Saturday, March 19, 2011

An appointment with death

An appointment with death
By M J Akbar
Byword - India Today
March 18, 2011

It is facetious to attribute Hiroshima to human nature and Fukushima to nature. Nature was the trigger, not the gun. Nuclear power was devised by man. It was a wartime invention, a consequence of the Manhattan Project in which British and American scientists collaborated to fashion the ultimate weapon of mass destruction during a conflict that had already sunk to unprecedented levels of degradation and slaughter. Nuclear power was not created for the electrification of France, Japan or Jaitapur. It was designed to kill, and continues to do so with periodic ruthlessness.

We fall in love with the monsters we create. There is always a flaccid excuse on display: Dr Frankenstein is ever advertising his monster as a robot which will look after babies in peacetime-until the monster fulfils its destiny by destroying its creator.

Many fictions were needed to foster the image of nuclear energy as a peacetime boon, for the good reason that its true potential lay in destruction. The mushroom cloud was and is a symbol of magnetic horror. The task before the nuclear industry's publicity machine was a familiar one: to sell the notion that this man-eating tiger could be controlled. There was money in the deception, for an industry was being fashioned out of opportunity. Big suits appeared with generous budgets. We expect profit to be amoral. The tipping point comes when profit slips into the irrational. If there is profit in danger, we exploit danger; but laws are enacted precisely because profiteers rarely know when to draw the line against their own pockets. The biggest fraud was to sell nuclear plants as benign energy, when the atomic source had the elemental power of havoc. The image of this industry was described through details of the cage, not the tiger.

There remained the problem of an accident; the evidence of Three Mile Island in America and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union reiterated the fear. Accidents were dismissed as too rare to worry about, and those who protested were caricatured as leftists with a regressive agenda, or pseudo-academics, or perennial trouble-makers. The rare person who broke ranks within this mammoth industry to tell the truth was sacked. Dangerous facts were submerged within a mess of detail, an expertise that corporates excel at. Japan's power companies cheated on their own people. Japan sits on four tectonic zones; and tsunami is a Japanese word. Reactors are built along the coast so that seawater can be used to cool them. Experts have repeatedly warned that nuclear plants in Japan are akin to a kamikaze terrorist waiting to explode. Even the dark memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not prevent Japan's power companies from taking a self-destructive risk.

True, there is risk in any endeavour. No one wants an accident, least of all owners of nuclear plants, but it is necessary to work out the calculus of a mistake. A dam might be risky, but its collapse can do only so much damage. In a nuclear crisis we shift to a different dictionary. Nations have long known that a nuclear war will wreck victor and vanquished almost equally, and poison the world, which is why the prospect of a holocaust established the paradox of hostile peace between America and the Soviet Union and gave us the acronym, MAD [Mutually Assured Destruction]. In a miracle of manipulation, the nuclear industry has managed to sell "peaceful nuclear energy" as something different from the energy of weapons. It is the same energy, being put to different use; radiation is no less devastating because it has come from Fukushima instead of Hiroshima.

The nuclear industry has successfully minimised, in the public consciousness, the consequences of an accident. Radiation became just another whiff of smoke, possibly hazardous in the estimate of the clean-airwallahs, but nothing to distract us from the television serials we shall see with more electricity. The majority of Indians remain indifferent to the prospect of a nuclear plant at Jaitapur, or the fact that seawater seeped into Kalpakkam, near Chennai, during the last tsunami. Do we need a Japan 2011 to wake us up? This chain reaction of explosions in Japan has already imperiled tourism, aviation, agriculture√Ę€¦ you could reach the end of this column simply by listing broken businesses. I have absolutely no doubt that when corporate honchos and their friends in government decided to build nuclear plants in Japan, they sold it as the cheapest, safest panacea. No one mentions seismic tremors in the promotion literature, even if Jaitapur has been hit by an earthquake recently.

China has suspended all new nuclear facilities pending a fresh look at safety regulations. Perhaps the industry is too large to be killed, and must only be sent to hospital for recuperation. We learnt nothing from Japan in 1945; we are unlikely to learn anything in 2011.


Jon said...

U said it very right! it would be too romantic to say no to nuclear energy.

The question is not choice between nuclear and thermal...but leashing in our 'development' aspirations

BHO said...

It is not true that we did not learn anything from Japan 1945. We learned that a bomb will make us stronger, ala US of A. I think we learned the wrong lesson, learned nonetheless.
I shudder to think of the consequences of a Fukushima type break down in a country like ours. Then again, I suspect everybody who speaks of their concern for the masses, including me. We dont mean it when we say something is bad for the 'people'. We like the sound of that phrase.
We stopped believing. Believing in anything.

Rajiv Kumar said...

Mr. Akbar, the mastery of the words cannot hide ignorance that you have eloquently displayed in this writing. Unfortunately you are emulating those very politicians who you always vile for taking up populist postures. That is exactly what you have done in this write-up without ever going through any scientific facts.

Siddhartha Prakash said...

I would have loved to see things about how the economy (including the risk and consequently high insurance) for neuclear powered energy compares with alternative sources.