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The Japanese people are now paying a horrific price for the impossible dream of the "Peaceful Atom." For a half-century they have been told that what's happening now at Fukushima would never occur.

Our hearts and souls must first and foremost go out to them. As fellow humans, we must do everything in our power to ease their wounds, their terrible losses and their unimaginable grief.

We are also obliged---for all our sakes---to make sure this never happens again.

The Japanese people are now paying a horrific price for the impossible dream of the "Peaceful Atom." For a half-century they have been told that what's happening now at Fukushima would never occur.

Our hearts and souls must first and foremost go out to them. As fellow humans, we must do everything in our power to ease their wounds, their terrible losses and their unimaginable grief.

We are also obliged---for all our sakes---to make sure this never happens again.

In 1980, I reported from central Pennsylvania on what happened to people there after the accident at Three Mile Island a year before. I interviewed scores of conservative middle Americans who were suffering and dying from a wide range of radiation-related diseases. Lives and families were destroyed in an awful plague of unimaginable cruelty. The phrase "no one died at Three Mile Island" is one of the worst lies human beings have ever told.

In 1996, ten years after Chernobyl, I attended a conference in Kiev commemorating the tenth anniversary of that disaster. Now, another fifteen years later, a definitive study has been published indicating a death toll as high as 985, far.

Today we are in the midst of a disaster with no end in sight. At least four reactors are on fire. The utility has pulled all workers from the site, but may now be sending some back in.

The workers who do this are incomparably brave. They remind us, tragically, of some 800,000 Chernobyl "Liquidators." These were Soviet draftees who were sent into that seething ruin for 60 or 90 seconds each to quickly perform some menial task and then run out.

When I first read that number---800,000---I thought it was a typographical error. But after attending that 1996 conference in Kiev, I spoke in the Russian city of Kaliningrad and met with dozens of these Chernobyl veterans. They tearfully assured me it was accurate. They were angry beyond all measure. They had been promised they would not encounter health problems. But now they were dying in droves.

How many will die at Fukushima we will never know. Never have we faced the prospect of multiple meltdowns, four or more, each with its own potential for gargantuan emissions beyond measure.

If this were happening at just one reactor, it would be cause for worldwide alarm.

One of the units has been powered by Mixed Oxide Fuel. This MOX brew has been heralded as a "swords into ploughshares" breakthrough. It took radioactive materials from old nuclear bombs and turned them into "peaceful" fuel.

It seemed like a neat idea. The benefits to the industry's image were obvious. But they were warned repeatedly that this would introduce plutonium into the burn chain, with a wide range of serious repercussions. Among them was the fact that an accident would spew the deadliest substance ever known into the atmosphere. If breathed in, the tiniest unseen, untasted particle of plutonium can cause a lethal case of lung cancer. But like so many other warnings, the industry ignored its grassroots critics. Now we all pay the price.

For 25 years the nuclear industry has told us Chernobyl wasn't relevant because it was Soviet technology. Such an accident "could not happen here." But today it's the Japanese. If anything, they are better at operating nuclear reactors than the Americans. Japanese companies own the Westinghouse nuclear division, whose basic design is in place throughout France. Japanese companies also own the GE nuclear division. Among others, 23 of their US reactors are extremely close or virtually identical in design to Fukushima I, now on fire.

Jeffrey Immelt, head of GE, is one of the many heavy corporate hitters now advising Barack Obama. Obama says (so far) that he has no intention of changing course in nuclear policy. That apparently includes a $36 billion new reactor loan guarantee giveaway in the 2012 budget. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has made clear he considers the situation at US reactors very different from those in Japan. Essentially, he says, "it can't happen here."

Chu and others keep saying that our choice is between nukes and coal, that atomic energy somehow mitigates global warming. This is an important sticking point for millions of concerned citizens, and an important and righteous legion of great activists, who see climate chaos as the ultimate threat.

But especially in light of what's happening now, it's based on a non-choice. Nukes are slow to build, soaring in cost and clearly have their own emissions, waste and safety problems. The ancillary costs of coal and oil are soaring out of reach in terms of environmental, health and other negative economic impacts. The "bridging fuel" of gas also faces ever-higher hurdles, especially when it comes to fracking and other unsustainable extraction technologies.

The real choice we face is between all fossil and nuclear fuels, which must be done away with, as opposed to a true green mix of clean alternatives. These safe, sustainable technologies now, in fact, occupy the mainstream. By all serious calculation, solar is demonstrably cheaper, cleaner, quicker to build and infinitely safer than nukes. Wind, tidal, ocean thermal, geothermal, wave, sustainable bio-fuels (NOT from corn or soy), increased efficiency, revived mass transit all have their drawbacks here and there. But as a carefully engineered whole, they promise the balanced Solartopian supply we need to move into a future that can be both prosperous and appropriate to our survival on this planet.

