Two events are occupying most of the free
space in my head right now — the Japanese earthquake/tsunami and
the civil war in Libya.
It's harder to deal emotionally with bad
things that happen when they are caused by bad people (wars)
rather than nature (earthquakes).
I wish we could help the Libyan rebels, but
recognize the problems with interfering in other countries'
internal affairs. However, when one party is clearly crazy, we
should make as strong a statement as possible in support of the
One sad effect of our own country heading
down its own wrong road is that we don't have the money or
surplus military assets to help as much as some of us might
like. America is spread too thin in so many arenas, including
here at home.
Of course, we'll respond as much as possible
to requests for assistance from Japan, a country whose political
structure is similar to ours (including a much worse national
debt that will hurt its recovery from this disaster). While
we're a long way from having to fight our own revolution against
a dictatorial government, it's not hard to imagine Mother Nature
pulling the ground out from under us, too.
Right here in Essex County, we're sitting on
our own earthquake faults and living along a coast that could be
inundated by a tsunami created either by a local quake or one
traveling across the Atlantic Ocean from the volcanic Azores.
However, most Americans cheerfully assume that terrible things
that happen in other countries can't happen here; it's part of
So today I'm writing about nuclear power
plants, a category that's a hybrid of human decision-making and
potential natural disasters. I've long been unsure what to think
of this power source.
I first became aware of the issue shortly
after moving to Massachusetts, when the newly-formed Clamshell
Alliance was fighting the Seabrook power plant just over the
border in New Hampshire. I thought perhaps they were
anti-Vietnam War activists just looking for a new cause. The
nuclear technology seemed kind of neat, compared to oil, coal
and potentially explosive gas.
But then I received a flier in my Marblehead
mailbox about evacuation plans in case of an accident upwind at
Seabrook. I seem to recall being assigned an interior New
Hampshire community that would "take us in," and upon hearing
the alarm we were to leave immediately for that town, leaving
our pets behind.
I figured my family would head home to
Pennsylvania instead, with the dogs and cat, so wondered if we
should try to drive through the traffic jams in Lynn or those in
the Salem/Peabody corridor, on the way to the highway.
The time frame mentioned in the flier was
very short, so I then recalled a different flier we military
families were given about how to respond to similar emergencies
in foreign lands. There was a two-page list of things to do,
including boarding windows, storing water in bathtubs,
collecting medical supplies, etc.; and the very last item on the
list was to "bend over and kiss your a** goodbye."
Around the time I saw the movie, "The China
Syndrome," I saw a map showing all the nuclear power plants in
the country. I was surprised to see a bunch of them in my native
Pennsylvania, where my parents still lived. Wondered when that
happened without anyone I knew noticing. Maybe there was no
activist Keystone Alliance. Anyhow, in 1979 there was an
accident at Three Mile Island. Fortunately, it was contained and
no one was hurt.
Sometime later I ran into a Boston Edison
executive, and asked him why Seabrook had been built on an
"Don't worry," he said, "there hasn't been an
earthquake here in over 200 years."
I'd hoped for a more technical answer. Didn't
this mean we could be due?
His response validated a suspicion I'd been
acquiring since starting work as a political activist: Many
important people don't know what they're doing. Prominent among
them may have been the members of Congress who passed the
Price-Anderson Act, which promised to back up the nuclear plant
owners for liability costs that private-sector companies
wouldn't fully insure. Uh-oh, marketplace dismissed, government
involved: Now I'm scared.
I did some research on the issue and asked my
next question: What will you do with the nuclear waste? I
learned that the primary plan, then and now, was to ship it
across the country on trains through major population centers.
And I'm still watching the ongoing battle over Yucca Mountain,
Nev., the chosen storage site, itself located near a major
earthquake fault, and near where my grandchildren live now.
In 1987, I visited Austrian friends, who
carried a Geiger counter to market to check vegetables that
could still be contaminated by radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl
The efficient Japanese build nuclear
facilities far superior to those of the Soviet communists. Still
I was surprised to see so many of them sited in the "Pacific
Ring of Fire."
If Japan's hold up through the extraordinary
events of the last several days, human ingenuity will have
scored some points against Mother Nature. If not, or regardless,
we Americans need answers to our questions about nuclear power