Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Too High A Price

In March, 1979, there was a partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I was living in New York City at the time -- much closer to Pennsylvania than I wanted to be. I chewed my fingernails to the quick, listening to the news as thousands of people were evacuated. In May, I went with a group of people to march in front of the White House. In our youthful ignorance, we hoped our presence in Washington D.C. would help convince President Carter to rethink U.S. energy policy. There was a bit of marching, but mainly, we waited around, hoping that Jimmy Carter would come out to talk to us. He didn't. We yawned and stretched and traded naive platitudes, waiting to hear speeches by Bella Abzug and Jerry Brown. We carried placards reading No More Harrisburgs! No More Hiroshimas!

In late April, 1986, I was living in Sendai, Japan. One morning, I woke up to hear there had been a fire at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, the USSR. It was a beautiful spring day and the late cherry blossoms were still in full flower. Walking with friends through the park, I could hardly believe that halfway around the world, people were being evacuated by the tens of thousands and fire-fighters were sacrificing their lives in a terrible losing battle.

One of my friends at the time was Li, a Chinese PhD student at Sendai's Tohoku University. Li was an engineer who hoped to design nuclear power plants some day. He laughed at my exclamations of dismay when I learned this. "They are designed to be safe!" he assured me. "Only the brightest, most skillful people are chosen for this occupation."

Li was one of the most capable people I've ever known. He was widely read and knew all sorts of things I didn't. He could make great meals from the fewest possible ingredients, his Japanese was formidable, and he was amazingly coordinated. Once, he'd offered to lend another friend a bicycle so that the three of us could cycle around Sendai together. I assumed he'd have to make two trips until I spotted him cycling down the narrow street in front of my apartment, one arm casually balancing another bicycle on his shoulder. When I expressed surprise that he could do this, he blinked and frowned. "You mean you can't?"

Li's confidence was infectious. If a smart guy like him was designing nuclear power plants, I couldn't help think they had to be safe.

Shortly after this, the English school where I taught organized a debate. All of us teachers were strongly encouraged to take part. As a few of our students were nuclear engineers, someone suggested that the safety issues of nuclear power plants would be a good debate topic. One brave man volunteered to argue the 'for' side; I took the 'against'.

This was before the internet was widely used, and I didn't have much to go on. I remembered a handful of details about Three Mile Island -- they went into my speech. I subscribed to the overseas Guardian and they had done a good article on Chernobyl; much of that got dumbed down and written into my debate as well, along with a very good letter to the editor about the Windscale nuclear accident in the U.K., back in 1957. My debate partner knew 99.9% more than I did about nuclear energy, but of course my English was better and I have missionaries in my background -- missionaries who liked rhetoric. I won the debate.

My opponent took it well. He had argued fervently that the design of Chernobyl was old and outdated, that a different type of core was used in Japan, making meltdowns virtually impossible. He insisted that nuclear power was much cheaper and safer than fossil fuel-based energy sources, and much better than iffy new technologies such as solar energy or wind turbines. He made good points, but he got stuck on what to do with spent nuclear fuel; he had good answers, but in the heat of the moment, he could not produce them. I, on the other hand, was in great form that day. When I finished my speech with the line, "It's too high a price," there was a good round of applause and I knew I'd hit pay dirt. "You are a good talker!" my opponent conceded graciously as we shook hands afterwards.

It was obvious that he knew way more than I did, and deep inside, I knew I'd won by default -- that it would have been quite a different story if we'd had the debate in Japanese, not English. But I was still proud of my victory.

I was living with my family in Abiko, Chiba Prefecture, when the Tokaimura nuclear accident occurred on September 30, 1999. On my way home from work in Tokyo, I noticed that the trains were backed up. Fellow passengers began to mutter that someone must have committed suicide by jumping onto the tracks. When we got to the station, we heard the news: that untrained workers had unwittingly caused a chain reaction at a small uranium reprocessing facility in nearby Ibaraki Prefecture. We were encouraged to go straight home and close doors and windows -- but many of us had already been out all day.

