nuclear power and Fukushima

The quake. What is there to say? What coherent thoughts can anyone offer other than an outpouring of grief and a sick horror at the photos, videos and stories that have emerged over the past few days?

Some of my friends have been drumming up fundraising efforts. Others sifted through news sources to try and get a grip on what was going on. Others worried about loved ones in Japan (I’ve never visited Sendai or Tohoku and I don’t know anyone in the area, but a close friend of mine very sadly lost a dear friend in the disaster, and that really brought the tragedy home to me.) Yet others – thankfully no one I know – have been saying it’s karma or divine retribution, and all I can tell myself is that those deluded folks are just trying to come up with a reason to explain such an incomprehensible tragedy. I didn’t know how to respond. I still don’t.

Like the rest of the world, I’ve been following the events at Fukushima with interest. At first, I was shocked that such an event could occur – how could two backup power systems fail? The Guardian was talking of explosions and fires. The authorities were saying everything was under control. I didn’t know who to believe.

And I still don’t. The Guardian seems to have an agenda to push, with a nice big graphic about the current level of doom and various flimsy opinion pieces decrying nuclear power. But I don’t trust the Japanese government to give just the facts, and I certainly don’t trust a corporation like TEPCO (remember the Chisso Corporation at Minamata, or Showa Denko in Niigata?). And everyone on the internet has an opinion, although the people I trust (i.e. skeptics and scientists) seem to agree that it’s not a worse-case scenario by any means.

I wouldn’t call myself pro-nuclear power. I was very anti- as a teenager, but as I’ve learned more about the subject and the physics I’ve come to think it may be beneficial overall, despite the (very real) risks involved. Ironically, to me at least, Fukushima proves that the safety features put into place for a reason do actually work, even in a worse case scenario. There was an earthquake – then a tsunami – then the power failed twice – then fires – then explosions – then more fires – and still there hasn’t been a catastrophic explosion or expulsion of radiation or apocalyptic deaths. It’s hard to imagine what else could have gone wrong, but Fukushima is still barely hanging together – and this is an old, almost obsolete design. Big mistakes were made – it’s idiotic to have your backup generators positioned where a tsunami can wipe them out, for example – but it is not the end of the world.

It still could go all tits-up, of course. I’m not disputing that this could become a radioactive disaster, and it’s a very scary (and real) prospect. Nuclear power has some terrifying risks (and that’s not even taking the issue of nuclear waste into account). What bothers me is the amount of scaremongering and downright bad science going around. It bothers me that the media keeps speaking of “the next Chernobyl” (which is technically impossible – Chernobyl was basically the worst possible design for a reactor and no one in their right mind would do that again) or “catastrophic failure” (“safety features working as planned in exceptional circumstances” does not equal “catastrophe”).

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