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.

Peter Fray

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