The news is full of people wondering why Japan would build nuclear power plants near fault lines and in reach of tsunami waves. And wondering in general about the safety of nuclear power.
Sadly, it's taken this tragedy to awaken a whole new generation of people to the terror of nuclear power and to remind the rest of us who seem to have forgotten our nuclear past.
The first nuclear power plant accident happened in 1979 at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The second nuclear accident in 1986, the worst, was at the Chernobyl plant in what is now the Ukraine. Two accidents just seven years apart scared a lot of us into political activism against nuclear power. We were dubbed "No Nukers." Here in the Twin Cities, you could identify us by the green and white "No Nukes" posters in our windows or on bumper stickers on our cars.
I searched the interwebs in vain this morning for an image of that exact same sign. It seems to have faded from view, echoing the fading of the anti-nuclear movement that went with it. The image posted below is close, but like a distant memory, it's not quite right.
I've been surprised by some activists today who are emphatically "green" but until last week viewed nuclear power as a safe and cleaner energy source. Even President Obama just called for an expansion of nuclear power program as part of an environmentally healthier energy platform.
It saddens me that we let the warnings go dark and that it took this accident, the outcome of which is still unknown, to focus our lenses once again on the terrible risk of nuclear power.
I remember Chernobyl vividly. My second child was a baby. I remember being terrified my children might have been exposed, that radiation might have traveled all the way to the midwest. I remember thinking of the mothers with young children who lived in range of Chernobyl and were exposed. I wondered what terror they must feel, not knowing how the radiation would impact their children and themselves.
Now we know more, and it's not pretty. People died. There were and are increased rates of several cancers and other health impacts. There is a large area surrounding the plant that is still hot. People can't live there. Can't grow or eat food from there. The animals and plants carry high levels of radiation. An article in the March 20 New York Times, Lessons from Chernobyl for Japan, paints a haunting portrait of Chernobyl today. Most frightening is the tons of very highly radioactive material that live beneath the plant:
"...200 tons of melted nuclear fuel and debris, which burned through the floor and hardened, in one spot, into the shape of an elephant’s foot. This mass remains so highly radioactive that scientists cannot approach it"But consider Chernobyl a cautionary tale. Plutonium, one of the hazardous radioactive materials needed to make nuclear power, stays in the environment and stays toxic. We are storing the spent fuel rods from our nuclear plants in water filled containment vessels located here and there across the planet because we can't make it go away. It lays in wait, lethal to humans and other living things for another 250,000 years, give or take a few.
So as the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi unfolds and we are scared for the people of Japan, remember the consequences of this won't fade with the next news cycle or the one after that, or even after that.
This is just the beginning.
A March 21 photo of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant from a CCN story that says plans are now underway to "...possibly encase one or more of the reactors in concrete, a last-ditch effort similar to what was done after the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the former Soviet Union..."