When I first heard the news about the devastating earthquake and tsunami, I never once thought about Fukushima's nuclear power plant. Quite honestly, I had forgotten it was there, even though I remember seeing it every time I took the train to Fukushima. I remember driving past it when I was four months pregnant with my youngest daughter too.

When I heard that there were some concerns that the earthquake had damaged the reactors, I felt a twinge of fear, but I tried to reassure myself. Smarter, better educated people than I had said nuclear power was safe. That it was wiser to stick with a proven energy source than to develop new ones. They had said this so forcefully, with so much confidence and obvious conviction, that part of me believed it had to be so. A bigger part believed that nuclear energy was dangerous, short-sighted, and not in the best interests of humanity, but maybe that prejudice was inspired by my own paranoia and lack of real knowledge.

It turns out that I was right. And I wish to God I wasn't.



Robin said...

It's so scary and awful. My dad, a physics professor, is the smartest guy I know, and argues points in what Woody Allen would call "a well modulated voice in the desert". He is loud, emphatic, and erudite. It almost seems pointless to disagree with him.

When global warming first became an issue, I told my father I was freaked out, and he promptly lectured me on statistics, how there have always been variations in weather patterns, blah, blah, blah. I felt a bit silly. Then recently, I caught him arguing "for" global warming as convincingly and fervently as he had when calling the concept ridiculous. These science types can sure be convincing. In fact, they can convince you right out of your common sense!

Carole said...

I hate it when being right is the very last thing on earth I want to be. It makes me feel sort of responsible for thinking it. But you were right,and you aren't responsible, but it is just so hard to get people to hear over the dollar sign. Hard, hard goings on in Japan.

Suelle said...

I remember as a child reading a Ranger Rick magazine article that gave all sides on different energy sources. Each form of power was represented by a cartoon, & I remember Mr. Nuclear Energy was an alien-like being who was dressed in a suit, very clean & calm (in contrast to Mr. Coal, who was covered in soot & coughing all the time). It seemed like Mr. Nuclear Energy was the best, until you saw that sometimes things could go wrong & he could potentially destroy the whole planet.
I personally liked Mr. Solar & Mr. Wind. Sure, the wind doesn't always blow & the sun doesn't always shine, but as a child thinking about my own future on this planet, it was a no brainer.

Lynne said...

wow I think you put it all into words that I didn't know I was thinking. This sh*t is scary!

Pat said...

Some of us have never forgiven Jimmy Carter for kissing the Queen Mother on the lips - only her beloved husband had done so previously.
Being married to two scientists - not at the same time I hasten to add - I am well aware of the arguments for nuclear energy, but have never been totally convinced.
'"They are designed to be safe!" he assured me. "Only the brightest, most skillful people are chosen for this occupation."

They have to believe this to go on working with Nuclear power.
With all the devastating events happening world wide over the last year or so one wonders if Mother Nature is trying to tell us something.

Charles Gramlich said...

there are many dangers in the petroleum industry too, and in other industries that support our technical world. There've been Chlorine leaks at plants and all manner of airborne releases of material that can have and have had serious health consequences. Nuclear power is certainly a danger. Seems like they'd have some kind of fail-safe cutoff mechanism. But I guess that means we don't know enough yet to really control it.

Anonymous said...

Mary, I live 20 minutes from the only nuclear plant in Iowa. On clear days the plume is usually visible from my front porch. This week has done nothing to boost my comfort level with this "neighbor." Sunday I attended a play, and going into the theatre I saw a friend of mine who works at the power plant. He said he was on call that afternoon, and hoped he didn't get pulled out of the performance by something going wrong at work. Needless to say, I felt reassured at intermission to find that he was still in the theatre!

Murr Brewster said...

In the sixties I think a lot of what drove the nuclear power bandwagon was the notion of the "peaceful atom"--which had more resonance at that time. Now, many people I tend to respect are pushing for it again because we have to have something to replace the fossil fuels, although I suspect what we really will have to do is change our standard of living drastically. (Not politically feasible.) I can't get past the waste issue, myself.

