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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Corporate giants, nuclear experts/apologists, dialogue, and the commons

Tragedy in life, as in literature, is not about death and destruction but about decision-making. Homer's Hector, like the Fukushima Fifty, is tragic (in a good way) because he follows his virtue. Most of those around him are tragic in other ways: through cupidity, avarice, or grievance.

Most of the blogs I admire and follow have gone relatively quiet over the last couple of weeks. I think it may be that events have been overwhelming. Those of us who are news junkies have had our internal circuits fried, and those who avoid the news still check the news by checking our faces, and what they see, they suspect they don't want to ask about. So, family conversations are quiet and rather formal. So are conversations at stores and in parking lots. More than once, I've heard the remark: "people are being kinder to one another than usual." Except perhaps in places like Libya, but that connects obliquely to some of the things that will be said below.

I've been writing a post-apocalyptic novel, trying to bring my scant but eclectic knowledge of some life situations to an otherwise typical narrative (there are only so many plot lines, after all) -- but don't feel like tackling it at the moment. My characters are in the middle of a small war, and I've been putting them through a lot, but how do you keep hammering your fictional folk when vast numbers of real people are suddenly going through worse?

We've had M8+ sized earthquakes in our area before, the last one in 1700. It changed our coastline and drenched the shores of Japan. There have been two M6 earthquakes in the valley in my time here, only one of which I felt. I remember yelling at the boys, whom I suspected of wrestling in their bedroom and falling off the top bunk. But Beloved, who had lived in Southern California, said, "No, that's an earthquake."

A town to the south of us had brick walls spill out into the street and across the hoods of cars, grabbing the headlines. But I tend toward the personal. What caught my attention was a small item in the back pages of the paper a day or two later: a home in our county had burned to the ground because its chimney, in the attic, had shifted slightly, allowing sparks to escape. The family died.

We had just bought Stony Run. The house that burned was one we had previously considered buying. It came with more land, but was just a bit out of our price range and bit too long of a commute to work.

If we were to have a 6.0, as that quake was, a little closer to home, we'd stand to lose a lot of canning jars, a few kerosene lamps, gallon jars full of beans, oats and such, sitting on open shelves.

Or maybe the house. We do have wood heat.

We could tack little wood strips along the edges of the shelves, to keep things from walking off. And then hope never to face an M8+, though we're told there's a forty percent chance of that here by 2050.

Here at Stony Run we do have bug-out bags in case we survive anything rough on site, or ever need to relocate. They are only a shade fancier than those recommended by the federal government for everyone; and hopefully don't betray an unhealthy obsession with safety. Considering that in our eighteen years here, we haven't put those little speed bumps on our pantry shelves yet, I'd say we're pretty typical here in our attitude toward safety.

But, then, we're only one family. If we're wiped out like the one that bought that other house, some people will cry for awhile, but, as Robert Frost noted, "No more to build on there. And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."

That's fair.

It's in the light of my own laxness that I think about nuclear power plant planning. Uranium 235 has issues. Plutonium has issues. So to derive benefit, i.e. lots and lots of electricity, from these extremely poisonous and temperamental materials, we (usually) surround them with water and keep the water flowing. And we build an incredibly strong tube to keep them in, and surround that with a strong box and surround that with another strong box, and have backup pumps to back up our backup pumps. Got those speed bumps in place, mmm hmm.

But the speed bumps aren't geared to events beyond what we're prepared to envision. We say, well, we might have an earthquake this size and a tsunami this high and we'll build to that standard. It should not surprise us that there will, from  time to time, be surprises. Nature is what it is.

An earthquake happens. A tsunami happens. The survivors in Japan get that, and they rebuild. But many have said, of the invisible radioactivity in their air, in their water, on their spinach, and on their skin, that they are afraid. Death and destruction, well, okay, but this seems a bit much.

I think they're right, and I think many of the rest of us are right, to feel there's something different about a nuclear power plant failure than about plain old natural disasters. They understand tragedy.

Those criticizing the rest of us for paying attention to Fukushima Number One and its explosions and burnings and steamings are often the same people who were assuring us that would never happen to Fukushima Number One. And, y'know, it did. Ain't saying the earthquake isn't the greater -- many, many times greater -- disaster, this time around. But the nuke, it's ... it's something we did to ourselves. So the quality of the horror is just different, hence the seemingly disproportionate interest.

I look at our pantry shelves and say, why haven't we put those strips down yet? Or built cabinet doors? Have I done all I can to ensure our chimney will survive a six? How about a seven? It's a cost-benefit thing. On our small scale -- five people, now down to two, getting on in years -- the consequences are not very wide-ranging. On the scale of a pressure-water reactor or, as it turns out, a boiling-water reactor, they can be quite serious.

It was interesting to watch the nuclear industry's apologists trying to spin the Fukushima Daiichi disaster -- and it is one -- as innocuous, proof of the safety of nuclear, and so on -- falling back from one "oh, pooh" to the next as the intransigent materials bubbled, seethed, and blew. Sharon Astyk put it very well by citing the leader of the kidnappers in The Princess Bride: "Inconceivable!" he kept shouting, as his fate stalked him.

