Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Japanese Protest Nuclear Option
The Japanese national character is divided about equally between traditional respect for authority, and a commitment to technological progress.
I lived in Japan for a year in 1985, and was able to see this phenomenon up close. Japan was ruled by an emperor all the way through the end of World War II. The Japanese post-War boom was built on the factory system, transforming its agrarian economy into a world economic leader, producing automobiles and computers and all kinds of manufacturing. The Japanese are proud of this accomplishment, but they still tend to worship authority, even when it may not be in their interest. They also prefer order to disorder, and are reluctant to stand up for individual rights or radical points of view.
Since the Fukushima disaster, however, they have begun to take a stand against the government's continued commitment to nuclear power technology.
As readers of this blog know, I am against nuclear power development. There are at present several key unsolved problems with it. The dilemma of what to do with the nuclear waste it produces, the pollution produced when plant failures and accidents occur, and the continued dangers of handling radio-active materials. Our supposed "commitment" to containing the hot waste over several centuries is a legacy no society wants to inherit.
It's very possible that nuclear technology will advance over time, allowing us to produce energy with greater efficiency and safety than we now are capable of, given the state of our knowledge. It may well be that other methods of generating electricity will be developed before nuclear is improved. We can't predict the future. Necessity often drives innovation, but insisting on dangerous practices--in effect, making guinea-pigs out of human populations, when so-called "fail-safe" technologies are failing, with very serious consequences--to drive solutions is silly. Sometimes, a little prudence and patience are needed.
The Japanese government's insistence on relying on nuclear power plant technology to meet the energy needs of its people may finally be hitting a wall of public indignation. It's unclear how many such nuclear disasters it will take before humankind realizes that this technology, in its present state, is simply unsuitable for future use.
Now, on the third anniversary of the Fukushima melt-down, crowds of Japanese are taking to the streets to protest their nation's commitment to a nuclear future. In my experience, the Japanese are a very obedient people, who are reluctant to criticize their government, or its policies. They are a stoic people.
But common sense has told them there's an enormous disconnect between these proven failures of a risky technology, which is endangering their population and its limited landmass, and industry's irresponsible insistence that everything is fine, and no one needs to worry. They simply don't believe it, and there's no reason they should.
Americans tend to have a similar kind of confidence and complacency about our own "know-how." Despite Three Mile Island, we believe that a similar "accident" or mistake is unlikely to occur here. But experience is teaching us that even small mistakes, or natural disasters, result in problems that are so devastating, and long lasting, and hard to fix, that the risk assessments must be revised. Were a huge earthquake to cause one of our West Coast facilities--such as Diablo Canyon, Humboldt Bay, etc.--to fail, the feeling of risk would suddenly be much less "remote" than it is.
The message of Fukushima is clear. These accidents are going to happen in the future, and there is little in our current state of technology, either at the construction, running maintenance, or problem mitigation stages that will protect us from the consequences of such disasters. If safe sources of energy are inadequate to provide the fuel necessary to sustain our present state of consumption and living, then society will either have to moderate its needs, or reduce its numbers (and demand).