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To the village square: A lesson from Fukushima


March 11 marked the six-year anniversary of what the Japan Times terms that country’s “3/11 disasters.” A powerful earthquake and tsunami killed more than 19,000 people there in 2011, and the Fukushima nuclear plant being in the storm’s path as well, a triple meltdown and explosion led to massive fallout contamination of the surrounding farmland and towns.

Tragically, almost 80,000 people, ordered to evacuate or fleeing voluntarily from the radioactive fallout remain displaced from their communities after six years.

They have lost their farms, homes and livelihoods and must fear for the health of their children, many of which have since been diagnosed with thyroid abnormalities.

An article in the Guardian, titled “Dying robots and failing hope,” describes the unsuccessful efforts so far to even begin the decontamination of the wrecked nuclear plant. Radiation levels are so high, in the least damaged of the three reactor buildings, that it “kills” mechanical robots sent in; a human would “die within a minute.”

Given the lethal radiation, the complexity and scale of the problem are judged to be “almost beyond comprehension” and cleanup of the plant is expected to take 30 to 40 years. Radiation during this time will continue to leak into surrounding communities and the Pacific ocean. Some of its poisoning effects can last for hundreds of years.

The extraordinary hazards of nuclear power may have been why Alfred Einstein urged that “the facts of atomic energy must be carried to the village square” and the people’s voice allowed to be heard regarding its acceptability.

In Japan, a placard held by a toddler: “Rethink; Not Restart” characterizes public demand that other energy sources be employed for electricity. Indeed, the lights didn’t go out there when all but two of 54 operating reactors were shuttered after the accident – the country turned heavily toward renewable energy.

As the headline of an article by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy reads: “Solar Booms in the Land of the Rising Sun.”

Renewable energy generation now supplies over 14 percent of the country’s electricity, having nearly doubled since 2011. By 2030 it can provide a third of the island’s electric needs, its Environmental Minister projects, even absent any nuclear power.

In the preface to an early (1979) book about atomic energy, Ralph Nader cites an insightful statement by nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg, who directed the Oak Ridge National Laboratories during the Manhattan Project.

Though promoting nuclear fission as energy source despite its awesome risks, he called it a “Faustian bargain.” If, as an alternative, solar electricity cost could be brought down to not exceed 2.5 times that of nuclear, Weinberg had said, then he would “favor solar over nuclear fission.”

Renewable energy has become a practical availability. New wind and solar installations are cheaper now, typically, than new nuclear (or new fossil-fuel) plants.

A Faustian-bargain trade is not needed. The solar farm being developed locally by the Johnson City Power Board is a welcome step toward more safe and clean, sustainable energy in our region.