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Fukushima Disaster: World Energy Crisis Intensifies, Little Serious Concern for Alternative Energy Possibilities

March 17, 2011

In that historic year, 1989, Japanese director Shohei Imamura made `Black Rain’ (note: not the film with Michael Douglas), a film about life in the Hiroshima region of Japan in the aftermath of the U.S. nuclear bombing near the end of World War II. The protagonists were not in Hiroshima at the time of the nuclear blast, but in a boat not far away where `black rain’ – radioactively contaminated moisture – fell on them.

The film explores how Hiroshima survivors tried to deal with radiation sickness. 44 years, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and several thousand nuclear power plants after the fact, we know little more now than we did then how to treat the condition. As it did in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, once again black rain is falling on Japan, this time from continuing collapse of the nuclear power complex in Fukushima in the aftermath of the worse earthquake in Japanese recorded history. Japanese have been warned to stay indoors to avoid radiation, especially during rain storms.

For the past half a century, the world has been living with a lie – one dangerous to all life on earth – that while nuclear weapons are `dangerous’, nuclear power is `controlled’ and `safe’. As if Three Mile Island and Chernobyl weren’t enough, the nuclear accident unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichu nuclear power complex in Japan has pretty much destroyed the myth of safe nuclear power. Nuclear power provides some one third of all the country’s energy needs. As the radiation from the tsunami triggered accident spreads across Japan and, soon far beyond,  the dangers of the stuff, long pooh-poohed as little more than pacifist hysteria by those in industry itself, become chillingly clear. Turns out those anti-nuclear activists whose influence has waned since the end of the Cold War know what they are talking about.

Nuclear energy has been developed in large measure to limit  exposure to Middle East oil and to counter the effects of global warming,  its obvious extraordinary dangers downplayed. With a half life of 24100 years, Plutonium 239 takes 240,000 years to completely decompose. That’s a fair amount longer than modern humanity, which has been here for approximately 150,000 years has walked the earth. To date,  no human technological fix has been devised to neutralize its profoundly poisonous effects nor those of other radioactive isotopes. Disposing of radioactive wastes remains largely unresolved. The danger of accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima, caused by nature or human error (or both) are not `supposed to’ happen, despite industry assurances that new safety precautions are so well designed and improved as to minimize nuclear disaster to nil.

Still, several countries have put the breaks on nuclear energy development despite no clear cut policies for

worldwide nuclear power use

making up the difference:

  • the Chinese government has placed its nuclear power construction program on freeze. The twenty sevenChinese nuclear power projects under construction are only about a quarter of Chinese plans to build a whopping 110 nuclear power plants in the foreseeable future.
  • Likewise Venezuela, constructing a nuclear power plant I cooperation with Russia has also frozen production.
  • Germany and Switzerland have announced they will scale back their nuclear power programs. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor described the Japanese nuclear disaster as `a decisive moment’ for the world, vowing that nuclear safety was her highest priority.
  • Sweden and Turkey will do likewise
  • Britain, Bulgaria and Finland are calling for nuclear safety review

Others will undoubtedly follow.

On the other hand, despite the unfolding Japanese tragedy, Chile intends to proceed to construct its first nuclear power plant as a part of a `nuclear cooperation deal’ with the United States. India has insisted it will continue with its nuclear program. Doing his best to argue the impossible, French nuclear industry spokesman Eric Besson downplayed Fukushima. `It is a serious acccident, not a nuclear disaster’ he is quoted as saying. (Tell that to the people of Sendai Province in Japan.)

Doing his best to argue the impossible, French nuclear industry spokesman Eric Besson downplayed Fukushima. `It is a serious acccident, not a nuclear disaster’ he is quoted as saying.

As with the recent BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill where deep water drilling was temporarily lifted, only to be restarted again despite the consequences on humanity and nature, there is little to indicate that nuclear power will suffer more than a temporary reverse. The discussion focuses mostly on temporary freezes, `insuring safety’ but not on dismantling one of the world’s most dangerous industries. Both tight oil markets and concern about global warming combine to suggest a nuclear industry recovery.

U.S. `Number One’ in nuclear power plant proliferation

At one time during the Nixon years, there was a plan afoot to build 1000 nuclear reactors in the USA to counter U.S. growing dependence on Middle East oil. Didn’t happen but the results were serious enough. According to the European Nuclear Society there are currently 441 nuclear energy plants worldwide, another 65 currently under construction and some 324 others on the drawing board. Nearly a quarter of those operating worldwide are in the United States (104), almost double the number of the two countries with the next most numerous facilities (France – 58, Japan – 54). The Russian Federation comes in a distant fourth with 32 nuclear power plants. South Korea (21), India (20), United Kingdom (19) China (13 on the mainland and 6 on Taiwan) and Canada (18) all also make extensive use of nuclear energy.

Kansas Windfarm just off of I-70 (January 2009)

Although mainland China trails  `the leaders’, it has, until a few days ago anyway, the most extensive plans to `catch up’ with twenty seven under construction. Russia has eleven more under way, India five and South Korea the same.

Much global nuclear power construction accelerated after two Middle East events – the October 1973 Middle East War (between Israel, Egypt and Syria) that included an oil embargo of the U.S. and the Netherlands for their support of Israel and the 1979 Iranian Revolution which resulted in the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That double whammy resulted in dramatic increases in global oil prices and concern among oil consuming nations (ie – most of the world) of their reliance on Middle East oil.

Japan and South Korea – both 100% dependent on foreign oil – considered nuclear energy as a viable alternative and developed their nuclear energy industries accordingly as did France and the U.S. With the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still seared in its collective memory, despite widespread domestic opposition, Japan’s conservative government plowed ahead all the same. China’s attempt to stay oil independent essentially flopped as early as the 1970s. More and more dependent upon foreign oil sources, it sought, like the others, to soften its imported oil requirements with crash nuclear power plant development.

Middle East oil will be more strategic, undoubtedly more expensive, the region unstable and explosive

Hiroshima – August 1987; Shrine with flowers for the victims

Without  serious consideration of alternative energy sources, world energy gravitates back and forth between oil, natural gas and nuclear energy. As trust in nuclear energy diminishes, reliance on oil and natural gas increases accordingly. Without any serious initiatives to develop alternative energy sources, Overnight, M.E. oil has become even more strategic than it has been. Controlling both the production and transport of Middle East oil more central to U.S. global plans.

Even before all the consequences of the Japanese nuclear disaster are known, one thing is already clear: countries will become more dependent on Middle East oil in the future as more nuclear energy sources are frozen and nuclear energy as a viable and safe source of electricity is increasingly put in doubt.

(in progress – to be continued)

_______________________________

Note: This entry also appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus

related links:

Richard Falk: Learning From Disaster After Sendai

NY Times: Japan Nuclear Accident Could Rekindle U.S. Anti-Nuclear Movement

Natural Resources Defense Council Materials on Nuclear Questions

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ruth A. Buechler permalink
    March 17, 2011 6:39 pm

    A half-life is the time it takes for one-half of the radioactive material to become non-radioactive. Then it takes another 1/2 life to get down to 1/4 of the original to be radioactive, and another 1/2 life to get to 1/8 of the original. When this stuff is no longer dangerous depends on the original amount and may be over 1 million years.

    • March 18, 2011 9:51 am

      Ruth…

      Yes… that is correct. according to several articles after 240,000 years – following the procedure for half life reduction you cite above – the radioactivity in plutonium 238 is reduced by 99.99%..

      Best, Rob

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