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Mar 18, 2011

Fukushima directly from the Dr Strangelove script

The Fukushima disaster is not merely about one event at one plant. A pause on nuclear power is spreading across the world, with China -- China -- the latest country to announce a pause on construction to examine the industry.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

For those of us who are such absolute believers in the power of human beings to shape their own lives and control our own destiny that we think we can do better and smarter than the desperate kludge technology of nuclear power, the continuing disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is that extraordinary type of event that speaks for itself, beyond any attempt to talk it away.

As I write, the Japanese are conducting direct overflies to try and control the continuing damage — most likely a suicide mission for the pilots and crew. The Soviets resorted to this earlier, during the Chernobyl crisis by the simple expedient of ordering airforce crews to do it.

No one knows how many died, but they died outside of the glare of publicity. The Japanese crews will slough their skin and muscles, and bleed out internally under the full glare of the world’s media. It may well be the reason why this step in dealing with the crisis was delayed for so long — because it would demonstrate that dealing with nuclear accidents will frequently involve the painful certain death of emergency workers.

While 50 go in, everyone else is getting out. Every major nation has now advised its nationals to leave Tokyo, if not Japan. In London, the media can’t find anyone to go there for obvious reasons. Disaster or war.

The event is that rare thing, something that signifies of itself. A pause on nuclear power is spreading across the world, with China — China — the latest country to announce a pause on construction to examine the industry.

Most likely it will resume. For those nuclear industries in places where they are reliant on private investment, insurance and public approval processes, nuclear power is dead in the irradiated water. The way to lose an election in Australia in the next decade will be to advance the option of nuclear power. The coalition of right, left, city, country, etc, would create a campaign that would trump anything. The posters have already been made for it by the page one layout editors of all major papers.

Everyone who’s read the news this week knows that Fukushima is a categorical event — the very character of the technology makes it so, cutting across any localisable framework, situation, condition. The only people who didn’t understand this were the pro-nuclear lobby, who were determined to fly a few suicide missions themselves.

The tsunami had barely struck the plant before they were rushing to the op-ed columns to decry the politics of fear and Armageddon, etc. Talk of disaster wasn’t hard to find — it was on the front pages of all the papers in which they were publishing pro-nuclear pieces. The spectacle was grimly hilarious — indeed black comedy appears to be a reactor’s chief byproduct, after lethally poisonous waste.

The Oz was quick out of the box, with a piece by Ziggy Switkowski. But it quickly became clear that a drab cost-benefit analysis didn’t really match the nature of the situation, and so my sometime editor Brendan O’Neill of Spiked was called in. He delivered. With crowds of exhausted and shocked tsunami-battered, possibly irradiated Japanese people talking about the “awesome power of nature”, human folly and hubris, etc, the debate could be put on a more abstract level, as a debate about humanity, nature and control.

For O’Neill, to focus on the possible effects of a nuclear accident rather than the actual deaths from the tsunami, was a misanthropic ceding to nature of a power that could be wrested from it, by human ingenuity, as represented by things such as nuclear power.

For years, Spiked has been a go-to place for an ideologically exhausted and clueless Right to find out how they think about their politics, and this was no exception. I like their sense of a revived, forceful humanism too, and it clarified a whole series of issues — I’ve just never thought it necessarily implied a Promethean relationship to technology. But it is this aspect that has most appealed to the right, and the B- and C-list adopted O’Neill’s line — Andrew Bolt in his blog, and Boris Johnson, who got in in the UK Telegraph.

Thus, as their papers kept us updated about exposed reactor cores, published ever larger maps of radiation spread, and pictures of besuited emergency workers running Geiger counters over small children, we were told that any concern about this was a return of nature worship, great Gaia, and so on.

By the time a third fire started, the Tokyo stock market plunged and evacuation calls began, even the mainstream right realised that a rethink might be required — and they went into a holding pattern, calling on Greg Sheridan to do what he does best, a piece of pravdesque boilerplate, all cherry blossoms and plinking koto.

The Fukushima disaster has pointed to a contradiction at the hot core of the Promethean/anti-Gaia argument, since for years it has championed a fearless support for mega-technology, and a belief in enlightenment, science, rational inquiry, etc. This would find as its target the more outlandish suggestions of the Green movement about high-tech, such as what would happen if, for example, a nuclear reactor was hit by a tsunami.

The Green argument that employed such unlikely scenarios was based on a simple argument — that if a technology was so transformative of basic matter as a single nuclear reactor, then its unintended consequences would be equally so, raising a whole host of political, moral and existential questions.

At a common sense level, most people understand this, which is why nuclear power has had such a tough sell in recent decades. Since it works by operating at the level of the constitution of matter, its meaning cannot be expressed as a simple aggregate of less transformative technologies, as thousands of coal-powered stations. It is a new order of reality, and we have a different relationship to it.

