(Pictured: Chernobyl from a distance. Credit: University of Colorado at Boulder, University Archives, World Peace Council: Rob Prince, Folder 2, images)
In 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 Japan’s energy needs. As the radiation from the tsunami-triggered accident spreads across the island nation and, soon far beyond, the dangers of the stuff, long pooh-poohed as little more than pacifist hysteria by those in the 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. Modern humanity dates from about 150,00 years ago. Depending on the element, radioactive isotopes can last up to 250,000 years. To date, no human technological fix has been devised to neutralize their profoundly poisonous effects. 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 nuclear plants with their enhanced safety precautions are so well designed and improved as to minimize nuclear disaster to nil.
Still, in the aftermath of Fukushima, already, several countries have put the brakes on nuclear power development:
- The Chinese government has placed its nuclear power construction program on freeze. The 27 Chinese 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 in 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 Fukushima, 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 accident, not a nuclear disaster’ he is quoted as saying. (Tell that to the people of Sendai Province in Japan.)
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, at this point 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.
United States ‘number one’ in nuclear power plant proliferation
At one time during the Nixon years, there was a plan afoot to build 1,000 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.
Although mainland China trails ‘the leaders’, it has, until a few days ago anyway, the most extensive plans to ‘catch up’ with 27 under construction. Russia has 11 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 (i.e. – most of the world) about 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
Without serious consideration of alternative energy sources, world energy bounces 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, Middle East 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.
This is already playing out in the U.S. led NATO attack on Libya. While not particularly strategic for the United States, Libyan oil is vital for Europe, especially Italy, France and UK. As the Fukushima accident spiraled out of control, Khadaffi let it be known that in the near future he’d be cancelling contracts with European partners and seeking oil development relationships with BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The next day, the positions of France and the UK towards Khadaffi hardened and a week later, France – a country whose human rights record in the Third World, especially Africa, would be laughable if it weren’t so deplorable – became the champions of ‘humanitarian interventionism’ in Libya.
Are there other factors involved in the attack on Libya besides oil? Maybe. Maybe not.
Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.