Japanese tragedy shows up the fault lines in pro-nuclear lobby
Published 23/03/2011 | 08:00
The founder of Friends of the Earth (FoE), David Brower, once remarked that, "Nuclear plants are incredibly complex technological devices for locating earthquake faults."
The radical environmentalist and mordant wit Jeffrey St Clair put it vice-versa: "Earthquake fault-lines appear to exert a magnetic attraction for nuclear power-stations."
Ninety percent of the world's earthquakes happen along the "ring of fire", curving around the Pacific plate, from Chile up along the American coast, past California, on to Alaska, across to Russia and down along Japan to Australia. The ring is ornamented with nuclear installations - including, of course, the Fukushima-Daiichi facility where molten uranium fuel burns through containment vessels, releasing eddies of fear to spread far and wide.
Brower became nationally known in the US in the 1950s when, as chief executive of the "save the wilderness" group, the Sierra Club, he led the campaign which prevented construction of a nuclear plant at Bodega Bay, adjacent to the arc of the ring known as the San Andreas Fault. Brower became convinced that the danger lay not only in location but in the process of nuclear power generation itself.
The technology was imperfect, the industry's pitch to the public untrustworthy, the implication of predictable breakdown too scary. When the club wouldn't back his analysis, he left to found FoE. As Japanese workers strive beyond the call of any duty to contain the conflagration at Fukushima-Daiichi, Brower's concern seems ever more prescient.
He would have been grimly unsurprised by the casual confidence of the nuclear industry and its supporters even now. The Heritage Foundation, one of the most powerful lobby groups in the US, continues to argue on its website that "Artificial constraints on infrastructure, including costly environmental regulations, (should be) removed. Such steps will unshackle delivery of supplies and allow key sources like nuclear energy to achieve their potential."
Its "nuclear research fellow" Jack Spencer said in Washington last week that "This has done nothing to show we should not be building nuclear power plants."
Former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency Christine Todd Whitman reassured the media that working in a nuclear power plant is "safer than working in a grocery store."
The science editor of the Daily Mail writes that "The (other) Japanese nuclear plants have performed magnificently...What has happened in Japan should in fact be seen as a massive endorsement of nuclear power."
St Clair commented: "It's like praising the levee system in New Orleans because only the one above the 9th ward breached."
The reasons the industry's argument has prevailed with governments include its canny exertion of political clout - it poured money into Obama's campaign coffers in 2008 - and its successful wooing of influential environmentalists.
George Monbiot, held up as a fount of wisdom by many in the green movement, wrote in the Guardian last week under the headline, 'Japan's nuclear crisis should not carry weight in atomic energy debate'.
One of the major arguments which has persuaded a sizable section of the green movement to go over to the side of nuclear is that the transformation of modern economies to viable dependence on wind, wave and solar power is simply impracticable. And at least nuclear generation doesn't spew out clouds of carbon. To many among the wider public, this seems plausible.
But the argument only works if we accept that the free market is sacrosanct and the depth of government intervention in the economy needed to effect a sufficiently radical transformation is unimaginable.
But at times of existential threat, the unimaginable becomes no more than common sense.
The US went to war with Japan following the bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. By Christmas, President Franklin Roosevelt had told Congress exactly what he wanted from industry - 60,000 war planes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 anti-aircraft units, eight million tons of military shopping and much else besides.
An instantly-established War Production Board sent out a flurry of instructions, telling General Motors, Ford and Chrysler to set about an immediate switch from auto to tank production, telling steel companies what quantities and what type of steel they must now produce and where to deliver it, telling the recipient companies what to make and to what specification. This was the pattern across all industry. House building was virtually stopped and base-building and other war-relevant projects undertaken instead. The fiercest proponents of the free market readily went along. When existence was at stake, the market didn't matter.
What will it take to force a realisation that nuclear power poses an existential threat, and not just to one or a group of nations? One, two, three Fukushima-Daiichis?
Maybe it won't come to that. But then, we were assured it wouldn't come to this.