The failure to observe that fact put the Promethean argument well behind the general public understanding, implicit or otherwise. Deliberately so, perhaps, for it’s a way of subsuming public wariness about the technology to earlier “technofears”, of railways, steam, sticks, etc. But the result of that move was to tip into a sort of Promethean irrationalism, by which you were invited to switch off all human capacity for the rational understanding of nature and its processes, and simply march “forward!”

The move has left that whole argument straining at the straps. It wasn’t the wary general public, watching a piece of human technology, spewing lethal poison in an unstoppable manner for days on end who were being irrational — it was the people who thought they were distracted by some argument about Nature Worship from what they could see happening in front of their face.

O’Neill’s argument that to focus on a damaged reactor of unknown lethality was an insult to the people who had died from a tsunami, had it somewhat in reverse. We’re not imbeciles who react to some quantitative death-o-meter — we’re people who can see that a nuclear power station is a chain reaction, and a broken one is one out of control.

To build it in the first place we reached beyond the sealed atomic order of given nature, and now that unsealed process has become autonomous. Any fool can see that that is a greater real risk than natural (i.e. sealed) processes like a flood.

The rather dopey leader writer of the UK Spectator hit on it without knowing it by noting that radiation, because invisible, could be the subject of greater fear than water or fire — and that this was proof of the fear’s irrationality. Yes, how foolish to be more wary of a potentially lethal undetectable fast-dispersing micrological agent with no observable qualities, rather than water. What idiots we are.

Much of the pro-nuclear argument was in this obtuse manner. Indeed significant parts of it could be inserted into the script of Dr Strangelove, without anyone noticing. Andrew Bolt argued that Japan would come through it, “as they had through Hiroshima”. In Spiked, a Frank Furedi piece was headlined “a catastrophe, not a disaster movie”, and the speccie asserted that anti-nuclear activists were using the disaster to “push their own agenda”. You can’t fight in the war room.

The Promethean defence was effectively its own opposition. If Fukushima made people concerned about nuclear power, it left them freaking about the insouciance of the pro-nuclear lobby. The gap between the two was the product of a Prometheanism that had lost all connection with any wider notion of what life was for, or how people might think about different types of risk.

The Fukushima disaster is not merely about one event at one plant. To be sure, the conditions of its production continue the Dr Strangelove theme — a stripped-down, rapid set-up reactor, built in an earthquake zone, on a tsunami-hit shoreline. They relate to the way in which categorical risks have a different character to other types of risk. Something such as nuclear power raises issues of who gets to decide about what risks we should take, and who benefits from them.

But more importantly it offers a different type of risk — poisoning at the very basic level of life, annihilation of whole areas as zones for the living, all of which effectively undermine the meaningful basis of life.

To imagine this deep understanding of the conditions by which there is life can be talked away with the promise of more, cheaper, better anything is to miss some important aspects of existence — which is why the pro-nuclear response to this disaster verged on the self-parodic, and then gone silent.

Labour would appear to have abandoned its tentative desire to “re-open” the debate. The right will eventually be divided right down the middle by it — reminded of the conservative doctrine of prudence by the a disaster unravelling a whole corner of the Earth. We shall see. Doubtless it will be walked back. But whatever happens next, something has already happened. Fukushima has spoken.

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45 thoughts on “Fukushima directly from the Dr Strangelove script

  1. MLF

    And you know what else Guy, all the flying over the plant checking it out, dropping water etc. Essential activities in the current situation I grant you.

    But what are these choppers not doing? They’re not dropping food or water or medicines to the thousands and thousands and thousands of people who are freezing and starving to literal death in the centres set up in those 3 precincts worst affected by last Friday’s quake and Tsunami. Last Friday. A WEEK and these people are starving because everyone has to focus on the goddamned nuclear plants so noone is sending them food.

    Bugger me but I’m p-issed off with the world today.

  2. John Bennetts

    Guy, you have decided to concentrate your bile on a single facet of a disaster which is many times as large as the reaqctor problems.

    References to “kludge technology” and to “skin and muscle sloughing off” are emotional and colourful, so they qualify under Limited News’ criteria, but where is the meaning, the essential truth?

    You and I may disagree, at least in part, about the merit of nuclear technologies for meeting this world’s energy demands, but what’s the meaning of “kludge” as against its inclusion for impact and emotion? It coveys no meaning.

    Regarding the supposed skin ailments of USAF pilots and crew, I suggest that you stick to demonstrable facts and stop doing a Bolter or an Albrechtson and relying entirely on fabrication and emotion?

    I like and look forward to reading so much of your work that this message is written, as they say, in sorrow. You can do so much better, and you owe it to your profession and to your readers to tone down the ranting.

  3. John Bennetts

    Sorry, not USAF pilots. Presumably, SDF pilots. Don’t know where that came from.

  4. Michael Sprange

    The predictable taking of sides for and against nuclear power through this tragedy is sad.

    Whilst I still have an open mind about nuclear power, I remain unimpressed by the spin the likes of O’neill and mophead Boris are delivering.

    We can only form a view in response to the current situation when it has settled down and we can fully assess it – which will be days away at least.

