Friday, April 1, 2011

Pontificating from a distance

There have been a few “I/my relatives are in Japan… and I’m/they’re not scared” type stories doing the rounds (one even became famous) but this one posted by The ABC had what I thought was a more human feel, focusing not on the technological aspects or the statistical minutiae of the likelihood of increased cancer. Truth is, normal average people don’t think like a nuclear technician lecturing the public about the irrationality of their fears.

Nuclear fears: on your tv screen, on our doorstep

ABC, 30/3/2011

I live in Hitachi, about 20kms from the last nuclear stuff-up at Tokai Mura, back in 1999. Fukushima is 100kms to our north. The good folk here are about the only people on the planet to have to endured two nuclear emergencies in 12 years.

The first weekend after the earthquake was the best, and the worst. We had no utilities, and only radio to find out what was going on. We were basically camping out at home. We were safe and we had food and water for a few days. We thought things would get back to normal, and our spirits were high. Then we got the news of the nuclear power stations. Four of them at first; Tokai, Onagawa, and Fukushima 1 and 2. Not much information, just that there were problems. The first explosion from the Fukushima plant had us really worried. The second, and subsequent explosions sank our hearts to our stomachs. I just wanted to know the wind direction. I switched the emergency radio, the one given to us by the local authorities for just such an occasion, to the nuclear emergency station. Nothing.

Almost three weeks later, we have information available. The prime minister even opened Twitter and Facebook accounts. But it's too little, too late. Our lives have changed. We check the wind direction every morning before venturing out to find bottled water for sale. We hang the washing indoors. If it rains, we stay home. We check and print out background radiation levels in our area, to keep tabs on our annual dose. We don't take any chances. We check the IAEA report daily, because watching a TEPCO media conference is like watching the Three Stooges.

It is understandable that assurances from radiation experts far, far away, have no effect here. I know that the levels of radiation, those that we know about, are not likely to have any immediate effect on health. But the level of distrust in official information is palpable. The social effects of the radiation scare, which have changed our daily, everyday routines, are every bit as damaging as any long-term, real or imagined, effects of radiation.

Pontificating from a distance on our 'irrational' fears is a luxury we can't afford just now. They won't go away until that black cloud on the horizon does.

This reminded me of an earlier The Age article which was savaged by some  “what credentials” and “don’t be irrational” type comments but which, with the hindsight of a few weeks seems to have held up better than the predictions made by some fact based advocacy websites.

Past becomes present as Fukushima fallout stirs deep memories

The Age 21/3/2011

Devastation and radiation resurrect postwar Japan, both there and beyond.

Time's arrow has a habit of pulling things along in its wake. We think of history as linear - the march of time on a road that goes on forever. But in the remembrance of things past it is often far from linear, and when we are witness to events, the perspective can be coloured by other factors, both distant and intimate, relevant and irrelevant. A nation is no different.

Japan is the only country to have been devastated by the splitting of the atom. It is quite possibly the ultimate sword of Damocles to then embrace that technology to fulfil its energy needs and power its economy - and then have to absorb the consequences of that embrace, one that has been criticised for being corruptly deficient in its safety record.

In each nation's history, there are pivotal moments that change the country, that go deep into the national psyche. The obvious example is Germany. Authors and historians Gitta Sereny, Bernhard Schlink, Gunter Grass and W. G. Sebald have all addressed the way in which Germany has dealt with its past: amnesia, selective recall, denial and acceptance. A country, a people, a person are their past.

But the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki reside, like stones in the bottom of a pond, in the nation's folk memory. The recent destruction and radiation threat has stirred that water, moved the stones and left ripples.

We all want facts. Facts are good, if we can agree on them, if we share the same facts. But in a crisis how reliable are they? What appears to be emerging is that facts have not been reliable or well communicated … and with more frequency than is good for the continued granting of public trust. In the end it may not matter  how reliable/unreliable was the technology involved. In fact the final report may show that it was amazing how well the reactors managed given the circumstances: its possible.

But such a report may have no bearing on future public perceptions – by the time such a report is compiled who will read it? Not the public.

The suffering of the people of Japan must not be in vain March 31, 2011, T P Sreenivasan

The well known strategic analyst, P R Chari, revealed at a seminar this week his experience of studying comparative merits of different forms of energy. He asked eminent people in different energy sectors to write about coal, hydro, petroleum, nuclear, sun, wind and waves and analyse the suitability of each of these for India's requirements. Click!

To his surprise, each of them not only established that his area of specialisation was the most suitable, but also decried the others as polluting, uneconomical, dangerous or undeveloped. None of them was neutral enough to look at the options to come up with a choice.

he energy sector, which has attracted the most passions either for or against is nuclear power and there are only pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear lobbies, no nuclear neutral groups, which can analyse the pros and cons dispassionately.

Any question raised about the options being created for our future generations, particularly in the context of the Fukushima reactor, ignites strong defence on one side and calls for shutting down reactors which have fuelled energy in India without major mishaps, on the other. Any question raised is seen as blasphemy and desertion.

We need nuclear neutrality to develop a vision of our nuclear future.

[“Peaceniks”] want to turn nuclear reactors into solar panels and the nuclear scientists swear by their favourite deities that every reactor is safe. Just as accidents in Chernobyl and at Three Mile Island were explained away as resulting from human error, accounts have already started appearing of errors and oversights in Japanese safety preparedness and the inability of IAEA to organise reviews in a proper fashion.

If that mighty tsunami had not happened, none of these irrational fears would have surfaced, some say. Since many thousands have perished in the tsunami itself, some more deaths from radiation should not be the reason for looking at the desirability of continued use of nuclear power.

But addressing universal concerns should include the choice made by Germany , Switzerland  and the opposition in Taiwan to seek a structured and organised exit from nuclear power as and when alternate sources of energy are developed adequately. If that option is not explored from now in a spirit of neutrality and enquiry, another serious accident, if it occurs, will force our hands to shut down reactors on an emergency basis.

Energy security and public safety should be of equal importance in determining our future policy on nuclear power. According to one expert, C M A Nayar, the accident at Fukushima could have happened very shortly even if there was no tsunami. Apparently, the Nuclear Safety Authority of Japan and TEPCO were aware about this aspect even before the accident. It was known since long that the design of the reactor had some basic flaws. The Fukushima plant should have been decommissioned and closed in 2003 after the expiry of the original design life of thirty years.

In calculating the costs of sources of power, consideration should be given to building a foolproof system for fighting accidents, decommissioning antiquated reactors and disposal of waste.

Arguing the technical genius of nuclear does not win the public if illusions of safety are shattered. To win over the public, the nuclear industry took the tack of promoting the industries unassailable safety – the problem being that human systems fail, and that even small failures begin to dent public perceptions.  When a large failure occurs and the public feels misled, continuing to argue the technical merits in an orgy of detail has the potential to alienate.

Is a soothing chorus of theory, jargon and technical detail the technocratic Latin Mass?

No comments: