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May-June 2011

Vol. 36, No. 3


Nuclear power: Splitting the atom

"The splitting of the atom changed everything, save man's mode of thinking." Albert Einstein

Reading about Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster is chilling, not simply because of the catastrophic wreckage induced by the earthquake and resulting tsunami, but because, in using nuclear energy, humanity has unleashed dangers that it is not capable of controlling. Natural disasters are terrible and bewildering but the dangers uncorked by humans are incomprehensible. In the case of serious nuclear accidents, the effects will be experienced on Earth for hundreds of thousands of years to come. And it must not be forgotten that the effects of a nuclear accident cannot be contained in one place; radioactive particles are borne by air and travel widely.

It is 25 years since the Chernobyl nuclear explosions. According to the latest report of the New York Academy of Sciences, Chernobyl may have caused nearly 1,000,000 deaths over the course of the years. This information is corroborated by 5,000 documents translated from Russian for the first time, and contradicts data previously provided by the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to nuclear expert Dr. Helen Caldicott, Fukushima is of an order of magnitude many times worse than Chernobyl.

Radioactive particles concentrate on crops. Although not seen, not smelled and not tasted, these particles are insidious in their effects on the people and animals that consume them, perhaps not immediately, but over the long run. The same happens with food from the sea. First the algae are contaminated; then crustaceans, the small fish, and finally, the larger fish that people eat. Radiation taken into the body is cumulative, slowly building up; the effects may not be noticeable for years except in young children, infants and those still in the womb, all of whom are immediately affected.

Since the Fukushima calamity, it has been difficult to get correct information about radiation levels. It has been pointed out repeatedly that there is always a certain amount of radioactive material in the atmosphere, food and water. Currently though, it appears that human safety levels have been moderated upward by officials of the Japanese government and from the Tokyo Electric and Power Company (TEMPCO). As a matter of fact, as pointed out by Krista Mahr in Time magazine on April 18, there has been a continuous stream of conflicting information. One cannot but question the transparency of the above mentioned officials, particularly given the comment made by the Maryknoll Sisters in Japan on April 25 regarding their long term experience related to the nuclear industry: In the Japanese Asahi newspaper we read about how, for decades, civil suits have been brought against companies running nuclear reactors throughout Japan, but the courts have always ruled in favor of the Japanese government and the nuclear industry.

Aside from questionable transparency, there is the sheer magnitude of coping with several reactors in excessively dangerous states at a level not previously experienced.

Some people are quick to point out that the record of nuclear power plants is actually quite good, with very few accidents. It must be borne in mind, however, that when a nuclear reactor fails, the result is calamitous. Even those not yet conceived may well be born with severe birth defects.

Einstein's words ring true. Splitting the atom has changed everything. It can be hoped, though, that the forces let loose in Japan may trigger a sober response that will enable humanity to recognize its limits, taking precaution in the face of elements that are not well understood, taking action to protect human health and the environment against the possible danger of severe damage before it happens. The human mode of thinking can change. Events can bring with them a profound shift in consciousness, jarring people into recognition of the need to act differently.

In the weeks to come the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns will look hard at all the issues related to the use of nuclear materials and present a reflection paper designed to be of use in determining how to move forward.

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