Japan's nuclear distortion


Japanese Nuclear PlantThe recent major earthquake and tsunami off the east coast of Japan has left me shocked and carrying a heavy heart for the huge loss of life in the Miyagi area.

My memories of visits to Sendai include the wonderful hospitality of friends and a beautiful coastline with gnarled pine trees and spectacular rocky outcrops by the sea.

The people of that area of Japan who survived will be in deep shock for some time as they try to understand and make sense of the depth of their many losses: family, friends, homes, villages.

Japanese culture places a heavy emphasis on the group. One’s identity comes from being a member of a group.

This brings strengths which will be invaluable in the upcoming months and years of repair and rebuilding of lives. This will help them to recover and they will be able to work well together and have a sense of solidarity.

Group decision making processes in such a culture, however, can tend to take longer so that most people’s opinions can be listened to and gradually entwined together. There is probably a fear within an individual making a decision in such a culture to rush in and make a mistake so emergency responses can seem tardy to many Westerners.

Taking responsibility for mistakes is a significant moment in such a culture. In the previous Hanshin earthquake in 1995 the reaction responses of the Government agencies were recognised as too slow.

The international news agencies have begun to switch their focus to another shocking dimension of this huge disaster. There is an ongoing risk of nuclear reactor meltdowns at some nuclear power plants in the disaster area with a possible dispersal of radiation into the atmosphere.

There has been some admission of a rise in radiation in some areas and reports of further explosions. This news will be chilling for people who are simply trying to survive the initial period of this disaster because Japanese people are very aware of the risks of nuclear radiation.

Some would say that they have an 'allergy' to anything nuclear after their experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Most high school children have visited the Peace Park displays in Hiroshima or Nagasaki and seen the shocking images of the devastation and the consequent long term effects of radiation. Peace education is part of the school curriculum. My own visits to both Peace Parks left me stunned at the devastating effects of radiation.

Many Japanese also hold a strong suspicion of officials connected to the nuclear power industry because previous radiation leaks and other mistakes were either denied or downplayed only to be admitted much later. Opponents of the nuclear power industry in Japan were not able to stop the construction of nuclear power plants in known earthquake prone areas.

It will be difficult for the people caught in the midst of surviving this current disaster to know how to respond to statements from officials who use phrases such as 'acceptable levels of radiation' and 'no immediate threat'. Fortunately local people have been evacuated 20 kilometres away from the Fukushima plant which suffered an explosion. So far the pattern is consistent. There is little information being shared and what is given out is not helpful and often contradictory.

Dr Rosalie Bertell is a Sister of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart and an eminent environmental epidemiologist. My understanding from a talk she gave in Tokyo several years ago is that any exposure to radiation will hasten the ageing process in our bodies.

What then is a 'safe threshold' of exposure to radioactive material?  If one is exposed to radiation some particles stay inside our bodies so even if there is no 'immediate threat', as Japanese officials are saying, the health of people exposed may eventually be affected. Hopefully the people of Fukushima were not exposed to a very strong source of radiation and, if so, not for very long.

This earthquake and tsunami is the greatest disaster in Japan since the end of the Second World War with the dropping of the nuclear bombs and any new radiation contamination will strike deep into those memories and only make it harder for the people of Japan to come through this disaster.

Brian ValeBrian Vale is a Columban priest who worked for many years as a missionary in Japan. He returned to Australia at the end of last year and is now based at the Columban Mission Institute, Strathfield, in Sydney.

Topic tags: Japan, earthquake, tsunami, Nuclear meltdown, Hiroshima, peace



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Existing comments

Well put Fr Brian. I am not a physicist or nuclear expert but I do come from a para-medical research background. When the first explosion happened at the nuclear plant, my thoughts instantly went to Hiroshima. The implications are wide and far reaching. Let us unite together in this season of Lent to pray for the Japanese and also the overseas emergency & charity workers helping out.

Teresa | 15 March 2011  

Well put Fr Brian. I am not a physicist or nuclear expert but I do come from a para-medical research background. When the first explosion happened at the nuclear plant, my thoughts instantly went to Hiroshima. The implications are wide and far reaching. Let us unite together in this season of Lent to pray for the Japanese and also the overseas emergency & charity workers helping out.

Teresa | 15 March 2011  

Verily, Fr Vale. It is imperative that the double-speak of those with vested interests in the nuclear industry here and everywhere else, be exposed for what it is: self-serving and life-threatening. For the moment Tony Abbott does not want to touch the issue. However, the thought that we should have 50 nuclear reactors in Australia within the next few decades as recommended by Ziggy Switkowski - a nuclear physicist - chills me to the bone.

Patricia | 15 March 2011  

Patricia, I do not see that the nuclear industry is particularly different from any other industry. It is interested in selling a product to meet a need. Like many other products, there are dangers associated with its use. I do not know of the history of Japan's nuclear industry, as Fr Vale does. However, with the proper checks and balances, and especially with advances in technology, I do not see why people need to be spooked by nuclear power. Advances have been made in the design and operations of nuclear power stations.

Further to this, I have read of recent research into fourth generation reactors. They may have virtually zero waste, and get 100-300 times more energy for the same amount of fuel. They will even be able to use as fuel what was once regarded as waste. We need to get over the idea that nuclear power will necessarily lead to disaster.

Yes, radioactivity is obviously dangerous and we need to be very careful. But we do not stop driving cars or flying in planes just because accidents happen that can injure and kill people.

Nguyen Duy | 15 March 2011  

Japan is amongst the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations on earth, but cannot rein in this situation. Nuclear power generation is a pandora's box, pure and simple.

Scott MacRae Collingwood | 16 March 2011  

Why is "nuclear distortion" used in the title? I don't see any mention in the text. I would argue that Japan's use of nuclear energy is a rational and reasonable response to its global circumstances. On the other hand, it is wrong to allow such industries (oil and coal as well as nuclear) to get away with poor designs and poor maintenance as has happened far too often.

Peter Horan | 16 March 2011  

It is very sad to see the polite, gentle and generous Japanese people of today in such terible strife. I have many friends there and a daughter working in Japan. I think we should read the comments of Nguyen Duy, instead of a having huge panic attack about nuclear energy at this difficult time. All we can do is pray like mad for their safety and well being and do whatever we can as individuals to help them back onto their feet.

penny | 16 March 2011  

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