I'm sorry apologists, but The Onion really got it right. Nuclear is clean until it isn't. Just as Nature is benign until it isn't. And while Nature is unavoidable, nuclear is not. It's a choice. Our being absolutely dependent on it at the moment, as can also be said for fossil fuels, does not require of us that we regard that dependency as inevitable forever. We may allow ourselves (gasp!) the luxury of seeking alternatives.

The argument for the inevitability of nuclear and coal and oil ("we can't feed ourselves if we don't use them") springs from truths about our current situation: there are a lot of us, we have certain expectations about how to live; there are going to be more of us soon and more of us will have those expectations. True truths. But that doesn't mean the house can't or won't burn down if we keep using these energy sources. So it's worth noting that those who most loudly and insistently extol these energy sources to us -- as industry employees or as retainers of those industries in think tanks or Congressional offices -- are not thinking of our welfare. Did they tell us not to build in flood plains, behind low seawalls, or on fault lines? The non-debate, the shouting down of those who question, is about the enclosure of the commons. What's it all in aid of? Plutocracy.

Landowners in England from Tudor times into the nineteenth century chased subsistence farmers and subsistence farming, the basis of village culture, from the land in favor of pasturing sheep for the export of wool. This led to concentration of labor in cities, just in time to staff the industrial revolution, thus enriching the landowners -- now factory owners -- further. The incorporation of finance, science, law, and politics into the industrial revolution led to the re-purposing of journalism as media and advertising to enforce the norm of modern materialist consumerism: all voices to speak as one on behalf of plutocracy. It is from the plutocrats that you will hear of the inevitability of nuclear, and it is from the plutocrats that you will hear of the safety of nuclear, and it is from the plutocrats that you will hear of the acceptability of the risks of nuclear.

Criticism of the nuclear or fossil-fuel narrative is revolutionary, as it resists the plutocratic narrative, which masks the essential fact of enclosure of the commons, the transfer of value (money in the present instance) from all to a few, or, after awhile, from poor to rich. Consumerism is the current face of enclosure: we make it, we create your need for it, we pay you a little for helping us make it and charge you a lot to obtain it. Anti-materialism, anti-consumerism, localism, organic, decentralist, subsistence, union, even gay and feminist are words to make any plutocrat frown, as they are words that may turn our faces from the constant stream of assurances flowing from their publicists and publicans: sell (your time) low, buy (our crap) high.

At this point someone usually waves off the argument dismissively, saying, "socialism." Excuse me, Stalin was just a particularly efficient plutocrat. I'd espouse communalism as a form of subsistence culture, but I make a terrible communard. A good enough peasant woman, maybe. Let's stick to the business at hand.

When discussing the safety of nuclear, by all means do look to the facts. Help us understand the distances, the half-life, the normal background radiation levels. Note that most meltdowns don't salt our fields ten thousand miles away with isotopes, or empty out cities of thirteen million souls, or end civilizations. Most earthquakes don't either. But they can. Again, earthquakes happen; a nuclear accident is preventable. Nobody forced y'all to put that thing on one of the most seismically active seashores on the planet.

Plutocrats never do anything for no reason. The extraordinary effort going into the "nuclear is safe" mantra must have some kind of payoff, or so much money would not be spent on it. Our benefit is not the payoff.

Nuclear, compared to other ways of getting an erg, is extraordinarily expensive. Costs -- from the locating and mining of uranium, sickening the  miners -- to voluminous safety regulations that are necessary (yet inadequate) -- to the planned and as yet still unimplemented long-term storage of fuels -- to the health consequences of accidents (because no one instance of cancer can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be traceable to a particular release of gas in a covered-up accident) -- are externalized to the federal, state and local governments, health care systems, and insurance companies, who must then raise their taxes, fees and rates to us.

The risk is offset onto the majority, so that the benefit will flow to the few. How very like the financial industry! Which, when caught shorting the public at large, demanded and got the largest bailouts in the history of the world.

"Enclosure of the commons." It's a good tool; it will tell you who's whom much better than "left" versus "right." And make quite a hash of the claim of a great many bright but rather grasping people to be anything that could be called "conservative." Owning a Lexus doesn't conserve an effing thing.

So I am willing to listen to informed discussion of energy and science, of food and the well-being of humankind; and I get that I am not a genius and that this or that nuclear (or petroleum) scientist is one. But let us not pretend that snarking about safety counts as informed discussion. Too many of the souls of those doing the snarking have been bought and paid for.

The well of dialogue has been poisoned. Let's hope it doesn't glow in the dark for the next twenty thousand years.


May 19 update:
Japan’s Fukushima Reactor May Have Leaked Radiation Before Tsunami Struck, Bloomberg by Yuji Okada, Tsuyoshi Inajima and Shunichi Ozasa, May 19, 2011 6:21 am EDT:
[...] Japan’s government in April raised the severity rating of the Fukushima crisis to the highest on an international scale, the same level as the Chernobyl disaster. The station, which has experienced hundreds of aftershocks since March 11, may release more radiation than Chernobyl before the crisis is contained, Tepco officials have said.


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