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.

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.

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.

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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.

It is irrational for a society to rely on a form of energy that has to be protected by guards armed with submachine guns because it poses a catastrophic risk to the millions of people and animals living downwind of it. Pilgrim I and the more than 400 other nuclear plants throughout the world should be shut down. To accomplish such a feat, we will have to sharply scale back our overall energy usage, while shifting to renewable forms of energy. That transition should begin immediately. Certainly, humanity would still be left the ugly task of safeguarding thousands of tons of radioactive waste for the next 100,000 years. But the first step in getting out of a big hole, I’m told, is to stop digging. We should stop while we’re behind.

Yet to read in the incident at Fukushima only a lesson about the hazards of nuclear power would be to miss its larger significance.

The greater threat: global climate change

Coming less than a year after the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Japanese nuclear crisis points to the mortal threat our civilization more generally has come to pose to the living earth itself. As horrific as oil spills and nuclear meltdowns are, they pale in significance to the global meltdown of climate change. The vanished coastline in Miyagi, Japan only hints at the vast environmental destruction expected to come. Scientists project that millions of miles of coastline will disappear under the slow tsunami of global warming, as rising seas swallow entire cities and perhaps even nations.

Yet in contrast to the stark drama of the 9.0-magnitude trembler and tsunami that devastated northern Japan last week, the causes of climate change are far more prosaic. They are rooted in society, not nature, and they are entwined with daily life – automobiles, the meat industry, manufacturing.

The deeper lesson of Fukashima, if we have the courage to hear it, is that we cannot continue on our present course, with a heedless form of economic development that requires us to consume more and more energy and resources. Between 1 in 3 and 1 in 8 mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds will be extinct within decades, as a result of our cannibalization of the earth. An estimated 90 percent of the ocean’s commercial fish have already disappeared. Many coral reefs are dying, or are already dead.

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It is inconceivable that the biosphere will be able to withstand such an onslaught for another century. We must change our way of life, and we must do it now.

My parents still live in Plymouth, downwind of Pilgrim I, and I have cousins living not far from the damaged reactor in Japan. But we all live in Fukushima.

John Sanbonmatsu is an associate professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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