Tag Archives: Earthquakes

6/11/2011 NY Times: Protests Challenge Japan's Use of Nuclear Power

Protests Challenge Japan’s Use of Nuclear Power By HIROKO TABUCHI, New York Times, June 11, 2011 http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/t/hiroko_tabuchi/index.html?inline=nyt-per Background: In Germany there have been anti-nuclear protests involving tens of thousands of people reported on many occasions.  But tens of thousands of people protesting in Japan?  That is unheard of – until now. TOKYO — Beating drums and waving flowers, protesters in Tokyo and other major cities rallied against the use of nuclear power on Saturday, three months after a devastating tsunami set off a nuclear crisis.

ranck Robichon/European Pressphoto Agency  Demonstrators in Tokyo on Saturday at one of the many rallies around Japan to protest the country’s reliance on nuclear power.


Anger over the government’s handling of the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant has erupted in recent weeks after revelations that the damage at the plant, and the release of radioactive material, was far worse than previously thought. Mothers worried for their children’s health, as well as farmers and fishermen angry about their damaged livelihoods, have been especially critical of the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

The disaster has also prompted a national debate about Japan’s heavy reliance on nuclear power despite the country’s history of devastating earthquakes and a deep public distrust of the nuclear industry. In perhaps his sole move that has won popular support, Mr. Kan ordered the shutdown of a separate nuclear power plant in central Japan until it can bolster its tsunami defenses. But recent politicking in a gridlocked Parliament has added to the public’s disenchantment. “We now know the dangers of relying on nuclear power, and it’s time to make a change,”

Hajime Matsumoto, one of the rally’s organizers, told a crowd in a central Tokyo square that eventually grew to about 20,000 people, according to organizers’ estimates. “And, yes, I believe Japan can change,” he shouted, as the crowd roared back and people pumped their fists in the air.

Supporters of the rally here in Tokyo, and in coordinated events in many other cities in Japan, say the demonstration was remarkable not because of its size, but because it happened at all in a country that so values conformity and order.

“The Japanese haven’t been big protesters, at least recently,” said Junichi Sato, program director of the environmental group Greenpeace Japan, who said he had organized enough poorly attended rallies to know.

“They’re taking the first steps toward making themselves heard.” Many in the crowd said they were protesting for the first time. “I’m here for my children,” said Aki Ishii, who had her 3-year-old daughter in tow. “We just want our old life back, where the water is safe and the air is clean.” Her daughter wore a sign that said “Please let me play outside again.”

Hiromasa Fujimoto, a rice and vegetable farmer, said it was his first protest, too. “I want to tell people that I’m just so worried about the soil, about the water,” he said. “I now farm with a Geiger counter in one hand, my tools in the other.” “It’s insane,” he added. And while the rally started in a typically orderly way — “Let’s all remember good manners!” organizers said at the start, as protesters lined up in neat rows — the crowd eventually took a more rowdy turn.

As protesters congregated in a Tokyo square after several marches through the city, there were some confrontations with the police. A police officer who refused to give his name explained breathlessly that protesters had not been given permission to congregate in the square. “Disperse immediately!” police officers shouted through megaphones.

“Shut up and go away!” a young man screamed back. About 9 p.m., however, police officers forcibly moved in to break up the crowd. There was some pushing and shoving, but no serious skirmishes. Still, Mr. Matsumoto, the organizer, looked elated.

“Who would have thought so many people would turn up?” he said. “I think that Japan is on the cusp of something new.” But some passers-by were less enthusiastic. “What can they really do?” said Airi Ishii, 21, a shopper who had stopped to watch the rally with her boyfriend. “It looks fun, but if you think anything will change, it’s naïve.”
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5/1/2011 Boston Globe: A nuclear cautionary tale turns 25

