Fukushima and the Role of Catastrophe in Human Evolution

Officials in protective gear check for signs of radiation on children who are from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant  Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Officials in protective gear check for signs of radiation on children who are from the evacuation area near the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant
Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Sometimes there are impending disasters that are so extreme, I have to tune them out for fear that they will have too great an impact on my capacity to function in daily life.  Such had been the case with the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan.  Since the initial accident in March of 2011, there has been little in media covering the ongoing leakage of radioactive waste into the air and Pacific Ocean; little on how a yet-to-be-quelled damaged reactor remains a serious threat to us all.  It was easy enough to tune it out.  Until my daughter Claire decided she loved to eat dried seaweed.

In my Internet meanderings, I had come across an article on Japanese seaweed showing high levels of radiation.  I remember quietly mourning the loss of sushi, knowing I was now much less likely to eat it, not knowing where the seaweed – or the fish for that matter – came from.  Still, I do eat sushi on rare occasion, quietly pushing away thoughts of radiation, telling myself that a little radiation here or there is probably tolerable.

But not when it comes to Claire.  So I looked at the packet of dried seaweed she loves and saw that it was from Korea.  I investigated further and learned that Korea was on the back end of the nuclear meltdown, and Korean seaweed and fish were showing no sign of radiation.  I was relieved, knowing Claire was in the clear.  Time to tune Fukushima out again and move on.

Except that I couldn’t.  I was already knee-deep.  I had learned that radioactive waste from Fukushima has been pouring into the Pacific Ocean for the past 2.5 years and is heading toward the West Coast.  It was deeply disturbing news to bear, yet almost paled in comparison to what is currently happening with Fukushima Diiachi Unit 4, the nuclear reactor that still has the potential to cause the most powerful, widespread nuclear accident in human history.

The damaged reactor, a “house of cards” on the verge of collapse, has more than 1300 spent fuel rods that are in desperate need of being removed.  A removal procedure of this magnitude has never been attempted before.  As was stated in the Japan Times,

“The consequences could be far more severe than any nuclear accident the world has ever seen. If a fuel rod is dropped, breaks or becomes entangled while being removed, possible worst case scenarios include a big explosion, a meltdown in the pool, or a large fire. Any of these situations could lead to massive releases of deadly radionuclides into the atmosphere…”

This worst-case scenario could mean a release of radiation 14,000 times more powerful than Hiroshima.

What does one do with the knowledge that there is a realistic possibility of a nuclear disaster as early as this month, one that would likely reach all of us, especially in the Northern Hemisphere?  It’s so big to take on! And it might not happen.  And if it doesn’t happen, and I monitor where the food I eat comes from, then my family will be safe, right?

Again the potential to tune out.  But I wasn’t able to because I learned that children are 10 to 20 times more sensitive to radiation than adults.  I learned that female children between the ages of 0 to 5 are twice as likely as boys to develop cancer as a result of radiation exposure.  And, though the number of children in Japan exposed to radiation from Fukushima is unknown, I am sure the reality is devastating.  Thyroid cancer is already beginning to manifest in these children – as much as a 30% increase since the meltdown.  Who can predict what the effects will be down the line?

Which led me to Chernobyl.

In 2001 I was at a World Summit on Sustainable Development at the United Nations, working on behalf of the Earth Charter – a civil society document that lays out the essential principles for living sustainably on the planet.  It was the first time my work had taken me to the United Nations.  I remember being in the General Assembly Hall of the UN, listening to country after country speak of the problems that plagued them, many due to climate change – rising sea levels, famine, disease, lack of access to sanitary water, etc.  After two hours of intake I became overwhelmed, felt faint, and left the room to get some air.

As I approached the main lobby, I was overtaken by hauntingly beautiful music filling the space.  It was a Russian male acappella quartet.  I felt my spirit begin to lift as I drank in the harmonies, unaware I was meandering toward photographs of the children of Chernobyl, taken by Paul Fusco.

Screen Shot 2013-10-30 at 1.57.22 PM

Photo by Paul Fusco

It was surreal, hearing these exquisite voices as I stared at giant black and white photographs of a generation of children affected by the Chernobyl disaster –  children with such profound mutations to their bodies; children who had lost all capacity for intelligence and normalcy; children who were deeply loved by their parents.  These images never left me, and they came flying back into the foreground of my mind as I thought of the children and parents of Fukushima.

Screen Shot 2013-10-30 at 1.57.59 PM

Photo by Paul Fusco

Though I love my daughter more than any other human being on Earth, I find that I can’t limit my relationship to her.  I can’t turn a blind eye to children as a whole when it comes to their innocence and our obligation to provide them with a safe and viable future in which to thrive.

When you look at these photos of innocent children born into the ramifications of a nuclear disaster, the mind will work to file the information in a way that makes it possible for us to move on: “Though these images are profoundly tragic, the radiation in Japan isn’t affecting my child.  I feel devastated by the suffering the children of Chernobyl and Fukushima are enduring, but I don’t have the room inside me to take it into my own, already full life.”

