Of Nuclear Power, Climate Change and Corporate Self-Protection

Dec 2011/January 2012 Volume IV, No. 1

This issue of Open Space puts a focus on nuclear power, following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident which struck Japan last March.  Excerpts from the historic letter on climate change, signed by many different faith leaders are also included. 

The earthquake, and subsequent tsunami and nuclear accident which struck Japan last March have revealed a new meaning of the phrases “true grit” and resilience. Already blessed by a society that does not suffer from the radical disparity between the rich and the poor described in the last issue of Open Space the triple tragedy has shown the depth and strength of their local communities. At the local rural communities there is a remarkable degree of trust, communication, and dedication to the common good.

Consider the heroic example of 24 year old Miki Endo who made use of the loudspeakers in Minamisanriku, a fishing village of 18,000 people near the centre of the 9.0 earthquake, to exhort residents to escape from the approaching tsunami. She drowned at her post. Television showed the rising waves approaching with her voice booming hauntingly over the water. More than 1000 residents died, but many more would have perished were it not for Ms Endo’s self sacrifice.

Local government in Japan is based on informal bonds of trust and loyalty. The nuclear crisis at Fukushima Dai-ichi has tested this confidence. This is due in part to the indecisive and self-serving response by the central government in Tokyo and the nuclear industry. Two weeks after Japan’s trade minister gave the go-ahead to restart the nuclear power plants the Prime Minister at the time, Naoto Kan, overturned this decision so that each facility could undergo rigorous stress tests. Local residents evacuated from Fukushima Dai-ichi wonder why these tests were not done before the facilities were planned and commissioned.

Then there is the problem of corporate greed and lack of candour. The pursuit of short term interest of the nuclear industry clashes with apparently heart-felt apologies and tears when things do not go well. Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) has withheld vital information from the start of the disaster, even from the Prime Minister. People have to use their own radiation detectors to check on caesium in their local area.

When radiation above the European safety limits was discovered in tea from Shizuko in June, a government official asked the retailer, Radishbo-ya, not to disclose this to avoid harm to local tea planters. Kyushu Electric, which operates the nuclear facility at Genkai, asked thousands of its employees to pretend to be ordinary citizens and send e-mails and faxes in support of re-opening reactors and to pack public meetings in June in an attempt to influence local public sentiment. This information on Kyushu Electric was disclosed by a whistle blower, rare in Japan because of corporate loyalty and solidarity. When added to the poor safety record of the nuclear industry over the years and other cover-ups, this has led to a crisis of authority.

The local population at Fukushima-Dai-ichi are now more aware than most of us about the tendency to minimize the risks involved in the most dangerous technology we have ever developed, and now doubt the claim that each generation of nuclear plants is foolproof and no longer offer credence to the presupposition that every possibility has been provided for.

The events at Fukushima have led Angela Merkel, a scientist-politician, to cancel Germany’s nuclear plans and to phase out nuclear power plants by 2022. The same events raise serious concerns about the four new units in the planning stage at the Darlington nuclear facility east of Toronto. These units, when completed, will produce one-twelfth of the Province’s power needs. If the next government approves these plans after the October 6th election, the long-term electricity plan of Ontario has set a limit to the growth of green energy after 2018 to ensure a market for the electricity generated by the four newest reactors at Darlington.

The word Darlington may conjure up in the minds of long-term Ontario residents the idea of cost overruns and the one year safety review in mid-construction after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine. In a partial repetition of this history a federally appointed review panel report released recently has stated that the Ontario government will need to learn lessons from the Fukushima disaster (even though it is too soon to say what all these lessons might be). There is, therefore, the distinct possibility that the federal government might impose more exacting regulatory requirements. If the Province of Ontario has signed contracts for the project before these new regulations are imposed, the taxpayers will have to pay the cost differential. Originally budgeted for $26 billion, the new price may be more than $33 billion. Among other things this will mean that there will be little money left to invest in cheaper and greener energy.

There is an ongoing debate about nuclear power. On the one hand, it does not emit CO2, which leads to climate change and global warming. Are the risks of nuclear energy still dwarfed by those of coal generated power stations? The high initial costs of building nuclear plants may be balanced by the lower costs of running the plants as long as there are no nuclear accidents. However, in the age of global terrorism a new cost is security of the nuclear plants. A problem still to be solved at all nuclear facilities throughout the world is how to safely and permanently dispose of nuclear waste. In Canada there are no plans other than safe storage of the spent nuclear rods.

Public discussion of nuclear energy is challenged by the twin realities of climate change and our ever increasing consumption of electricity. Alternative sources of energy such as wind and solar power offer promise in the longer term but may not meet the public’s immediate needs for an assured supply of electricity. Even though residents of greater Toronto would be directly affected by a nuclear accident at the Pickering or Darlington nuclear plants, the experience of the power blackouts in January 1998 and August 2003 underlines our radical dependence on electrical energy. And yet the risk of nuclear power remains real and needs an open space for honest and trusting dialogue.

People living in Pickering, or Clarington, where the Darlington nuclear facility is located, or the other nuclear facilities in Ontario should know that a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident could in fact take place. Emergency Management Ontario has developed detailed plans for such an emergency including a Joint Traffic Control Plan for people living within ten kilometres of the facilities. Despite these plans, most people who would be affected by such an accident remain ill informed about what they should do in such an eventuality.

However, what we need is not only information about what took place at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima Dai ichi in 2011 nor knowledge about the benefits and problems of nuclear energy. Such information can lead to fear. In addition to information and open dialogue, spiritual discernment may enable us to overcome our fear of potential accidents or our dread of a future without nuclear energy. Discernment represents a way to move beyond fear and ideology into serious free discussion about Darlington and nuclear energy.

John Perry sj