A nuclear cautionary tale turns 25. By Katharine Whittemore Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2011 “They’re safer than samovars!” Soviet propagandists once crowed about the country’s nuclear power plants. “We could build one on Red Square.” That’s how things rolled before Chernobyl, recalls Arkady Filin. And as one of 600,000 “liquidators,” or cleanup workers, sent in after the April 26, 1986, disaster — who dropped, from helicopters, tons of sand and lead atop the molten core, then built a concrete sarcophagus over the reactor and plowed under countless acres of radioactive topsoil, all the while soaking up immense doses themselves — he’s realistic (Chekhovian?) about what happened.  “People who weren’t there are always curious,” says Filin, who appears in a gut-punching oral history called “Voices from Chernobyl’’ by Svetlana Alexievich (Dalkey Archive, 1997). But “it’s impossible to live constantly in fear,” he adds. “[A] person can’t do it, so a little time goes by and normal human life resumes.” A little time has gone by, but lately normal life feels not so normal. We are thinking hard about nuclear power again, in rising panic about radiation contamination. It’s all a terrible coincidence, isn’t it? This spring marks the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe — just as the severity of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant gets rated at the highest level. The level, that is, of Chernobyl.

Many (including President Obama) still plug for nuclear power amid our falling stores of fossil fuels, but trust me, it’s hard to go there after you read about the event that brought Ukraine and Belarus to its knees. Then again, the genie’s out of the bottle; the European Nuclear Society currently lists 442 power plants in 30 countries. Five are operating right here in New England. Are they all safe as samovars? As long as there is human error (see: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island), you have to say no. As long as there are natural disasters (see: earthquakes, Japan), no again.

So let’s brave the Chernobyl literature, and see what it really means to live with a calamity. I chose to focus on titles published after 1991, when the Soviet Union fell. That’s because later authors had access to declassified material and could craft a fuller story. The best of these is 1993’s “Ablaze: The Story of the Heroes and Victims of Chernobyl’’ by Piers Paul Read (Random House). Read, the author of “Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors,’’ is a robust narrator who provides unblinking, abundant context from the Soviet archives and his own interviews. His chronicle of the dying victims in Hospital No. 6 in Moscow left me utterly shaken.

Read also parses the factors of the accident and stresses that the fault must be spread broadly. Workers were paid bonuses to finish the reactor ahead of schedule, and thus took shortcuts. Equipment and materials were often substandard. The Communist Party, broke and on its last legs, forced the men to also build hay storage facilities, distracting them from their first priority. It’s the tragic trifecta: hubris, error, scarcity.

“Chernobyl is the catastrophe of the Russian mind-set,” explains historian Aleksandr Revalskiy in “Voices from Chernobyl.’’ Maybe, but you must honor the sacrificial heroics of those same Russians. If the workers and liquidators hadn’t sacrificed their health and their lives by shoveling burning graphite into pits and fixing valves in radiation-laced water, the scourge might have spread to all of Europe. “Voices’’ teems with piteous details: how thousands of the 200,000 residents, just before evacuation, wrote their names on fences, houses, asphalt. How one of the hunters hired to shoot radiation-exposed dogs and cats (the fear was they’d stray outside the contaminated zone) says, “[I]t’s better to kill from far away so your eyes don’t meet.”

There may be few dogs or cats left in what has become Europe’s largest de facto nature sanctuary. But in the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Zone of Alienation around the plant, there are eagles, bears, moose, lynx, storks, wild boars, and more. Surprisingly, it turns out that humans are a greater threat to animals than cesium and strontium. With us gone, nature thrives, as you learn from Mary Mycio’s eerily gripping “Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl’’ (Joseph Henry, 2005).

But aren’t there six-eyed mutants or something? Actually, no, though animal reproduction rates are lower. And pine trees grow out like bushes, rather than up. Mycio, a Ukrainian-American biologist, also tells us about the 3,000-plus workers (all part-time, it’s the law) who maintain the zone. They’re able to be here because much of the radiation-contaminated material has since been buried. In fact, shockingly, tourists can now visit certain areas. And in 300 years, your descendants can move back to the inner 30-kilometer region. As for The Ten, as the 10-kilometer hot spot by the reactor is called, people can live there one day too. In 24,110 years.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.
© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.