This is close to the perspective I held for a good while, and I would guess I’m not alone.  Holding onto such a perspective helps us cope with realities that carry such unbearable tragedy; realities we feel we have no control over.  But having dug deep into information on Chernobyl and Fukushima, I realize that I can’t let the extreme suffering of these innocent children happen in vain.

I realize, too, that this could easily become my own child’s reality.  Of the 100 nuclear plants in the United States, 23 are GE boiling-water reactors with GE’s Mark I systems for containing radioactivity — the same containment system used by the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. These reactors are in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Vermont.  All are on major waterways.  Most were built in the 1970s.

As early as 1972 experts and engineers cited shortcomings in the GE design.  GE and the nuclear energy industry still uphold the belief that nuclear energy is as safe as safe can be.  Between the design flaws, the age of these reactors, the unpredictable weather that comes with climate change and the fact that nuclear energy creates radioactive waste, it’s enough for me to feel we can do without it. Now.

As the Chernobyl photographer Paul Fusco said, “Everything breaks.  Everything wears down.”

Nuclear power has the potential to be as dangerous as a nuclear bomb. Chernobyl and Fukushima prove that.  And guess what?  We don’t need nuclear energy!  We absolutely do not need it!  It accounts for 20% of our energy supply in the US, and renewable energy – along with energy efficiency – would easily replace and surpass this energy resource.  We need only let our elected officials know this is what we want.  And that we mean it.

Once upon a time nuclear energy was thought of as the “alternative energy,” a “clean” alternative to fossil fuels.  True, it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but the dangers posed by this source of energy are obvious.  We don’t need radioactive waste, nor the threat of yet another nuclear catastrophe.

Or do we?

Renewable energy does not jeopardize the future, but rather gives it a chance. We can power this entire planet with wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower and other forms of renewable energy that pose no threat to our children or generations to come.  The question is, will we get serious about it now, or do we need more catastrophes to make it clear that renewable energy is worth our full attention and commitment?

Again I have to say, let us not let the suffering of the children of Chernobyl and Fukushima be in vain.  Let them be enough in the way of catastrophes.  Let them be enough.


To get involved or learn more about a nuclear free world, go to Nuke Free, FairewindsBeyond Nuclear, and Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

Sign these petitions urging the world community to take charge of Fukushima!

Informative interviews conducted at a symposium on the two-year anniversary of Fukushima, “The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident.”  Top minds in the nuclear-free movement.

Watch Robert Kennedy Jr. debate Robert Stone, the director of the pro-nuclear film “Pandora’s Promise.”


7 responses to “Fukushima and the Role of Catastrophe in Human Evolution

  1. Thank you, Lisa. This is very moving — and motivating.

  2. Go to the IAEA.org web site at click on the Fukushima tab.
    Take some time and read the reports. The Tsunami damaged reactor is getting cleaned up and there has been massive coverage of this in the media. You wrote, “Nuclear power is in fact as dangerous as a nuclear bomb” The US bought 17,000 old Soviet nuclear war heads and reprocessed the Uranium and Plutonium into fuel for American reactors (Megatons to Megawatts program). Nuclear power has saved thousand of lives every year by reducing the amount of fossil fuels burned to generate electricity. CNN showed “Pandora’s Promise” last evening. The CNN website has a lot of clips and interviews. I encourage you to look at these and reference the sources. These old bombs provided more electricity to our grid (about 10%) over the last 10 years than all renewables combined.

    I used to believe that wind, solar, bio fuel, tidal, hydro and conservation would be enough to cancel nuclear power and fossil fuel use. I couldn’t make the math work. To get an even handed understanding of energy generation I encourage you to see “Switch” by Dr. Scott Tinker. The http://www.switchenergy.org web site can also help you.
    You probably fill up a gas tank with petroleum fuel every so often or you take a bus that the transport system personnel fill up with some sort of fossil fuel. The machine is operated, the kilometers are accumulated and the tank is emptied. You have dumped the waste into the atmosphere, people breath this and get ill, thousands die every year, health data shows this. No one has ever died from a release of radioactive particles of radiation emitted from US nuclear power generating facilities. Nuclear waste from the existing reactor fleet is stored with a much greater range of safety than is possible with fossil fuels. Other countries reprocess this waste and recycle it into new fuel. We do not due to fear generated by the anti nuclear power lobby. People are controlled easily by fear, rulers have known this for thousands of years. Who profits from the generation of fear of nuclear power? I’ll let you think on this.
    I’ll tell you what I believe. Vigorous study of how we power civilization from this point forward will determine how our great, great grand kids will live their lives and raise their children. It is the duty of every capable parent and sentient member of civilization to do their homework on this. I opposed nuclear power until I did the math on this issue. We all face a great test in the next few decades; How do we re-power the world with climate change and fossil fuel depletion looming in the near future? The test is not going to be written. It will be a practical test out “in the field”. No retakes, no extra credit.
    If your going to be against nuclear power, What are you for? Please show your math too. Thank you for reading this. Cheers!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Scott. I hear what you are saying and agree that nuclear power will play a role in our dire need to get away from fossil fuel energy. I would want to (and will) do more research before responding to some of your points, but you asked me, “If you are going to be against nuclear power, what are you for?” I think I clearly stated what I am for. Renewable energy that does not generate radioactive waste or any other form of waste that destroys the basic life systems of the planet. Clearly this can’t be done in a day or a year or a decade, but a lot more could be done if we stopped subsidizing fossil fuels and took that $500 plus billion dollars (the number for 2011) and put it toward renewable energy efforts. We could get a lot more done if Universities were focused on renewables, rather than fossil fuel. As for nuclear plants, I would ask, would you live near a radioactive waste storage facility? Would you feel safe? If you would, I honor that. Not me. There are no easy solutions, but again I will say that if we invested in renewables, we’d be much further along. I am also keenly aware that moving to renewable energy means a major crumbling of industries that have had a monopoly on energy. Local energy, even off the grid, must make the nuclear, oil and gas industries cringe. What is life without the goal of (obscene) profit? Hard to say if we will make it as a species, but for me, I’m going to be learning as much as I can about renewable energy (and energy efficiency) and hopefully educate others on what is possible if we commit to it, insist on it and fight for it when necessary.

