Responding to the Message of Fukashima
By Louie Vitale
In “From Hiroshima to Fukushima,” an article published in The Nation on March 15 in the wake of the nuclear power disaster in Japan, historian Jonathan Schell once again hit the mark.
The author of the ground-breaking book The Fate of the Earth published in the 1980s, Schell again mobilized his brilliance, research, experience, and considerable passion for our world and its inhabitants to offer an authoritative response to this catastrophe. Given the half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years, Schell opined, humankind should invest at least 12,000 years in intensive study of nuclear power before authorizing any further use of this dangerous technology.
Why can’t this message, which seems so obvious to many of us, not register in Washington?
The day after the magnitude of this disaster began to come chillingly clear, President Obama held a press conference. It was originally scheduled to focus on the escalating cost of gas at the pump. The situation in Libya, in the meantime, had heated up. Then, as the nuclear calamity in Japan was mushrooming, the Fukushima reactors were added to an already crowded agenda.
This mixture made for a surreal media event. The president opened with a reference to Libya, making the stock point that the United States needs to be freed from its dependence on foreign oil. He mentioned that we have to produce more of our own oil and commented with pride on new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. No mention of the BP catastrophe was forthcoming. He then referred to the need to develop alternative sources of energy, saying that solar power was a critically important source deserving of federal support. This was followed by a call for the expansion of nuclear energy.
In a few short remarks President Obama went from alarm at the events in Japan — notably the difficulties with the nuclear reactors there facing the prospect of a meltdown — to our need to expand the number of those very reactors here in the US.
For thirty years, I have been part of a worldwide movement to end the perils posed by nuclear radiation. This movement achieved a global Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a US moratorium on testing of nuclear arms at the Nevada Test Site. All along, we have raised the concern about nuclear weaponry’s supposedly kinder and gentler twin, nuclear power.
Periodically, like this month, humanity is jolted into a new awareness of the dangers posed by nuclear energy. Most of the time, however, we sleep on, while a relative handful of us are perennially aware of the looming, largely unseen danger that the perilous, ongoing life-cycle of nuclear power production poses daily to all living things.
It is time to awaken from our nuclear sleep.
Schell’s invocation of the monumental timeline implicit in all things nuclear reminds me of philosopher and activist Joanna Macy’s Nuclear Guardianship Project. It envisions contributing to the political, technical and moral understandings required to keep radioactive materials from further contaminating the biosphere, in order to protect present and future generations. The project proposes shrines at the edge of nuclear facilities, and a global myth of “poison fire” to warn countless future generations of the danger.
The writing on the wall is a glaring radiation symbol. Now is the time to finally listen with our full attention to the survivors of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Bikini Atoll, and the atomic veterans and cancer victims downwind from the Nevada Test Site in Utah and many other locations.
Rather than using this latest disaster as an opportunity to jump-start a long moribund nuclear power industry (as President Obama seems bent on doing; his sojourn to Latin America this week included inking a deal for a new nuclear reactor in Chile), we must see it for what it is: a stark message for a new direction, for a Nuclear Guardianship Project to end six decades of wildly dangerous experimentation and to safeguard the future.
It is never too soon to start.
Franciscan Louis Vitale is a co-founder of Nevada Desert Experience and Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service. He is currently serving six months in federal prison for engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia last November protesting torture training.