    Three points that no-one seems to have made clearly yet are:

    When police water cannon and helicopter water dumping is used to attempt to fix a problem you sort of know intuitively that those approaches aren’t prescribed in the operating manual – that’s scary and hasn’t happened with conventional power stations.

    One of the reasons for greater than normal fear is that the public information provided by the authorities has been inaccurate, incomplete, and regularly contradicted. This will naturally destabilise confidence. We need to assess if this applies to all nuclear plant operators or just TEPCO.

    Finally, inherently the “risk curve” of nuclear power is very different from conventional power generation. In a flood analogy it might be like saying with conventional power generation the risk is like low level floods at frequent intervals whereas the nuclear equivalent is catastrophic floods at extremely long intervals, although the relative net risk might be the same. We can only over time get an idea of how long those intervals might be, but our experiences right now leads us to think that they might be more frequent than we had thought prior to this earthquake.

  5. Patrick Brosnan

    That Sheridan piece is insane. The first few pars about his trip to Japan 30 years ago look like the ravings of a dementia patient.

  6. syzygium

    I couldn’t have said it better myself, Rundle. No, really, I couldn’t have. Which is why I’m glad you’re here. Thanks.

    Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now this. Every second decade there is something, which is leading me to believe that the risk analyses are in fact wrong. The industry will say the next-generation reactors are much safer – maybe they are, but clearly we are also incapable of accurately calculating highly significant, rare events in an uncertain and complex world. To my mind that makes nuclear power unacceptable. Prometheus, indeed.

  7. Venise Alstergren

    All I need to know is WTF a nuclear plant could have been given governmental permission to be placed in an earthquake prone area? To me this bespeaks corruption on a scale comparable to a nuclear explosion itself. HOW did the Japanese government allow itself to be bought on such a gigantic scale?

    Recent articles have suggested that Indonesia is already planning it’s first nuclear plant installation. Hello? Has no one heard of Kracatoa? Or the last gigantic tsunami to have hit that country? Why not go the full caboodle and urge the Chilean government to install mega-plants? As the planet’s most earthquake prone country Chile is the obvious choice to lead with nuclear installations.

    As someone who has been edging towards being pro-nuclear, I am reversing my stand. Yes, nuclear probably is the way to go for the world’s power needs. It’s just unfortunate that people are too stupid, and governments are too corrupt, to utilise it properly.

    QED

  8. Simon Mansfield

    Actually splitting the atom is rather primitive compared to the semiconductor technologies that underpin today’s solar cells, memory chips, microprocessors and flat screens.

    All of these are far and away at the cutting edge of material science.

    Whereas splitting the atom – to boil water – to make steam – to drive a turbine – to generate electricity – to boil water – to make a cup of tea – so you can sit at your computer on the other side the world and pretend to write about science and technology in the early 21st century – is the old and primitive part here in this conversation.

    Technology made us human, and technology is the only possible way to solve a human material problem. To pretend otherwise is simply nature worship of the most deluded kind.

    The real story here with the Nukes is that the industry appears to have learnt nothing since Chernobyl – and dismissed the day after there as simply a Soviet problem – whereas old Western nuclear reactors were better and planning for the absolute worse was not needed.

    And we know what the worst case is – Chernobyl – a full meltdown. That the buildings and design are different is a minor issue in a worst case situation.

    My guess is that many of the old reactors – which is most reactors – are filled with design flaws that can lead to worst case situations that spiral out of control – if events conspire to make such a possibility.

    Then again it could be just a case of Japan’s only really corrupt industry sector – construction – coming back to bite Japan. In Kobe it was the pylons holding up the overhead expressways that fell over – they were filled with wood scraps to save on concrete – so who knows what short cuts were taken in these reactors during their construction – all those decades ago.

  9. syzygium

    I’m not convinced that fission is primitive compared to semiconductors, but nonetheless – the fact that the iphone was adopted so readily while nuclear power remains politically unpalatable and will continue to be so for a long time, speaks to a fundamental unease we have with the technology. It has something to do with it being able to spread invisible death and render parts of the Earth uninhabitable.

    This isn’t about nature worship, it’s about recognising that not all technology is benign and that the decision to use or not use certain types of technology is a political issue driven by human beings. To me the difference between getting energy from semiconductors on a PVC array and getting energy from splitting an atomic nucleus is obvious.

    And technology, by the way, is not the only possible way to solve the energy problem. Lowering consumption can also help.

    And every nuclear disaster, there is always a reason why it happened this time, but next time will be better, safer. Until it isn’t. Then there’s a reason for that one, too.

  10. Simon Mansfield

    100 years from now – energy consumption will be 100 times what it is today.

    Read up on chip technology to understand the world we live in today and how fission is actually quite a primitive technology in comparison.

    Fission is essentially 1940 era science, whereas today’s semiconductor manufacturing technology is being invented a new as we speak.

    If you put your mind to it – no technology is benign – and you can kill a person with just about anything man made.

    In the 1860s trains use to be really dangerous. But who would think twice about getting on a Japanese bullet train today. Come to think of it – has a bullet train actually ever crashed and killed anyone in Japan.

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