Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My Log 395: Case closed for me years ago; but the argument rages on

English: Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plants 1 & 2 ...
 Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plants 1 & 2 (BWRs with 860 MWe each) in Eurajoki, Finland. Suomi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The control room at a U.S. nuclear power plant.
The control room at a U.S. nuclear power plant. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ikata Nuclear Power Plant
Ikata Nuclear Power Plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, Fran...
Nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Nuclear Power
Nuclear Power (Photo credit: EnvironmentBlog)
The CANDU Bruce Nuclear Generating Station is ...
The CANDU Bruce Nuclear Generating Station is the second largest nuclear power plant in the world. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It never ceases to amaze me that people who seem to be perfectly normal, well adjusted and in most things well informed, can still make fallacious arguments about subjects which, to me, have been perfectly clear for decades.
One of these subjects is nuclear power; another is abortion. Both are subjects of intense controversy around the world, but still many decades after I considered the arguments were over and my side had won, the arguments rage on.
Let me take them in sequence: last night I went to a screening at the admirable Cinema Politica series at Concordia University here in Montreal of two documentary films dealing with nuclear power. The generic title of the evening was “Women of Fukushima”, and the evidence brought on the subject of Japan having 54 nuclear power stations, in spite of having experienced the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was devastatingly clear. One woman, who had been for years an ordinary, non-political housewife, put it as simply as it can be put when she said:  “What is important? There are three things: life, health and the care of children. What else is there? Yet they have built these things…. Money is not the only thing that is important…”
As far as she was concerned, nuclear power came down to a question of money, to people giving the primacy to money over all other life values.
It was striking that while to the outside world the tsunami caused the bigger devastation, to these women the meltdown of the nuclear power plant appeared incomparably more important, to the degree that the tsunami was not even mentioned in the film.
I understand how this could be so. It may seem to the engineers who have made all these nuclear plants that theirs is a fool-proof method of generating electric power, but what it really amounts to is that these engineers on our behalf have entered into a Faustian bargain: all that is needed is for one of  these nuclear plants to seriously malfunction, and devastation occurs that covers a huge area of country, affects millions of people and lasts for years and years, because it is impossible to clean up. They have, in other words, sold our souls to the Devil, “our” meaning the populations of the world, and we have to pay in suffering when time comes to cash in their Faustian bet.
There is no other disaster comparable to this: it continues apparently almost for ever; it strikes into our very processes that keep us living, transforming and mutating us by the thousands, and expelling us from areas in which the radiation from the meltdown holds sway, apparently into the indefinite future.
That these are the facts is attested to by a strange circumstance, that nuclear power stations are built in spite of the fact that private insurance companies will not insure them ---  that is left for the government to do, or to make some kind of guarantee about, since the costs of a major nuclear accident are so gigantic that no budget on earth could sustain them.
The meltdown at Fukushima occurred on March 11, 2011 --- more than two and a half years ago --- and the latest word is that the damage will not be cleared up for 40 years, surely just a guess. No one is allowed into an area 20 miles square, and although people who had lived here, been born there even, still hanker to go back, they know it would be at the cost of their own health and longevity. The first of these two films showed a woman working over some vegetables, and saying, “We used to be able to grow clean, edible vegetables. But now, all the vegetables we grow are affected by radiation.”  And, as everyone knows, radiation can be  fatal for humans or other forms of life.
The second film --- both were made by Americans, it seems --- show how Japan, which had once been an active country with lots of public protests, had since the 1960s sunk into a state of apathy before government and corporate manipulation. In the area most closely affected by the nuclear meltdown, for generations they had never been able to get more than 100 people to a street demonstration against anything. With solid intellectual support from various professors, researchers and others, a group of younger people, some of whom had formed their own bands, decided to change that, and planned a demonstration to which they succeeded in attracting 15,000 people. Two months later in a different location, they got 20,000 out. Later still, 25,000 to 30,000. This, the organizers said, meant that a major change in public opinion in Japan is under way. People who had passively accepted the assurances given about the safety and importance of nuclear generated power stations, are now asking how it had happened that the Japanese, the only people to have had direct experience of the devastating effects of nuclear bombs, had simply accepted the building of 54 power stations scattered over the length and breadth of the country, without so much as a whimper.
I have  only two things to add, personal notes: I remember covering a speech at a luncheon club in Montreal in the 1950s given by the head man in the Atomic establishment in Canada. He said  there was no need to worry about disposal of the wastes from nuclear stations: they were working on it, and it was under control. That was more than 60 years ago, and they still haven’t got it under control.
