Count Down to Oblivion
The world breathlessly waits on the precipice of a disaster; one that began with a natural catastrophe, but has since become the second man-made calamity to deliver punishing blows to a sustainable Earth in less than a year. The initial disaster, a heart pounding nine point earthquake and accompanying tsunami, were enough to cripple Japan’s economy and affect global trade for a very long time, but Japan is resilient and industrious enough that it would have recovered. The damaged nuclear reactors, however, are driving nails into its coffin.
It’s understandable that Japanese government officials would wish to minimize the risks and make their citizens believe everything is under control. It has a country of millions, already devastated by the twin natural disasters, and with no safe place to go. They are powerless to do anything except wait to see whether the reactors will be cooled down in time or whether they’ve been issued a death sentence. In the meantime, the rest of the world uses their own gauges of safety in relation to how close they wish to be to Japan. In the meantime, radiation trickles out from the reactors like oil seeping from the bottom of the ocean.
On the Saturday following the disaster, March 12th., Japanese officials placed the incident at a four on a one to seven scale, stating that the explosion that occurred was worst than the accident at Three Mile Island, but not as bad as the meltdown at Chernobyl, the only nuclear incident to be classified level seven. French authorities say the accident should currently be classified at level six.
The disturbing part about nuclear disasters is the immediate effects are witnessed only by those closest to the scene of the accident. Two Chernobyl plant workers died on the night of the 1986 accident, and a further 28 people died within a few weeks as a result of acute radiation poisoning. Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) was originally diagnosed in 237 people on-site and involved with the clean-up and was later confirmed in 134 cases. Nineteen more deaths occurred between the years 1987 and 2004, although radiation has not been confirmed as the cause of death. Additionally, a large proportion of children have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer since then, leading authorities to suspect it was due to radioactive poisoning. The fallout from the explosion covered large areas of Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and beyond with varying degrees of radiation.
Chernobyl was located in a town with 12,500 inhabitants. Ukraine’s Capital, Kiev, is located about 130 kilometers north of Chernobyl, with a population of three million. The immediate radiation dust cloud covered mainly wilderness areas and small towns, exponentially spreading out its lethal doses in smaller and smaller quantities as it covered a lightly populated Arctic Rim. The countries affected were behind the Iron Curtain, with very little information given out as to the degree of severity.
According to an American, Chris Hamilton, who was teaching seminars in Poland at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, Russia did not advise the Polish people of the melt-down that occurred in Ukraine until several days after the explosion had already sent out its radioactive ring. As soon as he learned of the danger, he sent his pregnant wife back to the United States with their two year old daughter.
Hamilton continued to stay in Warsaw for the next couple of months to complete his Fulbright assignment, taking precautions that included avoiding being outdoors in the rain, avoiding eating foods that could have become contaminated and removing his clothes in the hallway of his home before going straight to the shower room to wash off any possible nuclear materials.
This is not the case for Japan. Besides its own high density population, Japan is located close to the mainland of Russia, China, North and South Korea. Its radioactive cloud has the potential to affect millions of people. While it’s understandable that Japan wishes to protect its people from all-out panic, the rest of the world has the right to know what they can expect.
Call to Preparedness
Japan’s crisis is a world crisis. Even without the reactor explosions, the massive earthquake and tsunami produced a crippling effect to the economy of trade and commerce. Japan is home to six of the top ten automobile producers on the world scale. They are key suppliers in consumer electronics, computers, semiconductors, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, bio-industry, ship building, aerospace, textiles and processed foods. Within two days after the natural disaster, stocks began to plummet.
Sony Corp., which has halted output at several factories — including one that makes Blu-Ray discs — was down 2.2 percent.
Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s biggest automaker, which has halted production of cars, was down 3.6 percent.
Toshiba Corp., another company forced to shut factories after the quake, was down 5 percent. Tokio Marine Holdings Inc., a major insurer, was down 2.4 percent.
The index had shed more than 1,600 points, or 16 percent, Monday of the 14th. and the following Tuesday as worries over the nuclear crisis triggered widespread selling.
The yen has climbed to a record high. Major natural disasters like earthquakes tends to bolster the yen because investors expect the Japanese public and insurance companies to buy back their home currency in order to fund the country’s reconstruction, increasing demand for the yen.
Some analysts have said they expected the Bank of Japan to sell dollars in an attempt to weaken the Japanese currency if the dollar dropped below 80 yen. A strong yen hurts the Asian country’s exporters, potentially deepening the already severe hit to the world’s No. 3 economy from the multiple disasters.
