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Opinion

Japan's nuclear crisis pales in comparison to destruction from global climate change

As horrific as nuclear meltdowns are, they pale in significance to the global meltdown of climate change. The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant reminds us of the mortal threat we pose to the living earth itself. The good news? We can do something about that crisis.

By John Sanbonmatsu / March 18, 2011



Boston

The ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan hits particularly close to home for me. But I have come to see that crisis as sign and symptom of a more universal peril.

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Watching the nuclear disaster unfold this week, I felt an unexpected personal connection to the events in Fukushima prefecture, a large state about 130 miles north of Tokyo. My father’s father left Fukushima to come to the United States in the late-19th century, and I still have distant relatives there who are anxiously monitoring radiation reports.

But that is not my only connection to Fukushima.

Japan nuclear crisis: Seven reasons why we should abandon nuclear power

I spent my boyhood in the shadow of the Pilgrim I nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Like the crippled Fukushima I plant, Pilgrim I is a light water or boiling reactor. The two plants have virtually the same General Electric design. And like the Japanese plant, Pilgrim I is located by the sea.

Each day, Pilgrim I’s engineers pump millions of gallons of seawater into the reactor from Cape Cod Bay. This time of year, the water is ice cold when it enters the plant, but bath temperature when it flows back into the Bay. Were that water flow to be interrupted suddenly while the plant was in operation, a crisis similar to the one at Fukushima could unfold in Plymouth too.

The hazards of nuclear power

Many local residents opposed Pilgrim I’s construction in 1972. As a young teenager I joined with hundreds of others at a demonstration outside the plant to oppose the planned construction of a second reactor at the site: Pilgrim II (never built). Japanese activists and residents have waged a similar struggle for decades to prevent nuclear plants from being built in earthquake-prone Japan, to no avail.

In both countries, industry officials have assured the public for decades that light-water reactors are safe, and that, in the unlikely event of an emergency, residents would be safely evacuated. The Fukushima disaster shows that such reactors are not safe after all. And anyone who has experienced Cape Cod traffic in the summertime knows how laughable it is to imagine millions of people driving millions of cars, squeezing through the bottleneck of Route 6 in a nuclear emergency. Residents in my hometown view the official evacuation plan with bemused scorn.

I remember the day almost forty years ago when I visited Pilgrim I with my Cub Scout troop. As our Den Master drove us to the plant entrance through the thick copse of pine, he explained that the trees had eyes: Security cameras were watching us from all directions, to protect the plant from terrorists. Because if any terrorists did attack the plant, well.... We all knew how bad that would be, somehow, even as 10-year-olds.

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