Every nuclear power plant is safe until it isn't
To the Editor:
Last night in Montpelier's Christ Church I sat spellbound for 2 hours as Chiho Kaneko, an eloquent Japanese woman who has lived in Vermont for a decade, recounted to us the news and present situation of the Fukushima district in Japan which was unrecoverably contaminated by radiation when the poorly protected and inadequately equipped nuclear power plant located there was struck by the Tsunami of 2011. Kaneko has visited the neighborhood of Fukushima several times since the disaster, with camera, Geiger counter, and her native fluency in Japanese, in order to get details and the "tone" of the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, and its implications for Vermonters who live within the potential radiation shadow of our state's own nuclear power plant in Vernon.
I was especially struck by a couple of things in Kaneko's talk. The first is the inherent incompleteness and consequent falseness of the assurances given to the public who live downwind from the nuclear power plants of the world, by the technical and corporate masters of those power plants. Everything is hunky-dory, we're told, and under the perfect control of the self-certifying experts, until that one more "oops-thing" occurs that technical genius didn't anticipate, or corporate thrift didn't allow for, and that sets off another unexpungeable nuclear hell-fire and poisoning of man, earth, and beast, lasting into unnumbered decades.
A second impression Kaneko left with me was the tentative and uncertain nature of how life can be lived at all in territories adjacent to the failed nuclear power plants of Fukushima, infected as they have been with small or large amounts of enduring nuclear radiation. There are to begin with the children, who, by the natural process of their growth are more susceptible than adults to the long term effects of radiation. And there are at the other extreme of public concern, let's mention them, the spinach and wild fiddleheads and beloved persimmons and every thing else that grows in the wider Fukushima region: are they and their kind safe to eat? or -- come on, let's not be fussy! -- only a teensy bit unsafe?. And there are the widely popular wild mushrooms of the region: don't even think of eating them -- they're the worst for concentrating radioactivity in themselves. And - the mysteries of life under radiation being endless -- there is the drip line around one's house to think about, too. Atmospheric radiation bonds with raindrops, and the radioactive rain that falls on rooftops becomes concentrated in the drip line around the house. In some places around Fukushima, the surface of the earth has been scraped up (how deep to go, and at what unimaginable trouble and cost?)and packed into giant round plastic-covered bales, like the white-wrapped hay-bales we see around Vermont . bales of contaminated soil by the thousands and tens of thousands, piled up and covering acres of land and concentrating their radiation . with no place to go. So they sit in unfenced gathering places by the roadsides, suppurating, radiating, constantly. For years and years, and decades and decades. And longer, yet? And how dangerously? No one knows for sure, is the standard answer when it comes to the disposition and longevity of deeply radioactive waste.
I think that every nuclear power plant still functioning is an example of Technical Man's hubris. THEY, the experts in charge, say to us, "We know the science and are fully in control of every thing. And we care about you, too, first and foremost. So never fear."
So it was with Chernobyl: "We're experts, we're the responsible ones, and we know what we're doing."
And so with Fukushima: "The Russians will make their mistakes, but we Japanese are more clever and more careful."
And so with our own little Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in the town of Vernon, whose hot breath will reach even the table where I'm tapping out these words now, if Something Bad happens there, and a wrong wind blows in afterwards through the window behind me. The Entergy Corporation of Louisiana, which owns Vermont Yankee from a distance, acknowledges they've made mistakes in the past, and have misspoken sometimes when queried by the Vermont legislature; and acknowledges also that there have been some mishaps on a scale not to worry about -- in the distant "up there" which is our Vermont.
Their claim: we, the owners and operators of the plant, are the experts in charge, and we know what we're doing, never mind the little troubles we've had before. Chernobyl was one thing, Fukushima another, but we're something different. So sit back, rest easy, go on eating your home-grown spinach and collecting your fiddleheads, and just-- trust us -- to put your safety and the wholesomeness of your land at the head of our concerns.