The nuclear crisis has shaken Japan’s chances of a fairly swift recovery. It was a country that thrived on tourism and fishing. In a large number of countries, tourists have been advised not to book reservations with Japan this season until they have an accurate measurement of the degree of radiation spewing into the air. Although Japanese officials claim it would take several months of daily exposure from the contaminants currently in the air to cause significant health damage, American rescue teams have been instructed to maintain a fifty mile distance from the reactors.
In Alaska, fishermen poised over their dip nets, ready to harvest the herring for their number one customer; Japan; although it’s now unclear whether Japan will be accepting any imports. Japan is Alaska’s biggest trade partner, receiving $1.2 billion-worth of Alaska products — mostly seafood, liquefied natural gas and minerals — last year. Also, Alaska is a major destination for Japanese tourists in the summer and winter months. Some Japanese tourists have canceled their trips to Alaska in recent days, Alaska tour operators said.
Living with Repercussions
Although President Obama continues to support the development of nuclear energy, investors are quietly casting around for safer solutions. California takes a hard look at their power plants in San Onofre and Diablo Canyon. Both are sitting close to a fault line. Both are coastal. Both are built to withstand ground accelerations worse than those that ravaged Japan. But questions remain about how they would stand up to a tsunami.
“The Japanese Fukushima site had a double hit — an earthquake larger than had been anticipated and a tsunami larger than had been anticipated,” said Burton Richter, a Nobel Laureate in physics and a professor at Stanford University.
“The earthquake was not the problem,” he added. “The tsunami was. In Japan, the earthquake engineering was superb, but the tsunami protection was not adequate. Their sea wall was not high enough to protect the site from flooding, and it was the flooding that knocked out the emergency core cooling system.”
The problems at Japan’s quake-stricken nuclear power plant is hurting the global nuclear industry, with stock prices falling for companies that build or operate nuclear power plants. There also has been a decline in the price of uranium fuel.
Investor concern follows the temporary closure of some nuclear power plants in Germany, and plans by many nations to closely review safety issues related to earthquakes and cooling systems that are at the heart of the problems in Japan.
Nuclear power provides almost one-fifth of the world’s electricity, from 442 nuclear power plants. The United States has 104 nuclear power plants, more than any other nation. But France is more dependent on nuclear energy than most nations, getting about three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear sources.
Another 65 nuclear power plants are under construction, and hundreds more are in some stage of planning.
About one-third of those new plants are in China, which needs more electricity to power its strong economic growth. India also has about a half-dozen plants under construction.
Japan is having a melt-down. The damaged reactors have over-heated, and the water around them is boiling. Each hour that ticks by is a race to contain what has already become a major blow to global economics and is well on its way to becoming the world’s worst man-made disaster. In the United States, the EPA is setting up additional monitoring systems in California, Alaska, and Hawaii, to measure the degree of fallout set off by the continuing radiation leak from Japan’s reactors. Fallout is expected to arrive in the Aleutian Island and the California Coast by this weekend.
Radiation is leaking like oil spreading its way across the ocean floor, creating an environmental dead zone. We can’t clean up this man-made disaster. We can only prepare for its consequences. Those within its radioactive cloud, either through circumference or within the path of the trade winds should stay indoors as much as possible, eat no fresh foods that might have been exposed, and iodize their drinking water. Part of your staple diet should consist of garlic and brown rice.
Prepare yourselves to live very, very poor. There is no magic formula for bouncing back a healthy economy. The billionaire industry has left us on our own, and has proven over and over that it does not care. No amount of kicking, screaming, accusations or protests is going to change that. What we can do is quit listening to them.
Despite the first warning issued with the oil spill on the Louisiana Coast, the conglomerated oil and nuclear companies continued to push for the development of new facilities, new refineries, new oil and gas pipelines, stating they were necessary for the transition to alternative energy resources. When Iceland first came out with their fuel cell technology, the world ignored it as inconvenient and unprofitable. If there are the funds to build a nuclear plant, there are the funds to build windmills. If a country can afford to build a nuclear reactor, it can afford to develop solar power, hydro-electric or geothermal plants. The time for transition is now. When we tap our non-renewable energy resources that create harmful effects on our environment, it’s never a question of whether or not they’ll blow, but when. Another catastrophe of the magnitude of Japan’s and it’s all over.
It’s not worth it to sacrifice global environmental health for a few more years of material comfort. If we don’t start now; accepting that we’ve poisoned the earth and it needs some serious medicine to heal, down scaling our needs for energy consumption, recycling and restructuring our network for clean water and food, it will be too late. Our indecision will be the hours wasted while another leak adds infection to the wound. Our billionaires will have their money, but they will be left with an environmentally hostile earth and the only viable stock will be in radiation monitors and iodine.