Japan has experienced the perfect eco-technical storm -- the worst earthquake and tsunami in its history and now the most nightmarish of nuclear meltdowns of not just one but three nuclear reactors plus the explosion in the fuel pond where the spent fuel rods from the reactors are kept. Ecology has assaulted technology. In the face of overwhelming natural forces, the arrogance of nuclear technology is being laid bare for the entire world to see.
If there is any country in the world that should have never built a single nuclear reactor it is Japan. Because of the enormous amounts of deadly radiation they produce and the fact that radiation, once released, can cause lethal damage to living beings for thousands of years, nuclear reactors require as much geologic stability as they do political security. Japan has small earthquakes on a regular basis throughout the year. The entire island chain is part of the "ring of fire" that encircles the Pacific -- a highly volatile earthquake and volcano prone part of the earth's surface, which includes the west coast of the United States.
But the Japanese government and nuclear industry, like its U.S. counterparts, went ahead anyway, asserting that they had things under control and that the probability of a major natural disaster of the magnitude just witnessed was statistically insignificant. In other words, what just happened was such a remote possibility that the plants could be built anyway. No worries, mate.
And now, as the Fukushima nuclear park is being laid waste by natural forces, we have condemned countless people in Japan and the world over to suffer the effects of the radiation poisoning, depending on the currents of the oceans and the winds. In the fuel pond alone, there is over 20,000 times the amount of cesium 137 and strontium 90 as in the Hiroshima bomb as well as large amounts of iodine and plutonium. Not all this has been released, but the amounts that are released into the sea can be taken up by fish and eaten. The amounts released into the atmosphere can be taken into the body by inhalation or ingestion.
Once in the body, these radionuclides concentrate in different organs, continuing to decay and releasing deadly gamma and beta waves. Cesium 137 attacks the muscles and produces cancer. Strontium 90 attacks the bones and causes leukemia. Iodine attacks the thyroid gland and plutonium can settle in the lungs, both causing cancer. When one adds the amount of radiation released by the fuel pond with the amount released from the meltdowns of the three reactors, the amount of radiation now out in the environment is almost unimaginable in both quantity and long term health effects. And the worst may be yet to come.
What makes matters even more ominous is the fact that what is happening in Japan can happen anywhere, particularly in geologically fragile areas like the California coast where four nuclear reactors operate. Moreover, the probability that another accident will happen is escalating. The Japanese disaster is not an isolated event. It is but the latest incident in the most serious and potentially devastating megatrend in the world right now -- the escalating turbulence in our natural systems. In the past twenty five years, extreme weather events have quadrupled in frequency and escalated in intensity. Climate change is morphing into climate shock as month after month natural disasters pile up and wreak havoc on societies everywhere, overwhelming our most sophisticated technologies. Consider what has happened in just the past year:
Last March, a volcano in Iceland suddenly erupted with a plume that shut down northern European airports for a week and in England much longer. In July, scorching heat plagued Russia, killing thousands of people and devastating crops as torrential rains and river flooding ravaged Pakistan until fully 20% of the entire nation was underwater. In August, a huge block of ice the size of Rhode Island broke off of Antarctica and another huge block of ice nine times the size of Manhattan broke off of Greenland, signaling sea level rise, as mudslides devastated China with towns up to the third and fourth stories inundated with mud. Then came the unprecedented series of major storms that plummeted northern Europe and the East coast of the United States in January and February of this year, shutting down airports for extended periods.
Nature is reminding us that as powerful as we think we are, we are not the Prime Mover. She is. In the face of nature, human technology is but chaff in the wind.
As we face the future, we must expect that natural disasters will continue to escalate in frequency and ferocity. Because we are making no serious collective effort to address the crisis of global warming, we are entering white water history and will experience an escalating cascade of crises that will shake the foundations of human civilization. Nature is seeking to redress a balance that human effort and technology has consistently violated for a very long time. She will continue to do so until we either change our ways and align human systems with natural systems or face the intensifying devastation of our modern way of life.
The only solution is to immediately and with a war level mobilization transition away from fossil fuel and nuclear power to clean technology and renewable energy. On this decision rests, quite literally, the fate of our sojourn on this earth.