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No Nukes Now? A Lesson From Japan and Questions About the Security of Japan's Nuclear Waste

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Three weeks ago, I highlighted the risks Japan faces, as a nuclear energy-dependent nation on an earthquake fault line, in my review of Into Eternity, a documentary about a nuclear waste repository deep underground in Finland. I also noted how Australia -- which was the first choice of scientists in Finland for storage of nuclear waste -- had just been hit by a 200-year flood.

Michael Madsen, the director of Into Eternity, elucidated this dilemma in irrefutably simple terms which give the lie to the claims and denials made by what I called "nihilists masquerading as realists" -- about the viability and inherent danger of nuclear energy. He also quite clearly addressed the disaster that would ensue if the most likely scenario of water seeping into nuclear storage facilities came to pass.

In just a month's time, we've seen acts of nature -- an earthquake on an island that derives 30% of its power from nuclear energy, and a 200-year flood (and tremors) in the nation considered to be the soundest place on the planet to store nuclear waste -- that should deliver satori about nuclear energy and human nature. And yet our president, whom I earnestly respect, and whom is taking on more challenges than I even think (or know) about, manages to say, when asked today about our energy policy and options to get us out of oil dependency: "We've been having this conversation for nearly four decades now... the same old... political playbook... nothing changes..." And he ends the litany of acceptable "clean energy" strategies available to us with nuclear energy.

Indeed, and alas, nothing changes.

By way of a moral note, I am not engaging in rote finger-pointing during a crisis; instead, it is my sole intent to insist that this earthquake, like Chernobyl, like Three Mile Island, and possibly Japan, which I pray won't be the fire next time -- irrespective of the duration of time between these events -- are existential teaching moments, which we ignore at out gravest peril.

As I typed this, Jane Eudy, an American ex-patriot who works in the
Fukushima nuclear plant was speaking to CNN, relaying what she was told during a frantic call from her husband who also works at the facility and was scrambling to find a safe zone, as chaos ensued: "To me it just sounds like hell on Earth," she said.

Against this backdrop the news personality still, beguilingly, asked how long it could be before the nuclear reactors came back online, her question potentially creating an instant, liminal awareness in the minds of millions of passive viewers that nuclear energy isn't the problem, earthquakes are. Through the idiot box we also hear that radiation level is now 1,000 times worse, followed by another pundit, adding in an incredulous tone: "No matter what you tell them no matter what I say, people have a visceral fear of radiation... it's more than likely that it may go up again. But again, I doubt it will get into health-impacting effects."

To my mind this is beyond irresponsible, and it reminds me of the vignette in the late great, Akira Kurosawa's film Dreams, during which a nuclear power plant executive apologizes to a handful of survivors -- with whom he is dying a slow death -- for misleading the public, after a nuclear disaster scorches the earth. No one in the news is speaking about the nuclear waste in Japan, but if they are flooded, we have a new kind of disaster to deal with.

My increasingly cynical outlook is starting to believe that in all likelihood, even if there were a disaster, no one would change their attitude about nuclear energy.

To wit: Japan, the only nation to suffer the horrific effects of nuclear warfare is, shockingly, one of this planet's largest consumers of nuclear energy. Look at out own nation: an addiction to oil made us even more imperialist, and thus vulnerable to guerrilla blowback, which proved far costlier than we ever imagined (911); parts of our sacred shores were ruined for generations by a foreign oil company (BP) and still we haven't changed our behavior.

All of which remind me of a talking head in Into Eternity saying, "If we want to bring India and China to the level we are at in the next twenty years, then we have to build three nuclear reactors a day."

It is time we asked and re-asked an elemental question: Where exactly are we going?

Yesterday, my greatest fear was that nuclear facilities would be targeted by terrorists (and a student in Texas was apprehended for plotting the very same, not long after my review) -- and this is an event that I still see as a inevitability -- and today, I find myself oddly grateful that we are concerned about nuclear reactors during an earthquake and tsunami, rather than a terrorist event. It is also odd to find oneself hoping that tsunamis -- not leaked radiation -- are the worst ancillary events to be faced by other nations after this earthquake.

When a "clean" energy source leaves you with this kind of choice, then the very use of it -- our arrogant attempt to harness an elemental force in our universe -- is an aberration.

As I type this, still no one is speaking about the state of the nuclear waste already in Japan, but there is a report that a reactor's core remains too hot; emergency back-up generators have failed, because of flooding from the tsunami, thus creating the ultimate irony: nuclear energy, the most powerful and dangerous force on Earth -- after, of course, human nature -- is now dependent on battery power. If the battery fails, Fukushima will see a meltdown.

Pray for Japan, and pray for our planet. Of course, a pundit is already saying that it won't be too bad, at least not as bad as, say, Chernobyl.

I say again -- as many have before me -- and with every fiber of my being: No nukes. Please.

Extra-credit reading: An open letter to the government of Iran and any nation presuming to jail its artists and dissidents.