughts and heat waves become more widespread under a warming climate. Fortunately, renewable energy alternatives, safe and requiring little water, can supplant it within a few decades’ time.
The “Nuclear power” sign is being taken down in Futuba, its upbeat message now proven horribly wrong.