  3. Interesting article in which the journalist, having just traveled to Fukushima, says that the danger of a nuclear disaster is less about nuclear reactor unit 4 and more about units 1,2 and 3 which pose even more of a threat. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-24846819

  4. Everett L Williams II

    It is hard to reply reasonably to so emotionally charged a discussion. It is impossible to be against the concept of renewable sources of energy, but it is also currently impossible to get to the goal of fully renewable energy with the current investment levels and technology. Things like ethanol production are net negatives for energy production yet are taking up an enormous amount of arable land and subsidies. Solar panels are excellent providers of peak power, but obviously cannot reach across the hours when the sun does not shine. The only way other than massive and expensive energy storage to extend that range is to put the solar into geosynchronous orbit and beam down the power. This is doable, but the up front capital requirements are enormous, not to mention more than a few marginal technologies. Wind cannot provide dependable base load power, though it is of great value. Base load power must be generated 24x7x365 in all conditions, or the whole system collapses. Right now, that role is filled by fixed power plants fueled by hydrocarbons or nuclear. Though using the less polluting natural gas helps, it still does not meet even the current needs, much less those of the future and it is still part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

    The ideal solution is the solar power coming down from orbit, but no one in power is even suggesting this at the national or international level. Most of the current nuclear plants are old and approaching the limits of their reasonable and safe ability to generate power. They all require frequent refueling that is both expensive and increasingly hazardous. Such plants everywhere, both conventional and nuclear, require massive amounts of water for cooling, and damage the water resource with thermal pollution as well as chemical pollution. There are new reactor designs that are far safer than the current ones and that do not require the type of shut down for refueling of older designs. They can burn up much of what is now stored in cooling ponds as well as using close to 100% of the uranium that we currently have rather than the few percent that are the current standard. Some of them can burn thorium, which is more than four times more abundant than uranium, and which can also be almost 100% burned in the reactors. Both fuels, when used in the new designs, create less than 10% of the current level of long lived radioactives for the amount of fuel burned. With proper design and some investment those remaining long lived radioactives can be even further reduced. The newer designs do not use water in the reactor proper and do not generate the amounts of hydrogen and helium that lead to embrittlement of the plumbing within the reactor containment. Most do not require massive pressurized containment structures because they do not operate under higher than atmospheric pressure. Their failure modes are passively cooled and do not threaten meltdown at any point. Some can run continuously for multiple decades rather than the 2-4 years of current designs. The most important point for many people is that the new designs do not lend themselves to easy extraction of plutonium or other materials easily used for bombs of any variety. The potential bomb materials are normally embedded in lead or bismuth, making them problematic for use in even dirty conventional bombs. The ones that use sodium are so difficult to handle outside of the reactor facilities that abusers would be unlikely to survive the effort long enough to make use of the materials. Those using more conventional fuel rods still are seldom opened, reducing opportunities for trouble.

    We can build fairly large numbers of such reactors much more quickly than the current massively contained water cooled and mediated reactors and we can site them much further away from vulnerable water resources. The long term goal should be to get to orbital solar, but such nuclear reactors can ably provide essentially safe, pollution free power for several centuries into the future. More mining for fuel should not be required for many decades into that future, further reducing the pollution load of the process.

    The things that we should do as quickly as possible are to replace all the world’s light and heavy water reactors with new, safer designs before we have more disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl, then proceed to build as many more of the new types as we need, eventually replacing the entire hydrocarbon-based generating system. Lastly we can replace all the massive power generating dams that are destroying our riverine and estuarine systems, retaining only those defending populations and providing critical water supplies. When orbital solar power is in place and sufficient, we can finally rid ourselves of almost all nuclear fission plants. If fusion plants ever happen, we can deal with that issue when they become available.

  5. Some 39 months after the multiple explosions at Fukushima, thyroid cancer rates among nearby children have skyrocketed to more than forty times (40x) normal.


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