Monday, November 27, 2006

Nuclear Debate: Glowing Reports

When you hear the word nuclear, you tend to think of advanced, shiny new technology. You may think of boffins in white coats twiddling knobs and gazing at computers.

In my radio active days, I stumbled into a number of nuclear coalfaces. From the Ranger uranium mine in northern Australia to a forgotten high-level waste storage site in Siilamae, Estonia, and in between these to many reactor sites in Japan. I was an accidental nuclear tourist. When I was not taking souvenir shots of these places, I spoke to the workers and locals, scientists, government ministers, officials and experts from the utilities — the lot.

What I found was that we have made some utterly stupid decisions, just to keep the air-cons running. We know future generations will point their fingers at us, but hey, we know we won’t be there to be held to account. Unless there are more Harrisburgs and Chernobyls of course.
Take the example of Fukui Prefecture, on the west coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu. It is close to Kyoto, the old imperial capital and it’s had a rich and long history as a provider of seafood as well as being a transport hub — the gateway to the Asian mainland.

But modern Fukui is known by a different name: ‘the nuclear main road.’ The narrow 80 km coastal strip hosts 15 nuclear reactors, perhaps the world’s heaviest concentration. It was here that Japan’s commercial nuclear program began. The electricity from the Tsuruga #1 power station ceremoniously lit a light bulb at the opening of the Expo in nearby Osaka in 1970. Not too far from the ageing Tsuruga #1 stands Monju, the nation’s first fast breeder reactor, which was meant to produce more fuel than it consumed, but was shut down in 1995 when it spewed out its coolant, natrium, causing a fire.

The beginning of nuclear power in Japan was rather low key and modest. Tsuruga #1 only produces 357 megawatts (MW) of power. (Eraring in NSW, Australia’s largest coal-fired power station, has a 2640 MW capacity.) Now, nearly four decades later, with 55 commercial reactors, Japan produces a total of 49,500 MW of nuclear power.

Nuclear power in Japan was first sold as the dream energy source, promoted with generous pork barrelling. Local public officials were routinely wined and dined, bribed and their opponents silenced. As a result of its acceptance of nuclear power plants, Fukui has more impressive public buildings, sports grounds, public halls and so on. For a while, the locals lived like addicts. When the money from one reactor dried up, they just accepted another one. What difference does it make to have one or three reactors? Until there was no more room.

They must be used to be living with danger by now. Like radiation itself, danger cannot be seen, but it is in the air. To live with reactors is to live with the constant fear of the next big accident. It could happen any time.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Accidents do occur often. The most recent fatal accident occurred a couple of years ago. The Mihama #3 reactor emitted steam in June 2004 which killed five workers and severely injured six. There was no radiation leak, the utility claimed, but it could not guarantee next time.

Next time may be caused by a terror attack or a natural disaster such as an earthquake. Fukui’s only a stone’s throw away from North Korea. A nuclear attack on Japan can be easily achieved by blowing up one of the reactors in Fukui, even without a nuclear bomb.

The northern part of the Prefecture was shaken in 1948 by a magnitude 7.1 quake which claimed more than 3000 people. Should an earthquake like this (equivalent to a 50 megaton explosion) occur under one of the reactors, it would be doubly devastating.

The locals have been spared so far, but workers have constantly been exposed to radiation. They just don’t show up on the stats, unless there are fatal accidents. Out of 70,000 workers at the reactor sites, less than 10 per cent are directly employed by the utilities. The rest are contractors and subcontractors, a disposable workforce.

The homeless, the destitute, day-labourers and teenage daredevil delinquents are routinely recruited for the task of cleaning up the bellies of the nuclear beasts. They are called ‘nuclear gypsies’ and like real gypsies, they move from one plant to another, their dosages of radiation unmeasured. Some estimate more than 1000 of these subcontracted gypsies have died from cancer and other radiation related illness since Tsuruga #1 came online. Thousands more are suffering right now.

Even a so-called ‘new generation’ reactor needs to be cleaned and maintained by humans. What right do we have to send fellow humans into such deadly places, so that we can maintain a convenient lifestyle?

The by-product of our nuclear lifestyle is radioactive waste. I stumbled onto a pile of such waste in Estonia in 1994. I was on assignment for Japanese television checking out the remains of the once mighty Soviet Union. It was outside the town of Sillamäe, near the border with Russia. We literally walked into a glowing tailings pond, only metres away from the Baltic Sea. No guard, no sign, no fence. Anybody from anywhere could have ended up there, just as we did.

The Sillamäe waste dump was visited by the National Geographic magazine later the same year. One picture in the August 1994 issue showed a guy in full body protective gear holding a Geiger counter, which was showing the over-the-top radiation there. They knew where they were going — we did not. We just arrived without any protective gear. A large amount of high-level waste was sitting there, abandoned. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, no one seemed to know what to do with it.

Any reactor, even a so-called ‘new generation’ one, produces deadly waste which has to go somewhere and be stored for a very, very long time. How we think we can guarantee it will be looked after safely is beyond me. Australia has existed as a Western civilisation for only a couple of hundred years. This deadly waste will remain deadly for much longer than that, longer than the longest ‘civilisation’ we have ever had so far. It is fine for Jim Lovelock, the father of the Gaia concept and a nuclear proponent, to say that he is happy to have high level waste in his backyard, but he will not be around for tens of thousands of years, will he?

Irresponsibility is what a nuclear powered society is all about. It can only survive on the sacrifice of the host community, which has to live with constant fear, the physical sacrifice of workers, and by dumping the deadly waste on future generations.

How dare we?

(New Matilda #117, Wednesday 22 November 2006 )

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