On 400+ aging nuclear reactors, quake-prone countries, food chains, trade networks and what this means for first responders and social entrepreneurs
Let’s get right to the point: What happens the next time a nuclear reactor goes rogue in the wake of a natural disaster? Japan is a worst case scenario in a best case place.
But what if the earth were to quake in Iran, China, Italy or Turkey—all of which are pursuing nuclear-fueled futures? Or Pakistan, where the IEAE and US just gave their respective stamps of approval for two new Chinese-built plants? Each of those seismically-rocking countries floats precariously at (tectonic) plates’ edge. In fact, one of two reactors planned for Turkey is just a few miles from a major fault line.
The assurances of political leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are somehow less than reassuring: “I don’t think there will be any serious problem…The security standards there are the standards of today. We have to take into account that the Japanese nuclear plants were built 40 years ago with the standards of yesterday.”
Forty years may seem like an eternity to a politician, but is, in fact, a blink in a time-scale defined by nuclear radiation (see Chernobyl). Inspections have a way of getting missed (see Japan). Human error happens (see Three Mile Island).
In the meantime, major earthquakes striking all of these countries sometime over the projected lifespans of their reactors is a sure thing.
Beyond the issues of nuclear waste storage, the almost inevitable black market trade and surreptitious weapons programs, what happens when the “sure thing” meets the big risk? How does one keep radioactive fall-out from contaminating emergency food rations? Or find safe water? What happens when those best able to help are put in mortal danger if they try?
Is this the kind of border even doctors won’t cross?
No matter. The radiation will eventually come to them, traveling first through food chains, then trade networks. Some produce is already showing levels of radiation several times accepted limits, though authorities insist it is still safe. So far, the milk supply remains uncontaminated. But according the WHO, Japan is a big exporter of baby formula and powdered milk to China and the US. As the crisis drags on and radioactive particles work their way into cattle pastures, that could change.
In short, bad gets worse—much worse—once nuclear is part of the equation.
WAKE UP CALL
The tragedy in Japan should be a wake up call to NGOs, social entrepreneurs and all those working, as they say, “for positive change.” The nuclear issue is not an abstraction to be relegated to politicians, engineers and lobbyists. This threatens your work, potentially reversing years of hard-fought economic gains in poor countries and undoing decades-worth of global public health efforts. This isn’t just about regional clusters of radiation-related illnesses, but also of the loss of infrastructure for disease surveillance and drug distribution that would tip the balance in favor of infectious diseases outbreaks and pandemics.
Finally, the thorniest of ethical questions: Who makes the call to send staff into disaster zones so dangerous that not only is personal health at risk, but that of future offspring as well? (As a 1950s military film put it: “the ultimate symptom, death itself”)
With more than 400 reactors spread across the globe—many now nearing their “sold-by” date—the next Japan is more a matter of when, not if. Power plants, of course, are not designed as weapons, but that doesn’t make their fall-out any less lethal.
Humanitarian aid workers: Are you ready?
* Addendum 3/31/11:
Hospitals and temporary refuges are demanding that evacuees provide them with certificates confirming that they have not been exposed to radiation before they are admitted….
…The eight-year-old daughter of Takayuki Okamura was refused treatment for a skin rash by a clinic in Fukushima City, where the family is living in a shelter after abandoning their home in Minamisoma, 18 miles from the crippled nuclear plant….
…Prejudice against people who used to live near the plant is reminiscent of the ostracism that survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 experienced. Many suffered discrimination when they tried to rent housing, find employment or marriage partners…
Discrimination based not on race, creed or color, but on a cruel twist of geographic fate: simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is tragedy compounded, reverberating through generations.
Perhaps we need to add a “futures wrecked” column to graphs purporting to show the comparative benignness of nuclear energy versus that produced by coal and oil. It is a lobbyist’s argument, telling a truth, but not the whole truth.
The whole truth? All of these energy sources are fraught in the present and threaten the future. A warming earth with rising seas and wilder weather will send millions of climate refugees fleeing to higher, safer ground—human migrations on a scale unimaginable.
Radioactive refugees have nowhere to go.
We need to get beyond this devil’s choice fast, to invest in renewables at every scale, macro to micro (e.g., micro-wind). We—as in “We the people,” as in our governments—need to support research and innovation and help ideas scale for practical, commercial use.
One the few hopeful stories this past week was the announcement of an “artificial leaf” that can create energy from photosynthesis. MIT professor Daniel Nocera has been working on ways that essentially cut out the middleman in energy generation. Unlike coal and oil, which are fossilized sunlight—energy banked in the past—or nuclear power, which requires vast investment to tap, Nocera’s inexpensive playing card-size solar chip can harvest enough energy from a gallon of water—stored in a small fuel cell—to power a home in a developing country for a day. The water doesn’t even have to be all that clean, either.
The latest version of Nocera’s technology is of commercial interest because, by integrating the catalyst with the chips, it dispenses with the need for traditional solar panels. That, he says, will cut costs considerably, by eliminating wires, etc. “The price of the silicon of a solar panel isn’t much,” he says. “A lot of the cost is the wiring. What this does is get rid of all that.”
“The real goal here,” he adds, “is giving energy to the poor” – especially, he notes, in rural Africa, India, and China.
Even better, he adds, the device doesn’t need ultrapure water. “You can use nature water sources, which is a big deal in parts of the world where it’s costly to have to use pure water.”
Follow the money. The smart money.
(video: Daniel Nocera explains personalized power / Poptech / 1 of 2)
Additional links include:
- Food Contamination Concerns following the Japanese Nuclear Crisis / WHO fact sheet
- Meltdown at Three Mile Island / American Experience, PBS (video)
- Where are the world’s nuclear reactors? / New Scientist, interactive map
- From moving clouds to sowing crops, Chernobyl can help Japan / TerraDaily, AFP
- With Nuclear Power, “No Acts of God Can Be Permitted” / Amory Lovins, Huffington Post
- Long Shadow of Chernobyl (2006, 20 years out) / Gurd Ludwig, National Geographic (narrated slide show)
- Murky past of Japan’s troubled nuclear industry revealed / The Independent
- Infographic of the Day: The Best Radiation Chart We’ve Seen So Far / David McCandless, Fast Company
- Japan: The Big One / J.A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews Editor’s Blog
Filed under: agriculture, air pollution, Diaster relief, disease surveillance, earthquake, energy, epidemiology, food, nuclear, soil health, water, water pollution | Tagged: Amory Lovns, Chernobyl, China, food, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, Iran, Italy, Japan, milk, nuclear contamination, nuclear meltdown, Pakistan, radiation, radioactive, Three Mile Island, Turkey, water |