Fukushima and our Hubris
Claus Biegert comments on the nuclear inferno in Japan.
We have mastered nuclear fission, thanks to the revolutionary work of Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann and Lise Meitner some 70 years ago. This capability planted within us a patch of hubristic pride. Today we witness the flowery outcome foremost among the industrial elite, who dangle before our eyes the pretty pretence that we also control nuclear fission’s consequences.
Rather fascinating: here natural science encounters a mindset that trusts in and at the same time apes God. Add to this a nose for profit and the acceptance of human mortality, and you arrive at the mad formula that awards us the title Masters of the Uncontrollable. We all know better than this, yet still we continue to use nuclear energy, shutting our eyes. Unassailable experts in high positions steer blind public opinion – experts who dismiss dangers and parade their specialist knowledge as if it were universally referential. Critics are belittled and are accused of pandering to fears and hobbling technical progress when they appeal to the open facts.
Japan’s north-east coast resembles a battlefield. We are accustomed to repelling attacks with bullets, bazookas, bombs... An enemy always eases the problem, because only against an enemy can we be victors. With our military superiority we can rid the enemy from our planet. But this time-honoured strategy suddenly makes no sense: the enemy is Mother Earth! She, the one who nurtures us, she, the one on whom we depend for everything – she is suddenly our enemy? Since the beginning of the industrial age, we, the inhabitants of Mother Earth, have done little other than attack her, destroy her, plunder her, poison her, and make her uninhabitable. We mindlessly take what we need to continue our luxurious lifestyles, destroying in the process life’s essentials. The angry flare-up of the Earth’s crust should come as no surprise. Yet the catastrophe in Japan is even greater: Mother Nature played her part, but the major role was ours.
In 1990 the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa ended his episodic film Dreams with a sequence entitled Mount Fuji in Red. “Did Fuji erupt?” shouts a young man. A mother with two small children tells him: “It’s worse than that. Didn’t you know? The nuclear power plant has exploded!” Escape from the calamity ends at a cliff high above the sea. The radioactive fog sweeps across overhead, a buffet of ominous colours: plutonium is red (cancer), strontium is yellow (leukaemia), and caesium is purple (birth defects). “Death’s calling card,” explains a man in a suit. Out at sea, a school of dolphins strikes out for the horizon. “Lucky dolphins,” says the mother. “It won’t help,” says the man in the suit. “The radioactivity will get them.” The episode, based on one of Kurosawa’s dreams, lasts just over seven minutes. Critics panned the sequence as simplistic and overblown. Twenty years later the work has acquired an uncanny, prophetic power.
Who’s guilty? To wish to establish who bears the guilt is quite human. But how are we to assign guilt in this case? Can we blame TEPCO, a giant utility with a history of mess-ups? Or can we blame the public authorities who licensed the building of a nuclear-power complex in a region threatened by severe earthquakes? Off the coastline lies the Japan Trench, 8 kilometres deep and 800 kilometres long, the highly active tectonic zone where the Pacific Plate subducts beneath the Japanese islands. Who’s guilty?
Did the industrial nation of Japan go too far? Since the beginning of humankind we have struggled for the highest, most extreme achievements. That’s how we evolved into our present-day nuclear civilisation. And right now we’re reaching for limits that may harbour even greater calamity: the manipulation of DNA, the game of artificial intelligence, the fever for nano-technologies. Only briefly has Fukushima, reminding us of our fallibility, called us back.
Who’s guilty? This question takes us on a journey into the past. In 1942 the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi conducted the first successful self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction beneath the stands of Stagg Field stadium at the University of Chicago. Any threat to Chicago and its citizens was ignored. During the grey morning hours of 16 July 1945, Robert Oppenheimer and his team detonated the first atomic bomb in the desert of New Mexico. The attempt was called Trinity, and the scientists and engineers were unsure whether the explosion would consume the Earth’s entire atmosphere. Despite their uncertainty, they pushed the button.
The first practical use of this new art of weaponry followed in Japan; the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bear witness to the explosions to this day. It is a perverse twist of history that this island nation should be visited with yet another nuclear tragedy while the survivors of Little Boy and Fat Man – and their progeny – continue to suffer. Although 65 years have passed, the radioactive consequences of the US blasts continue.
It was clear to the nuclear industry that much more profit could be made from its technologies than was to be gained from producing bombs. And so the concept of the ‘friendly atom’ was born, and was peddled to the public as a blessing for humankind’s energy future. To that end, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established in Vienna in 1957. The agency received a UN mandate to promote the development of nuclear energy among all member nations. To help ensure its mission, the IAEA entered into a pact with the World Health Organization (WHO) that precludes the WHO from publishing any research on the effects of radiation without IAEA blessing. Before being made public, all studies, all warnings that have to do with radiation and its consequences must first be presented to the agency in Vienna. That is why the use of depleted uranium munitions officially poses no danger to health; that is why officially cancer rates are not higher than normal in the area surrounding nuclear power plants; that is why every cross-border medical cancer census is stalled. WHO even backs the IAEA line on Chernobyl: that fewer than 50 people died owing to the incident, that the fallout caused 4,000 curable cases of thyroid cancer, and that there is the statistical possibility that up to 4,000 people will face shorter lifespans. This brazen whitewash flies in the face of peer-reviewed epidemiological studies that indicate widespread genomic damage and estimate deaths already resulting from Chernobyl as being in excess of 800,000. This criminal censure has continued for over 50 years. In 2010, an internet campaign to make WHO independent (www.independentwho.info) was launched by scientists, doctors and politicians.
