Japan Quake Shows Nuclear Power Remains Unpredictable


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“The unfolding situation in Japan supports the perspective reached by the many ordinary people who, in spite of the assurances of intelligentsia and politicians, recognize that nuclear energy still has the power to surprise, and that the consequences of failure can come fast and unannounced. Let us have courage to act on the information that we have, and the courage also to admit when we do not know what we are doing.”

Author: Jesse Laird, a human rights activist from Portland, Oregon
Published in: ConsortiumNews.com (at http://www.consortiumnews.com/); HuntingtonNews.net; Gazette-Virginian serving Halifax County, Virginia; Bahcesel.com (at http://www.bahcesel.com/)
Date: March 15 and 16, 2011

For the full article:
Japan Quake Shows Nuclear Power Remains Unpredictable
(533 words)
by Jesse Laird

The ecological crisis posed by the exploding and leaking nuclear power plants in Japan following the massive earthquakes and tsunami there presents an opportunity for Americans to rethink nuclear power.

Increasingly, nuclear power has in the United States been presented as a green alternative to power plants that run on coal and other fossil fuels, which contribute huge quantities of greenhouse gases. Stewart Brand, an admired environmentalist and futurist known for founding the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, went on the record for nuclear power in 2005. James Lovelock, the scientist who created the Gaia Hypothesis, and Patrick Moore, the founder of Greenpeace, are among other noted public intellectuals who have pushed nuclear power, which itself does not contribute much greenhouse gases. Politicians, such as President Barak Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner, have presented nuclear power as safe and predictable. According to Boehner’s website, nuclear power “has proven itself as a safe, carbon-free and environmentally friendly alternative.”

Despite this consensus among elites, the earthquake in Japan has revealed that nuclear power is less predictable and less green than we thought. Radioactive material has already escaped from Japanese reactors, and it is possible that the environmental contamination will increase exponentially. We simply do not know what is going to happen in Japan, and to what extent it will impact the United States (if at all).

In contrast to the elite consensus, a consensus among mostly ordinary people has reached an opposing conclusion about nuclear power: that we simply do not know enough about it, and that the stakes with nuclear energy are too high to use it in a state of ignorance. In 1977, for example, more than a thousand Americans were arrested for nonviolently occupying the site of a (then) future nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. They thought that nuclear power might be unsafe, might be used to make weapons, and that the stakes of failure were too high. In fact, all across the United States and Europe, ordinary citizens have opposed nuclear power on the grounds that it poses too many unknowns.

That the present system of energy production in the United States is unsustainable, because of climate change and/or dependence on foreign oil, is a bipartisan position. Elites have presented nuclear energy as the quick, easy response, because of its potential to make large amounts of energy with minimal greenhouse gas emissions. An opposing view, driven by a proper recognition of human limits, sees nuclear energy as a high stakes gamble. It is consistent with this opposing view to consider a portfolio of solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power, along with lifestyle changes and conservation, as a response to climate change. This combination of alternatives has its own drawbacks (none of which are radioactive).

The unfolding situation in Japan supports the perspective reached by the many ordinary people who, in spite of the assurances of intelligentsia and politicians, recognize that nuclear energy still has the power to surprise, and that the consequences of failure can come fast and unannounced. Let us have courage to act on the information that we have, and the courage also to admit when we do not know what we are doing.

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Jesse Laird is a human rights activist from Portland, Oregon.