Ja­pan and the Atom


The events in Ja­pan in the last few weeks have have been hor­ri­fy­ing to watch. The sud­den loss of so much life is a fright­ful thing to con­tem­plate. The earth­quake was as bad as any­one hopes never to see again, but the tsunami that fol­lowed was clearly killing thou­sands as it swept ashore, though the authorities will be un­able to re­cover all the bod­ies, so the fig­ure will never be cer­tain. A lot of peo­ple. To be­hold the de­struc­tion that an un­leashed ocean’s im­mea­sur­able power is ca­pa­ble of wreak­ing on a de­fence­less shore­line is awein­spir­ing. We in this prov­ince owe many thanks and much re­spect to the sea. The salt wa­ter at our door feeds us, gives us a means of trans­port and is the rea­son why most of us are here, but we know we must be wary of it. Na­ture is supreme.

As the Ocean Ranger and more re­cently hur­ri­cane Igor have taught us, we must re­spect na­ture, be­cause the con­se­quences of not pay­ing it the at­ten­tion it de­serves are mon­u­men­tal.

The much greater dam­age that still awaits Ja­pan will be the re­sult of just that. Ja­pan was in­hab­ited mil­lenia be­fore hu­mankind knew that the earth’s sur­face was made of tec­tonic plates and that the fault lines where they meet are places of dan­ger. So, not re­spect­ing the threat of earth­quakes can be un­der­stood. Though ex­pe­ri­ence should have taught the Ja­panese that the threat of tidal waves could not be ig­nored.

But let’s be hon­est. If some­thing hap­pens only very in­fre­quently, we have the ten­dency to shrug it off, or at least not fret about it too much. Or, more im­por­tantly, plan for it. This is where the odds come in.

What are the chances there will be any dam­age if I build my wharf only as high as my neigh­bour’s? He’s over 80 years old and the wa­ter has never been higher than the top of the wharf he helped his fa­ther build when he was just a boy. So why don’t I build my wharf the same height as his? So I did.

It was only two years later that my neigh­bour and I were stand­ing to­gether on his wharf up to our an­kles in wa­ter and he was say­ing to me, “ You know Peter boy, I’ve never seen the wa­ter as high as this. Never.” I looked across to my new wharf, an­kle deep in wa­ter, and thought that one of the the things that should af­fect any de­ci­sion you make when you are weigh­ing up the odds is the pos­si­bil­ity of change.

An­other, and one that Ja­pan will be fac­ing shortly, is this. When you are weigh­ing the odds, it is ev­ery bit as im­por­tant to weigh the conse- quences. Lit­tle kids, fairly early on, learn that if you run as fast as you can and jump as far as pos­si­ble, the odds are pretty good you will make it across the pud­dle with­out get­ting your feet wet. And if you don’t, what odds. You get a scold­ing from your mother. You’ll sur­vive that.

That’s very dif­fer­ent from fig­ur­ing the odds look pretty good that you can run across the road be­fore that on­com­ing car gets here. Mostly it’s young boys who think this way. Maybe girls are more aware of the im­por­tance of con­se­quences in de­ci­sion mak­ing.

But the plight that faces Ja­pan to­day is all about con­se­quences. In build­ing their nu­clear power plants the Ja­panese de­sign­ers, fa­mous world­wide for the me­thod­i­cal ap­proach, the dili­gence and at­ten­tion to de­tail that has made their auto in­dus­try the world leader, can do noth­ing about the con­se­quences.

Be­cause plan all you like to avoid it, no­body can do any­thing about the con­se­quences of nu­clear power run amok. They are hor­ri­ble be­yond imagining. I pray that the peo­ple of Ja­pan, af­ter all they have had to face so far, will be saved the con­se­quences of a to­tal nu­clear melt­down.

I was in my 20s, get­ting started in the car­toon and draw­ing racket, when I was of­fered a very ap­peal­ing job which would have been chal- leng­ing, would have taught me a lot and paid very well. Af­ter ask­ing a lot a lot of ques­tions of peo­ple who knew about the topic and do­ing a whole lot more soul-search­ing, I said “no.”

The com­pany was Atomic An­ergy of Canada Lim­ited. At the time they had as good a record as any­one in the busi­ness for build­ing nu­clear re­ac­tors, but I just couldn’t do it. Though it should have been, my concern was not about the con­se­quences of a nu­clear melt­down. What I couldn’t un­der­stand was how they were go­ing to take out the garbage. Where were the used-up fuel rods go­ing to go.

No longer use­ful in pro­duc­ing power, but still pump­ing out fright­en­ing lev­els of ra­di­a­tion, they would con­tinue to do so for a very long time. They were very, very dan­ger­ous. They still are. Some so­lu­tions for tak­ing out the garbage in­cluded drilling far down into the gran­ite of the Cana­dian shield and bury­ing the spent fuel rods, or en­cas­ing them in con­crete and dump­ing them into the deep­est part of the ocean. These didn’t sound like safe long-term plans to me. I didn’t get it. I still don’t.

Nu­clear en­ergy is clean, efficient and green, when it works. The odds are good that noth­ing bad will hap­pen. But when it does, the con­se­quences are too hor­ren­dous to think about. I cross my fin­gers for Ja­pan, and all the rest of us who use nu­clear power. Ev­ery­body, all to­gether now, cross your fin­gers.

When you are not show­ing Na­ture the re­spect it de­serves, you need all the luck you can get.

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