Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear Nightmare

The earthquakes, tsunami and subsequent nuclear reactor explosions and fires in Japan remind us how very fragile our situation is on planet earth and the ways, with all the best intentions, we consistently up the ante on disaster, like building nuclear power plants in an area at high risk for earthquakes.  That would be anywhere at all in Japan...

I am watching things unraveling and people scrambling to put a good face on it. Gaman is the Japanese word for it (accent on the first syllable, according to George Takei) -- a sort of steadfast and stolid soldiering on.  Responsibility.  Self-control.  Perseverance. The Japanese are showing extreme Gaman in the face ot tens of thousands of deaths from natural disasters, and potentially more from the total inadequacy of the nuclear reactors to withstand a 9.0 earthquake and the power loss which prevented the fuel rods from being properly cooled.  I wonder why there were not backup generators?  They had only battery backup, and those batteries had a short life. 

Why would they not have generators?  When I lived on the Oregon coast, we regularly had storms with 100 mph winds which would knock out power for days in the country.  Most everybody had a generator as a general piece of equipment to cover that exigency because they knew it was very likely to happen. If your water system depends on an electric pump, you are really out of luck in a power failure.  Those Japanese reactors had water systems that depended on electric power.  Japan regularly gets earthquakes which cut off power.  Where were their generators?  Maybe next time.

The fear of nuclear disaster reminds me of the Cuban Missile crisis 1962.  Russia and the US were in a standoff off the coast of Cuba over a boatload of nuclear missiles intended to be set up facing the US mainland.  We were all terrified this would set off a nuclear warI.  The threat of nuclear war has diminished so much since then that it is hard to imagine how terrifying that was, or how close it actually came to happening. 

I had two small children and I was terrified for them.  Judd was a toddler and Josh was barely a year old.  What could I do?  It seemed unlikely that anyone would bomb our small California coastal town, but the fallout would surely get us and we feared people fleeing the city, desperate for food and shelter.  I went to the little Seabright Market across the street and bought lots of canned goods and staples and stashed them in a closet.  I put in extra blankets, drinking water, cans of juice, a first aid kit.  How this would be safe from contamination or help us in any way in case of a nuclear attack, I am not sure, but in my state of panic, it was what I could do.  I had to be able to feed those babies and keep them warm. 

Looking back, it seems a pathetic effort in the face of an impossible situation.  We were 73 miles south of San Francisco, which would surely be a target. We probably would not have survived.  We lived through several days of abject terror, and then, as quickly as it began, the crisis was resolved.  I used up the stash of canned goods over time.  I felt profound relief that we did not have to survive a nuclear nightmare.

The people of Japan are just beginning their nuclear nightmare,. but thanks to the tsunami, there are no little neighborhood stores left for buying up canned goods.  They will not be rescued by the diplomatic resolution of a temporary crisis.  They are facing a serious and certain threat that can't be negotiated away by compromise.  And unlike us, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they already know what a nuclear nightmare really looks like. 

I cannot imagine what Japanese mothers are enduring at this moment, having lost their homes and family members and now faced with a nuclear disaster.  It breaks my heart.