Remember Einstein’s warning? - Farooq Sulehria - Thursday, March 17, 2011

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Pakistan’s noisy electronic media are eerily silent on Japan’s Chernobyl moment. No talk show on a possible Chernobyl in Pakistan. No “expert” comments by the Fathers, Mothers and Brothers of the Islamic Bomb. Even our raucous mullahs have kept mum. One had hoped for a Jamaat stalwart coming up with a religious solution to any nuclear fallout in Pakistan. Is the director of Aik Aur Ghazi also going to produce a film titled Aik Aur Chernobyl? Even the conspiracy theorists are silent. They did not waste any time blaming Washington for engineering the earthquake in the Pacific, as they did when the tsunami devastated Sri Lanka and Thailand a few years ago.

Experts in Japan are still assuring the public that Fukushima’s accident will not turn into a Chernobyl since Japanese reactors are housed in containers, unlike those in that stricken town in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine in 1986. In desperate times, one has no choice but to stay optimistic, so let’s hope the experts’ predictions will come true. However, the contamination will be unprecedented if an explosion takes place. It will spread to Russia, China, Korea and most parts of Eastern Asia.

Lest we forget, Chernobyl’s emissions exceeded by a hundred times the radioactive contamination caused by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One nuclear reactor has the potential of polluting half the globe. France’s ASN nuclear safety authority has classified the Fukushima catastrophe as level-six on their readings of one to seven. Chernobyl reached level-seven. There are 10 reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi facility. Fortunately, only three were operational at the time. Explosions were reported at units 1 and 3. On March 14 (as I write these lines), the explosion occurred at unit 2 as well. There are more nuclear reactors in the vicinity of Fukushima.

The unfolding Japanese tragedy, which is likely to affect neighbouring countries too, proves, if proof were needed, that the nuclear option is an apocalyptic, suicidal choice even when meant for civil use. Japan is one of the most advanced countries in the world. It is extremely well-prepared for what our mullahs and media Mujahideen callously refer to as God’s wrath: i.e., earthquakes. For example, buildings in Japan are built to withstand intense jolts.

The magnitude-9 earthquake that hit Japan on March 11 was the strongest in Japanese history ever since official records began in the late 1800s. However, it was not the quake that devastated Japan or triggered nuclear worries. It was the tsunami that followed. The seven-meters-high tsunami, travelling at the speed of a jumbo jet, penetrated the mainland by ten kilometres.

The tsunami is not a phenomenon specific to Japan, and nature can go wild anywhere on the globe. But the effects of natural disasters can be compounded beyond control by nuclear plants, as the Japanese tsunami has demonstrated.

In the 1970s there were 35 nuclear plants. Today, there are 338. The United States alone, which draws 20 percent of its energy from nuclear sources, houses 104 nuclear reactors. Japan meets 30 percent of its energy needs from nuclear sources and has 13 nuclear power plants. What is happening in Japan can occur anywhere in the world. There are a lot of possible causes to worry about: flash floods, a breach in some mega-dam, earthquakes, tsunamis, a technical failure, human error.

Aging plants, like those in Japan’s Fukushima facilities, pose serious risks. Such facilities have a record of near-misses and meltdowns; resulting from human error, old equipment and shoddy maintenance, or poor supervision, as was the case at Chernobyl. Even under optimum operating conditions, nuclear plants are hardly safe. Like any machine or facility, they are vulnerable to breakdowns. In technology-savvy Sweden, a breakdown was reported last year. Yet US president Barrack Obama has proposed in the budget a staggering $36 billion for new reactors. From Sweden to England, Brazil to Iran, India to Israel, a host of countries are spending more and more on nuclear options.

In Pakistan, the Zardari government has signed an agreement to buy two more nuclear reactors from China, at the cost of $2 billion, displaying shocking disregard for human safety. Even if we rule out nuclear accidents, there remains the question of nuclear waste. This topic is taboo in Pakistan, when it should constitute part of school textbooks. No matter how flawless, fortified, well-guarded nuclear assets are, they do produce nuclear waste. According to experts, a 1,000-megawatt reactor produces 500 pounds of plutonium annually. Only 10 pounds suffice for a bomb that can devastate a large city.

No country in the world has been able to find a solution to the problems posed by handling, transportation or disposal and storage of nuclear waste. Nor does it seem likely that a solution will be found. Even before Uncle Sam caused the nuclear holocaust in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Albert Einstein was warning us that, “our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing the power to make great decisions for good and evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.” In 1946, the old sage was telling us: abolish all forms of nuclear power, or face extinction.

The writer is a freelance contributor.


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