Secondly, when I was in New Zealand in 1975, the government of the time floated the idea of building a nuclear power station at the foot of the Manukau harbour, one of the two great harbours around which the city of Auckland is built.  This was the choice of the nation’s Establishment, but a chemistry professor at the University of Auckland, Bob Mann, began a campaign designed to kill off this idea of building a nuclear-powered station. I went to several meetings, all-day meetings, where representatives of the Maori tribes to whom this part of the country was and always had been home, argued that the plant would wipe out one of their basic foodstuffs, the shellfish collected from the harbour. No one could argue that this would not happen.
It would be going too far to say that Bob Mann turned that idea away by himself, but he certainly was the inspiration of the movement that did cause the government to reconsider its policy. Of course, he had to accept that his battle against the whole establishment, including the intellectual establishment, would rob him of any chance of promotion in the university hierarchy. But he thought it worthwhile. And he was right.
It still astonishes me that people whose heads seem to be on straight can sill advocate nuclear power, in spite of its overpowering  effects when it goes wrong, as, demonstrably, it does from time to time,
The second subject in my thoughts today is abortion. That is because I have been listening to an interview on the BBC’s Hardtalk programme with a woman called  Dr Rebecca Gomperts, founder of the pro-choice group Women on Waves, whose objective has been to bring safe abortions to women who need them,  using a ship as her clinic.
The interview is conducted by the BBC’s  Zeinab Badawi, a woman sho begins every interview with a fixed idea of what she wants to achieve in the interview, and will let nothing get in the way of her achieving it, regardless of whether her questions seem to be advancing the cause of information and enlightenment, or obscuring it, which, unfortunately, is more often the case. (I call her Mezeinab, because she always introduces herself with, “me Zeinab Badawi…” )
Incidentally, I find the premise of Hardtalk, usually under the control of the well-informed and skilful interviewer Stephen Sackur (I call him, sardonically, “Saint Stephen”) to be irritating in the extreme, especially after you have watched a few dozen of them. So intent is he always on asking questions he thinks his subjects will not like to be confronted with, that the impression Saint Stephen gives is that, no matter what the subject nor how flawlessly his subject knows it, he, Saint Stephen, knows more about it and would  be just the man to put all it right if only those idiots out there would give him the chance.
Well, Mezeinab, who is the mother of four, was not altogether in favour of what Dr. Gomperts was doing, and she trotted out various versions of the hardline, irredentist anti-abortion arguments in an effort to throw her interviewee off track. (To absolutely no effect, I might add, the doctor having heard it all before.)
You can say that again. Myself in 1961 I attended as an interested reporter, the global meeting of the International Planned Parenthood Association, where  various experts in the field produced evidence of the gradual advance in many, if not most, countries towards a situation in which no woman would ever again have to resort to the back room filth and danger of a makeshift abortion, a method that was killing tens of thousands every year.
At that time countries like Japan, Hungry and others, mostly in the anti-religious Eastern bloc, were either offering abortions on demand, or something very close to it.  Countries like Italy and Columbia, which one might have supposed would be dead against abortion and birth control because of the power of the Roman Catholic religion, were in actual fact exhibiting statistics that indicated widespread use of birth control, whereas others like France, were, although not willing to make abortion freely available, nonetheless moving crablike towards a position of acceptance. The United States, in spite of its (claimed) higher levels of education, nevertheless was persisting in treating abortion as a criminal procedure. The general impression I got from the evidence presented was that abortion, a decision to be made only between a woman and her doctor, was gaining ground everywhere, and could be expected to be available throughout the world within the foreseeable future. In my eyes the debate had been vigorous, but was basically over.
In a pig’s eye! The years since 1960 have brought about a revival of the fundamentalist Protestant religions in the United States, and in their satrapies in South America, and as Conservative values  have ridden high  politically, especially in the United States, abortion has become a hot-button issue in many states. When Ireland recently made a moderate change in its abortion laws it was revealed that an estimated 5000 to 7000 women a year travelled to Britain to obtain an abortion, and there seem to be no figures for the number of abortions actually carried out illegally in the country.

No one likes the idea of abortion, but as Dr. Gomperts said in her interview, only a woman confronted with having an unwanted baby could reliably offer an opinion on the matter. Otherwise, this is a subject in which, frankly, men are trying, for religious reasons,  to impose their views on women in distress. Case closed, as far as I am concerned.
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