In march of 2011, in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake of intensity unprecedented in modern history, several reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were heavily damaged due to loss of adequate cooling. The tsunami which knocked out the poorly-located diesel generators also killed a pair of young plant workers as they sheltered in a turbine room basement. Leslie Corrice’s authoritative book The First Five Days provides detail of the decisions, delays and interference that resulted in loss of containment and hydrogen explosions which allowed release of the radionuclides which largely prompted large scale evacuation and remain of great concern to many people.
For perspective, cooling of reactor cores was maintained at Fukushima Daini and Onagawa Nuclear Plant, the latter surviving practically unscathed despite being closest to the epicentre. Several hundred townspeople of Onagawa sheltered in the plant’s gymnasium.
UNSCEAR has unequivocally stated that no one will likely die due to the release of radioactive contamination.
Yet the hysteria continues. Google “Fukushima” and instead of links to information about an idyllic rural prefecture, famous for sake rice, strawberries and other agriculture, the first hits are NaturalNews or Enenews – sites founded primarily to promote radiation fear. Unrelenting pressure to avoid release of radioactive water has required vast numbers of tanks to be built, and recently another worker died from a fall from one of these tanks. The treated water retains only tritium, an isotope that would not conceivably impact anyone’s health when diluted by undrinkable seawater. It would not effect fish, but the associated, perpetuated fear would impact the fishing industry.
Yesterday, in Mexico, a maternity hospital was destroyed in a gas explosion, killing a nurse and two infants. Where are the anti-gas protests? Where are the demands for the exit of gas power and heating? In late 2011 Mexico dropped plans to expand its perfectly unremarkable nuclear energy capacity and rely instead on abundant shale gas. Maybe the sustained hysteria over Fukushima influenced this, or maybe it was primarily the recent expanded gas reserves. But just try to imagine a world in which those terrible deaths were somehow caused instead by nuclear energy – with the same brief news coverage, and no activism involved.
Gas has a definite place in our current energy mix. Where it replaces coal fired power, emissions are distinctly lowered. It is currently abundant and convenient. It is also inherently explosive and incredibly dangerous, and must be handled with respect and a relevant degree of training. Clearly, safety lapsed at that hospital, with tragic consequences.
Though we can expect technological improvements, the resultant waste from gas is left uncontained and accumulates harmfully in the atmosphere for centuries. The fuel pool and dry cask “waste” at Fukushima Daiichi was all contained and weathered an earthquake and tsunami. The point is that the hazards of gas are so successfully normalised in our society that when it destroys a maternity hospital, we would be right to expect the news to drop off the front of the BBC (for example) by the next day.
It is likewise futile to demand consistency from Fukushima fearmongers. Despite the lack of any reason to expect radiation-induced cancers in Japan’s surviving evacuees, we can be sure that nuclear opponents will wait it out on the basis of a delay of onset – perpetuating their paranoia the whole time, and paying no mind to the real dead people and destroyed families. Is it just as insensitive to point at a deadly maternity hospital gas explosion to highlight their inconsistency? No, because I am relieved that survivors are being pulled from the rubble. I have more than my fair share of experience with midwifery, but the very real trauma of the event for the surviving workers and families is unimaginable.