The horrible and heartbreaking events in Japan present a strange concatenation of disasters.
First, the planet unleashed one of its primordial shocks, an earthquake of a magnitude greater thanany previously recorded in Japan.
The earthquake created a colossal tsunami which, when it struck the country’s northeastern shores, pulverised everything in its path.
In part because the earthquake had just lowered the level of the land by 60cm, the wave rolled as far as 10km inland, killing thousands of people.
In a stupefying demonstration of power, the earthquake moved parts of Japan about 21km eastward, slightly shifted the earth’s axis [by 10cm] and actually shortened each day that passes on earth, if only infinitesimally by 1.8 milliseconds.
This was not all. Another shock soon followed. Succumbing to the one-two punch of the earthquake and the tsunami, 11 of Japan’s 54 nuclear power reactors shut down.
At this writing, three of them have lost coolant to their cores and have experienced partial meltdown. The same three have also suffered large explosions.
The spent fuel in a fourth caught fire.
Now a second wave is beginning to roll – radioactive elements in the atmosphere.
They include unknown amounts of cesium-137 and iodine-131, which can only have originated in the melting cores or in nearby spent fuel rod pools.
Both are dangerous to human health.
The Japanese government has evacuated some 200 000 people in the vicinity of the plants and issued potassium iodide pills, which prevent the uptake of radioactive iodine.
The second shock is, of course, different to the first in at least one fundamental respect.
The first was dealt by Mother Nature. The second shock, on the other hand, is the product of humankind and involves human responsibility.
Until the human species stepped in, there was no appreciable release of atomic energy from nuclear fission or fusion on earth.
That first happened 66 years ago, also in Japan, when the United States dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At the time, Harry Truman used language that is worth pondering today.
“It is an atomic bomb,” he said. “It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.
The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East.”
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan referred to the atomic bombings by implication when he stated that the current crisis was the worst for Japan “since the Second World War”.
For some years afterward, atomic energy was understood mainly to be an inconceivably malign force – as the potential source of a sort of manmade equivalent of earthquakes and worse.
In the 1950s, when nuclear power plants were first built, an attempt began to find a bright side to the atom. In 1956 Walt Disney even made a cartoon called Our Friend the Atom.
A key turning point was President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1953 Atoms for Peace proposal requiring nuclear-armed nations to sell nuclear power technology to other nations in exchange for following certain nonproliferation rules.
This is enshrined in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty which promotes nuclear power but discourages nuclear weapons.
As Ira Chernus chronicled in his book, Atoms for Peace, the proposal paradoxically grew out of Eisenhower’s distaste for arms control.
He launched a nuclear buildup that would increase the US arsenal from 1 436 warheads at the beginning of his two terms to 20 464.
His strategic nuclear policy was one of “massive retaliation” which relied more heavily on the nuclear threat than Truman’s policy had.
Yet Eisenhower needed some proposal to temper his growing reputation as a nuclear hawk. Atoms for Peace met this need.
The solution to nuclear danger, he said, was “to take this weapon out of the hands of soldiers” and put it “into the hands of those who will know how to strip its military casing and adapt it to the arts of peace”.
Of course the weapon never was taken out of the hands of soldiers, but the basic power of the universe was handed to nuclear power engineers, including the Japanese.
The long, chequered career of nuclear power began. The promise at first seemed great, but problems cropped up immediately.
The distinction between Disney’s smiling atom and the hostile one kept breaking down. In the first place, the technology of nuclear power proved to be an open spigot for the spread of technology that also served proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In the second place, the requirement of burying nuclear waste for the tens of thousands of years it takes radioactive materials to decline to levels deemed safe mocked the meagre ingenuity and constancy of a species whose entire recorded history amounts to about 6 000 years.
Finally, the technology of nuclear power itself kept breaking down and bringing or threatening disaster, as is now occurring in Japan.
The art of nuclear power is to boil water with the incredible heat generated by a nuclear chain reaction. But such temperatures necessitate continuous cooling. Cooling requires pumps.
Pumps require conventional power.
These are the things that habitually go wrong – and have gone wrong in Japan. A backup generator shuts down. A battery runs out.
The pump grinds to a halt. You might suppose that it is easy to pump water into a big container, and that is usually true, but the best-laid plans go awry from time to time.
These predictable and unpredictable failings affect every stage of the operation. For instance, in Japan the nuclear power industry has a record of garden-variety cover-ups, ducking safety regulations, hiding safety violations and other problems.
Which large bureaucratic organisation does not? And if these happen in Japan, as orderly and efficient a country as exists on earth, in which country will they not?
The problem is not that another backup generator is needed, or that the safety rules aren’t tight enough, or that the pit for the nuclear waste is in the wrong geological location, or that controls on proliferation are lax.
It is that a stumbling, imperfect, probably imperfectable, creature like homo sapiens is unfit to wield the stellar fire released by the split or fused atom. When nature strikes, why should humankind compound the trouble?
The earth is provided with enough primordial forces of destruction without us introducing more.
Some have suggested that in light of the new developments we should abandon nuclear power.
I have a different proposal, perhaps more in keeping with the peculiar nature of the peril.
Let us pause and study the matter. For how long?
Plutonium, a component of nuclear waste, has a half-life of 24 000 years, meaning that half of it is transformed into other elements through radioactive decay.
This suggests a time-scale. We will not be precipitous if we study the matter for only half of that half-life; 12 000 years.
In the interval, we can make a search for safe new energy sources, among other useful endeavours. Then perhaps we’ll be wise enough to make good use of the split atom.
» Schell is the Doris Schaffer Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at Yale.
He is the author of The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.
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