The nuclear industry in Germany has its own PR agency, the Deutsche Atomforum. Four days after Fukushima, its president, Ralf Güldner, told reporters: “The situation in Japan is a unique occurrence. Two natural catastrophes came together – a once-in-a-century earthquake and a tsunami. As a consequence the entire infrastructure collapsed. Such a chain of events could never happen in Germany.”
For over 50 years the Atomforum has composed the texts that find their way into government reports on the future of energy supplies. One example: “The security of the uranium supply is, in comparison to gas and oil, quite good, because the uranium reserves lie predominantly in politically stable regions. Additionally, because a small quantity of nuclear reactor fuel can produce an enormous amount of energy, years’ worth of fuel can be stockpiled here in Germany. Nuclear energy is therefore ideal for domestic purposes, as uranium refinement [also] takes place here.”
In the meantime, such empty words must measure up to a concept that is becoming ever more imperative and appears more and more often in the vocabulary of international scientific conferences: ‘technology assessment’. The nuclear industry shies away from technology assessment because such analysis can only stand in the way of profit. Every day the reactors of the four largest German energy concerns – RWE, E.ON, Vattenfall and EnBW – remain on grid means enormous profits. It is not difficult to understand why this energy quartet is not especially interested in the success of decentralised renewable energies. Technology assessment brands nuclear energy a failure, first and foremost because of the problem of nuclear waste. There is no long-term solution and the stores of waste grow daily. The nuclear industry speaks of final nuclear waste disposal – but to this day it has neither a method nor a suitable location.
Who’s guilty? Guilty are those who continue to endorse the use of nuclear power. Any technology that tolerates no human error is anti-human. To err is human. Making mistakes is part of our learning process. Those who rule out failure have no idea about life. In this connection the biologist Christine von Weizsäcker has come up with a term: Fehlerfreundlichkeit (‘failure friendliness’). In future we must test our energy concepts in terms of failure friendliness.
Since the catastrophes of Majak and Windscale, since Harrisburg and Chernobyl, government officials here in Germany – despite our new knowledge of the problems with waste disposal at Asse – have been speaking of a Brückentechnologie (‘bridging technology’). Bridges suggest security. Bridges take us to the other shore. The term brings to mind a picture of two linked sides. Between nuclear energy and renewable energies, however, there is no link. Only when the old paradigm is scrapped is there room for the new. The more this so-called bridge technology is supported, the further recedes the coastline of renewable energies – our supposed destination. Terms that mislead belong to a culture of denial. What is suppressed here is the relationship between nuclear power and global energy use: only 2.5% of worldwide energy is fuelled by the 442 nuclear power reactors.
In his final book, The Energy Imperative, published shortly before his death, the solar energy politician Hermann Scheer wrote: “Nature long ago decided that renewable energies will triumph in the end. The primary energy economy, which alone thanks fossil fuels and uranium for its existence, will disappear utterly – either sooner or too late.”
We sympathise with the people of North Africa who must protest in the streets each day against their dictators. Must we Europeans protest in the streets day and night until we have freed ourselves from the energy dictatorship of the nuclear oligarchs? Dare we gamble with the wellbeing of our children by allowing those who are more interested in profit than in the Earth we leave to the coming generations to call the shots? In a culture of denial the power of the streets must win the upper hand. Either sooner or too late.
The Fukushima tragedy threw us out of our orbit, the earthquake shifted the axis of the Earth, and we still don’t know whether this spells the end of the nuclear age – although recently this was asserted on the cover of Der Spiegel. Even if Fukushima hadn’t happened, it is still high time to end this technology of the apocalypse. Wherever uranium is mined, death creeps from the earth. Whether in North America, Australia or Africa, all uranium mines are sites of pestilence and death. Often these sites are on the traditional lands of Indigenous people. Every ton of uranium oxide that our nuclear power plants acquire symbolises another load of human corpses. A society that says yes to nuclear energy is a society that practises human sacrifice. The catastrophe at Fukushima is loud and has woken us up; the dead from the uranium-mining regions disappear quietly and without a trace. We worry about our own safety. But our responsibility towards those we do not know, yet who suffer on our behalf – should on its own convince us to depart from this murderous path.
Translation by Craig Reishus, from a commentary on Bavarian Public Radio on 20 March 2011. For more information on the Nuclear-Free Future Award, visit: www.nuclear-free.com