As we see now all too clearly, atomic technology is at war with our Earth's eco-systems. Its centralized, heavily capitalized corporate nature puts democracy itself on the brink. In the long run, it contradicts the human imperative to survive.

Today we have four reactors on the coast of California that could easily have been ripped apart by a 9.0 Richter earthquake. Had this last seismic hit been taken on this side of the Pacific, we would be watching nightly reports about the horrific death toll in San Luis Obispo, the catastrophic loss of the irreplaceable food supply from the Central Valley, and learned calculations about the forced evacuations of Los Angeles and San Diego.

There are nearly 450 atomic reactors worldwide. There are 104 here in the US.

Faced with enormous public demonstrations, the Prime Minister of Germany has ordered their older reactors shut. At very least this administration should follow suit.

The Chinese and Indians, the biggest potential buyers of new reactors, are said to be "rethinking" their energy choices.

As a species, we are crying in agony, to the depths of our souls, from compassion and from fear.

But above all, the most devastating thing about the catastrophe at Fukushima is not what's happening there now.

It's that until all the world's reactors are shut, even worse is virtually certain to happen again. All too soon.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I totally get it. (6+ / 0-)

    I mean like totally.

    For every person killed by nuclear power generation, 4,000 die due to coal, adjusted for the same amount of power produced....

    This chart unsettles a lot of people, because there must be something wrong with it. Further proof of how easy it is to fear the unknown and accept what we've got.

    Gawd bless the "pro-science" "reality based" "true progressive" marketing department.

    I'm gonna go eat a steak. And fuck my wife. And pray to GOD - hatemailapalooza, 052210

    by punditician on Tue Mar 22, 2011 at 04:50:54 PM PDT

  •  Kill breathless fear-mongering before... (6+ / 0-)

    .... it kills your sex life!

    •  Geek, have you seen this... (0+ / 0-)

      ..article on how the Russians are using "lessons learned from Chernobyl" as a selling point for their light water reactors? They've just started building "core catchers" into their containments under the reactor vessels, too. Give it a read if you have time, I think it's kind of interesting. New York Times, today.

      Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

      by billmosby on Tue Mar 22, 2011 at 10:51:05 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  There are 11 reactors in Illinois... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kalmoth, ebohlman, Corwin Weber, Recall

    ...producing ~60% of our electricity, with ~37% coming from coal. The remainder includes a growing wind component at about 2%. Panics like what have been happening because of things like Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island have led to a moratorium on new construction, major refits, and removing cooled fuel for processing or storage offsite. Even demobilized reactors, like the Zion, IL, plant must store their spent fuel onsite (and in the case of Zion, its a short distance from Lake Michigan). We can't build new reactors, must buy fuel for an open fuel cycle economy, and cannot make major mods and repairs to reactors that are old enough to run for President, but we have no alternatives. Wind isn't going in fast enough, and there are no HVDC trunks to share wind loads over the length and width of the state, let alone further away. Oh, and let's not forget that we also have the New Madrid Fault running up in this direction, and that 7 of those reactors are of the same design as TEPCO's.

    I can begin to see why Nnadir has become so irascible on the subject.

    So, you keep up the work on the Chicken Little routine. It should be very helpful for coal and natural gas interests.

    Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

    by JeffW on Tue Mar 22, 2011 at 05:44:05 PM PDT

  •  Tsunami killed thousands and thousands (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    billmosby, kalmoth

    Coal too also . . .

  •  to conclude... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Corwin Weber, billmosby
    As a species, we are crying in agony, to the depths of our souls, from compassion and from fear.

    I am somewhat relieved that the diarist apparently belongs to a different species than I do, although panic, for example, among lemurs, looks kinda cute...

    •  And if he gets his way.... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ...we will, as a species, be crying in agony in the cold and the dark as our children starve because somebody was so fanatical about 'going back to nature' that we went with energy starvation instead of nuclear power.

      •  Brings to mind an ancient cartoon... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Corwin Weber

        in which an old, gray former nuclear engineer was sentenced to death (in a candlelit room) for not being persistent enough in supporting nuclear energy and keeping the lights on. I think I saw that somewhere in the early 70s.

        Moderation in most things. Except Reactors. IFR forever!

        by billmosby on Wed Mar 23, 2011 at 06:09:18 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  The latest study on Chernobyl (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    billmosby, Recall, kalmoth

    is by no scientifically credible means "definitive".

    There is NO definitive answer to the question of how many people died or contracted cancer from Chernobyl, the estimates range from 4000 (the WHO, UNESCAR, UN Special Committee on Chernobyl) to almost 1,000,000 (Greenpeace, as best as I can tell).

    There is a reasonable scientific discussion about this issue, but to throw out a number of almost 1,000,000 killed and suggest it is somehow the agreed upon answer is dishonest.

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