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Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- My daughter, who can argue that black is white and actually convince people, is just the same. There are people who are just good at debate. I'm usually not, unless I have a huge advantage. My daughter gets the best of me every time, so I know your dad could wipe the floor with my logic.

I had a friend who reversed his opinion on global warming, going from 'there's no such thing' to the exact opposite. He was also very intense, well-educated, and verbally skilled. The one thing I learned from him is that you can argue anything if you're passionate enough. But it's best to have an arsenal of good information at hand when you do, or you look like a ninny.

Carole -- I wish SO MUCH that after the initial panic, engineers had reassured us that the back-up system had kicked in, no problem with the pump needing an energy supply, and that all reactors were stabilized and churning out much-needed energy. Nuclear energy seems like such a great idea: clean, efficient, 'more where that came from' replenishable. Until you realize who's in charge of it: mere mortals. And we have no safe place to store the spent fuel.

Suelle -- I suspect that Ranger Rick was written with a strong anti-nuclear bias, which I thoroughly sympathize with. Mr. Nuclear Energy is an efficient, modern guy with a very warm heart -- until you cross him. Which it seems rather easy to do.

Solar energy and wind turbines certainly have their drawbacks, but I still remember burning my hands on hot water heated 100% (I was assured) by solar panels, on a cool day in Devon. If we could all learn to save energy, and if we developed the sustainable sources like wind and sun, I wonder if we could manage. I'd certainly like to think we could.

Lynne -- Don't let me convince you -- go out there and read about this! But yes...it is scary.

Pat -- When Americans get the etiquette thing wrong, we do it whole hog, don't we? But if a cat can look at a king, a president can certainly kiss one. I wouldn't have kissed the Queen Mother, but I might have tried to shake her hand. I'm guessing that she reminded Carter of his own mother and his reaction was spontaneous.

Considering how many ex-Soviet nuclear scientists are out there, broke and hungry, and how much spent nuclear fuel there is, leftover from the USSR's Cold War period, not particularly well guarded, just about anything could happen. Even the best scientists can't agree on how to safely dispose of spent nuclear fuel. For all the advantages of nuclear power, this is one disadvantage it's hard to get past.

Charles -- Coal mining is terribly unsafe, and burning coal is a filthy business. Every type of energy has some sort of disadvantage, and for all that some of us whine about nuclear energy, we definitely depend on it.

After what has happened in Fukushima, I'm prepared to go around with a blanket wrapped around me, cooking my meals on a wood-burning stove. And yes -- they're terribly polluting. Sigh...

Steve -- I feel for your friend: no doubt people are going to be giving him dirty looks for doing his job and supplying them with energy. I have enormous respect for the scientists who design and run nuclear facilities. There is an amazing amount of research, ingenuity, and skill that goes into such things, and I am aware of that. But I really do think that what has happened at Fukushima is the last straw. We need to rethink nuclear energy, and we learn how to rethink our energy-gluttonous lifestyles.

Murr -- Yes, nuclear energy was seen as a great way of converting swords to ploughshares, wasn't it? And it seemed so perfect: this terrible thing that had caused so many deaths -- how wonderful that it had a peaceful use.

The issue of how to deal with spent fuel is a huge sticking point. Even intelligent, eloquent proponents of nuclear energy can't brush off that quibble with, "Oh, I'm sure we'll think of SOME way." It's the wrong kind of legacy to leave our children.

Marcia said...

I guess there's no energy without risks. With any natural disaster, we always hear stories of gas leaks, power outages, and the like, and to me the idea of coal mining is just one big horror. I like to drive by wind farms and watch the turbines spin. But people living near them say that these are health hazards, too.

e said...

Thanks for this post. You and other commenters here have articulated what many others are thinking. I feel very sorry for the Japanese who first had to endure a natural disaster followed by a nuclear one. The Japanese are reputed to be experts in nuclear power, yet they continue to have problems, and may have long term consequences as a result.

Pat said...

But Mary: ON THE LIPS!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

This is scary stuff. I hope alternative sources of energy gain in popularity. I'm sure that with time and research they can become more reliable (even if the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing).