Broadcast on 20 March 2011 in KULTURJOURNAL, Bavarian Radio 2

Fukushima and Our Hubris

Kurosawa, Mount Fuji in Red

From Akira Kurosawa: "Fujiyama in Red"


We have mastered nuclear fission. Thanks to the revolutionary work of Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann and Lise Meitner some seventy years ago. This capability planted within us a patch of hubristic pride. Today we witness the flowery outcome foremost among the industrial elite, who dangle before our eyes the pretty pretense that we also control nuclear fission's consequences.

Rather fascinating: here natural science encounters a mindset that trusts in God and at the same time apes Him. Add to this a nose for profit and the acceptance of human mortalities and you arrive at the mad formula that awards us the title, Masters of the Uncontrollable. We all know better than this, yet still we continue to use nuclear energy, shutting our eyes. Unassailable experts in high positions steer blind public opinion – experts that dismiss dangers and parade their specialist knowledge as if it were universally referential. Critics are belittled. When critics appeal to the open facts they are accused of pandering to fears and hobbling technical progress.

Japan's northeast coast resembles a battlefield. We are accustomed to repel attacks with bullets, bazookas, bombs... An enemy always eases the problem, because only against an enemy can we victor. With our military superiority we can rid the enemy from our planet. But this time–honored strategy suddenly make no sense: the enemy is Mother Earth! She, the one who nurtures us, she, the one on whom we depend for everything – she is suddenly our enemy? Here it must be mentioned that since the beginning of the industrial age, we, the inhabitants of Mother Earth, have done little other than attack her, destroy her, plunder her, poison her, and make her unlivable. We mindlessly take what we need to continue our luxurious lifestyles, destroying in the bargain life's essentials. The angry flare-up of the earth's crust should come as no surprise. Yet the catastrophe in Japan is even greater: Mother Nature player her part, but the major role was ours.

In 1990 the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa ended his episodic film Dreams with a sequence entitled, Mount Fuji in Red. "Did Fuji break out?" shouts a young man. A mother with two small children tells him: "It's worse than that. Didn't you know? The nuclear power plant has exploded!" Escape from the calamity ends at a cliff high over the sea. The radioactive fog sweeps across overhead, a buffet of ominous colors: plutonium is red (cancer), strontium is yellow (leukemia), and cesium is purple (birth defects). "Those are Death's calling cards," explains a man in a suit. Out at sea, a school of dolphins strike out for the horizon. "Lucky dolphins," says the mother. "It won't help," says the man in the suit. "The radioactivity will overtake them." The episode, based on one of Kurosawa's dreams, lasts just over seven minutes. Critics panned the sequence as simplistic and plump. Twenty years later the work has acquired an uncanny, prophetic power.

Who's guilty? To wish to establish who carries the guilt is quite human. But how to assign guilt in this case? Can one blame Tepco, a giant utility with a series of mess-ups in the past? Or can we blame the public authorities who licensed the building of a nuclear power complex in a region threatened by severe earthquakes? Off the coastline lies the Japan Trench, 8 kilometers deep and 800 kilometers long, the highly active tectonic zone where the Pacific Plate is subducted below the Japanese islands.

Who's guilty? Did the industrial nation of Japan go too far? Since humankind's beginnings we have struggled to attain the furthest possible far-out achievement. That's how we've evolved into our present-day nuclear civilization. And right now we're reaching for bounds possibly hosting even more calamity: the manipulation of DNA, the game of artificial intelligence, the fever for nano-technologies. Only for the moment has Fukushima, reminding us of our fallibility, called us back.

Who's guilty? This question takes us on a journey into the past. In 1942, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi conducted the first successful self-sustainable nuclear chain reaction beneath the stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. All threat to Chicago and its citizens played no factor. During the gray morning hours of 16 July 1945, Robert Oppenheimer and his team detonated in the desert of New Mexico the first atomic bomb. The attempt was called Trinity, and the scientists and engineers were unsure whether the atomic explosion would consume the earth's entire atmosphere. Despite their uncertainty they pushed the button.

The first practical use of this new art of weaponry followed in Japan; the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki witness the explosions to this day. It is a perverse twist of history that this island nation should be visited with yet another nuclear tragedy while the survivors of Little Boy and Fat Man – plus progeny – yet continue their suffering. Although sixty-five years have passed, the radioactive consequences of the U.S. blasts continue.

It was clear to the nuclear industry that much more profit could be made from its technologies than what goes in to producing bombs. And so the concept of the 'friendly atom' was born, and peddled to the public as a blessing for humankind's energy future. To that end in 1957 in Vienna the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established. The agency received the UN mandate to promote the development of nuclear energy among all member nations. To help ensure its mission, the IAEA entered into a pact with the World Health Organization (WHO). The agreement precludes the WHO from publishing any research on radiation effects without IAEA blessing. Before being made public, all studies, all warnings that have to do with radiation and its consequences, must first be presented to the agency in Vienna. That's why the use of depleted uranium munitions is no official health danger, that's why nuclear power plants are ringed with no higher official cancer rates, that's why every cross-border medical cancer census is hindered. The WHO even backs the IAEA bottom-line on Chernobyl: just under 50 people died owing to the incident, fallout caused 4,000 curable cases of thyroid cancer, and there is the statistical possibility that up to 4,000 people will face shorter lifespans. This brazen whitewash flies in the face of sundry peer-reviewed epidemiological studies indicating widespread genomic damage and estimating already realized Chernobyl additional mortalities in excess of 800,000. For over fifty years this criminal censure has continued. Since 2010, scientists, doctors and politicians have organized an Internet campaign to make the WHO independent (www.independentwho.info).

Prosperity through nuclear power. The nuclear industry in Germany has its own PR-agency, the Deutsche Atomforum.' Four days after Fukushima, its president, Ralf Güldner, told reporters: "The situation in Japan is a unique occurrence. Two natural catastrophes came together. A once-a-century earthquake and a tsunami. As a consequence the entire infrastructure collapsed. In Germany such a chain of events could never happen."

For over fifty years the Atomforum has formulated the texts that find their way into government reports on energy prognosis and supply. One can read: "The safety of uranium supply is, in comparison to gas and oil, quite high, because uranium reserves lie predominately in politically stable regions. Also, because of the enormous volumnic energy resulting from any small quantity, years of nuclear reactor fuel can be stockpiled here in Germany. Nuclear energy is therefore an art domestic energy, for uranium refinement takes place here."

In the meantime such empty words must measure up to a concept that is becoming ever more imperative and appears more and more often in the vocabulary of international scientific conferences: 'technology assessment.'The nuclear industry shies from technology assessment because such analysis can only impede profit. Every day the reactors of the four largest German energy concerns – RWE, E.on, Vattenfall and EnBW – remain on grid means enormous profits. One can understand why this energy quartet is not especially interested in the success of decentralized renewable energies. Technology assessment brands nuclear energy a failure first and foremost because of the problem of nuclear waste. There is no long-term solution and the stores of waste grow daily. The nuclear industry speaks of final nuclear waste disposal – but to this day they have neither a method nor a qualified site. Who's guilty? Guilty are the ones who continue to endorse the use of nuclear power. Any technology that tolerates no human error is anti-human. To error is human. To make mistakes is part of our learning process. Those who rule out failure have no idea about life. In this connection the biologist Christine von Weizsäcker has come up with a term: Fehlerfreudlichkeit("failure-friendliness"). In the future we must test our energy concepts in terms of failure-friendliness.

After the catastrophes of Majak and Windscale, after Harrisburg and Chernobyl, governmentt officials here in Germany – despite our new knowledge of the problems with waste disposal at Asse – speak of a Brückentechnologie ("bridging technology"). Bridges suggest security. Bridges take us to the shore across the way. The term brings to mind a picture of two linked sides. Between nuclear energy and renewable energies, however, there exists no link. Only when the old paradigm is salvaged is there room for the new. The more this so-called bridge technology is supported, the further away recedes the coastline of renewable energies – our supposed destination. Terms that mislead belong to a culture of denial. Repressed here is the relationship between nuclear power and global energy use: only 2.5 percent of the worldwide energy is fueled by the 442 nuclear power reactors.

The solar energy politician Hermann Scheer wrote in his final book, "The Energetic Imperative", which was published shorty before he passed away: "Nature long ago decided that renewable energies will triumph in the end. The primary energy economy, which alone thanks fossil fuels and uranium for its existence, will disappear utterly – either sooner or too late."

We sympathize with the people of North Africa who must protest in the streets each day against their dictators. Must we Europeans protest in the streets day and night until we have freed ourselves from the energy dictatorship of the nuclear oligarchs? Dare we gamble with the well-being of our children by allowing those to call the shots who are more interested in profit than in the earth we leave to the coming generations? In a culture of denial the power of the streets must win the upper hand. Either sooner or too late.

And as supplement: the Fukushima tragedy threw us out of our orbit, the earthquake shifted the axis of the earth, and we still don't know whether this spells the end of the Nuclear Age – although recently we could read such on the cover of Der Spiegel. Even if Fukushima hadn't happened, it is still high time to end this technology of the Apocalypse. Wherever uranium is mined, death creeps from the earth. Whether in North America, Australia or Africa, all uranium mines are sites of pestilence and death. Quite usually these sites are on the traditional lands of indigenous peoples. Every ton of uranium oxide that our nuclear power plants acquire symbolizes another load of human corpses. A society that says Yes to nuclear energy is a society that practices human sacrifice. The catastrophe at Fukushima is loud and has woken us up; the dead from the uranium mining regions disappear quietly and without a trace. We worry about our own safety. But our responsibility towards those whom we do not know, yet who suffer on our behalf – alone this circumstance should convince us to depart from this murderous path.

English translation: Craig Eldon Reishus