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Monday, March 14, 2011

Japan's Radiation Nightmare - Fallout for the Nuclear Industry Revival

The Nuclear Industry revival began in the late 1990's, when I wrote an article republished in The Workbook, poking fun at the absurd, even hysterical marketing efforts of the the nuclear industry as it began to exploit climate change as a new opportunity to promote nuclear power, then presumed by nearly all Americans to be politically DOA, as a new kind of "green" power. At the time I did not appreciate the power of money to engineer American opinion. I thought of nuclear revivalists as a kind of latter-day Orwellians who should be laughed off of the international stage.

Since then I have learned my lesson. Hundreds of millions of dollars and a decade later, the Nuclear Energy Institute's efforts to persuade the American voter and politician that nuclear power is the climate change panacea have proven shockingly successful, with public opinion polls on nuclear power turned on their heads in no time, and every Tom Dick and Harry proudly proclaiming unqualified confidence in the safety of nuclear power. The contrarian streak of Americans makes them susceptible to a crude manipulation. Nuclear industry strategists were  immeasurably augmented by the "thought leadership" of self-hating ecologists like New Ager Stewart Brand and climate scientist James Lovelock, whose desperation in the face of pathetic government inaction on climate change converted them to an eco-revisionism defining nuclear power as the "only solution" to a mounting global atmospheric crisis.

It is so effortless, when one is ensconced in a losing fight aginst one evil, to embrace another by persuading onself it is a lesser evil. It is indeed a classic case of the failure of wisdom under duress - the beginning of a deadly folly - the sentimental origin of panic, which I wrote about in my 2006 Lovelock refutation, "Climate Panic."  In this piece, I made, in full recognition of the seriousness of global climate policy collapse, the case against Lovelock's embrace of nuclear power - particularly his failure of perspective, "rushing into the arms of Dr. Strangelove." Throughout the industrialized world, the failure of governments to cope with the economic zero-sum game of Climate Change has led many to water down the policy discussion as if to trivialize it away, such as President Obama's latest "State of the Nation" speech in which he promised us all a "Clean Energy" future...which he then defined as including renewables, gas, coal...and nuclear power. Anything not included in the new definition of "clean?" Today the Obama administration reacted to worldwide reaction to the Japan disaster by re-proclaiming the President's commitment to nuclear power  -even in spite of the meltdowns underway and the death and suffering that will inevitably follow. When did the people decide it was worth dying - even threaten human health worldwide - just to have electricity? The President reaffirms his commitment to nuclear power. Eh? An amnesiac fanaticism yawns its platitudes - meaningless phrases that protect nothing but the profits of a few energy companies. In times like this it would appear that Orwell has won.

With radioactive fallout now being released into the atmosphere in Japan, Tokyo taping its windows against dangerous ambient radiation levels - now meandering across the Pacific Ocean toward my home in Marin County, California not far from Stewart Brand's own home -  I wonder what is come of Mr. Brand's confident announcements regarding the safety of nuclear reactors?  It is so easy to deny the dangers of radiation until you are breathing and drinking it yourself. One would think that the founder of the Long Now Foundation would remember Chernobyl only 25 years ago. Would Mr. Lovelock reassure me that the radiation is harmless to drink? Were there no other way to stop Climate Change, perhaps an argument might be made for humans to be sacrificed to Gaia.  But there is another way, technically and economically feasible, that neither Lovelock nor Brand ever considered, as I seek to prove in my recent book, This is Not a Theory.  Our sacrifice is being made not to Gaia but to the profits of obsolete power and fuel corporations.

"What the hell is going on?" Japanese Prime Minister Kan asked a Tokyo Electric Power Company official by telephone today. We might ask in response, "What the hell is Japan or California doing leaving nuclear plants in the hands of private corporations?" The government's impotence in this crisis is chilling, underscoring the irrationality of corporatism. While my family and friends dread the impacts that the Tokyo Electric Power Company disaster will have for scores of Japanese and ourselves, there is perhaps one consolation. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the electricity company for Northern California, is yet another of the cadre of leading nuclear industry revivalists that have pumped millions of dollars into the Orwellian promotion of nuclear power as a new kind of green power. While spending equal sums to suppress real green power aka the "Community Choice" movement here in Northern California ($50M on Prop 16 last year), PG&E's deep pockets have exploited America's pay-to-play media culture to redefine the very meaning of green to include nuclear power, positioned the nuclear / fossil corporation as "the greenest utility in America," and brainwashed American politicians like the President to repeat the mantra that nuclear power is "clean". While thousands, or millions of Americans and Japanese suffer from the radioactive fallout that is now billowing into the air, perhaps the power of PG&E's cash to mesmerize the Sleeping American will be diminished, and some consciousness created. Perhaps this disaster could make real change possible in an industry that is causing both climate change and nuclear proliferation all over the world today.

It is worse than bittersweet - call it poisonsweet. Only when people realize that there are no cheating answers to the fundamental challenges of our time, will they perhaps finally turn away from the crafted idols of dissemblers and give consideration to the real solutions - like Community Choice Aggregation and energy localization - however unprofitable it may be for the PG&E's of the world.

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