Going Radioactive: The Japanese Nuclear Dilemma

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was as Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: 16.03.2011

The debate on nuclear energy afflicts us all. The damage to the four reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is sending ripples of concern through Japan and the rest of the global community. The panic buttons amongst energy pundits and professionals have been switched on. Ministers of environment are scrambling. Articles have been run in such magazines as Time (Mar 15) pondering the 'health problems associated with radiation exposure'. Pity the clean-up crew, argues Alice Parks in her column, for they are at the highest risk of contracting fatal illnesses.

As Japanese authorities have announced a successful evacuation of the population around the 20-kilometre zone around Fukushima Daichi, an army of experts are being sought out for their opinions about the damage. Is catastrophe imminent? What medications should one take in the event one has the misfortunate of being radiated? Like amoeba, the Japanese citizens have assumed the position of a scientific experiment gone wrong. There is something chilling in this, if only because the Japanese were the first to taste the direct effects of intense radiation.

Dr. David Bremmer, director of the centre for radiological research at Columbia University is reassuring. 'It's important to stress that the risk of cancer under normal circumstances is already high anyway, and what we're talking about here is a pretty small increase over and above that very big cancer risk. We're not talking about a doubling of risk or anything like that.' Bremmer is markedly fatalistic: we are all going to die anyway, so let's not get too bookish on the subject. Oh, and don't drink the milk from the area.

Those against nuclear energy will be thrilled by the misfortune currently unfolding. The Age newspaper in Melbourne is currently running a poll with the question: 'Does the Japan crisis make you less likely to support nuclear power in Australia?'

Representatives of the environment from Spain and Portugal are pressing for the eventual closure of plants. Jürgen Trittin, Germany's Green Party co-floor leader, has warned that the Japanese example could well be replicated in Germany's plants. 'And the government has just extended the operating lives of exactly these plants' (Der Spiegel, Mar 12). Monica Frassoni of the European Green Party has re-iterated the long held view of the European Greens: '[I]t is clear that these events only strengthen our determination to quickly phase out from this dangerous, costly and dirty energy source' (Euroactiv.com, Mar 15).

The nuclear debate has been re-invigorated in France. As Ouest France (Mar 15) reports, the strategic choice of France going nuclear since 1960, leading to a 75 percent dependency on nuclear energy for its electricity needs, has not seriously been challenged. At least till now. The challenges facing officials in France are considerable. Beware of such denials as what initially took place after the Chernobyl radioactive cloud of 1986 swept Europe. Beware of the insensible optimism of such ministers as Eric Besson of industry, who insist on keeping calm with a straight face.

Other countries with existing nuclear reactors have had emergency meetings. EU ministers are meeting in Brussels at the behest of EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger to discuss stress tests to the 143 reactors currently in operation in the zone.

Forward planning supposedly lies in the genes of the modern bureaucrat. Plan for the next disaster, the next political failing, the next war. But such planning, as the German strategist Helmuth von Moltke reminded us, is flawed in its scientific insistence on the predictable. One should, as always, predict the unpredictable, the improbable scenario. Given that our humble human minds are always incapable of realising that planning for a 7.8 scale earthquake will fail when confronted with one on a 8.9 scale, one is hardly surprised by the outcomes.

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