Japan, Nepal, and the energy question

Posted on March 14, 2011

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An aerial view of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Courtesy of National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

I am shocked and saddened by the recent earthquake in Japan. I’m half-Japanese with all my family on my mother’s side living in Tokyo and Okinawa. The news from Japan seems to keep getting worse and worse, the latest reports being the scariest of all: that of a sustained and long-term nuclear crisis. The residual effects of this may harm not only the Japanese, but many people around the Pacific Rim. Nuclear scientists are releasing contaminated steam from the damaged reactors into the atmosphere, which winds are supposed to blow out to sea…but over the sea lies California, my native home, and the entire West coast of the U.S., Canada, Central America, and South America. The contaminated steam’s levels of radiation already read at twice the level that Japan considers safe. And recent reports say that even in the best-case scenario, venting may go on for weeks, if not months.

This is harrowing and sad. Can such toxins be released into the atmosphere without its having any negative effects? I fervently hope so (like with my eyes squeezed shut and crossing my fingers on both hands) but I doubt it. What will be the effects on the Japanese people, who in WWII already lived through the horrors of radioactive death and disease, and what will be the effects on the whole planet?

This rant may seem irrelevant on a travel blog about Nepal. But it seems like an opportunity to compare and contrast energy use in Japan and Nepal.

About two weeks ago, I wrote about the system of rolling blackouts called “loadshedding” here in Nepal. This is something we Westerners complain about incessantly, and with valid reasons. At the peak of loadshedding, the entire country goes without power for about 16 hours a day, and this lasts roughly a month or two out of the year. It literally cripples industry, economy, and communications here. It’s one of the biggest headaches among all of Nepal’s third-world symptoms. And the more I think about it, the more I get mired in “chicken-and-egg” type questions: “Is Nepal a third-world country because its economy is too shabby to provide investments for a better energy system? Or is Nepal a third-world country because its energy system is too shabby to provide a robust economy?” Either way, the energy question is mixed up in the country’s performance and identity as one of the world’s poorest developing countries.

Japan, on the other hand, is among the world’s leaders in industry and economy. Its industrial efficiency holds the world’s admiration. And energy is a key factor in Japan’s accomplishments. If Japan suffered from lack of electricity like Nepal does, you better believe it wouldn’t be pumping out Toyotas at the same furious rate they’ve kept for decades.

But the recent earthquake and nuclear crisis throws things into a new light: At what cost has Japan bought its leading place on the world stage? For all I admire about Japan’s hard work, efficiency, and brilliance in engineering, I still cannot believe they decided to go nuclear. No matter how many safety regulations they put in place, they still built nuclear reactors on a volcanic and earthquake-prone island on the Pacific Rim. Today, the earthquake and tsunami have created a potential radioactive catastrophe, and my heart is breaking for those people who are being contaminated.

Nuclear power is just not worth it. At least for now, while it remains a potentially dangerous energy source. I mean, at the heart of it, it’s electricity made by poison, deadly not just to humans but the entire ecosystem! Can there really be any way to justify that? Are all the Toyotas and industrial accomplishments in the world worth the lives that may be harmed or lost—not just in Japan but also around the globe? I know this is coming from emotion and I’m not well informed about energy issues. I don’t know about all the problems a country can face when they don’t have enough energy. But I currently live in a third-world country with a terrible energy system, and I see how it affects people, and I still feel like rolling blackouts and lack of industry is more benign than potential radioactive harm to humans and the environment. For a sampling of the kind of harm I’m talking about, read the 10 worst nuclear disasters at The Daily Beast.

Of course, I know industry and economy impact humanity’s well-being just as much as environmental factors do. Look at Nepal. Lack of industry, and thus a weak economy, leads to so much poverty and mortality. But, at the cost of sounding crass, aren’t these controlled, isolated problems? The scary thing about nuclear crises is that they’re so hard to control; they have untold residual factors that can impact not only human life but the health of soil, air, water, all the elements life on earth depend on.

My simple message, after all this rambling, is No More Nuclear. I don’t profess to be an expert on the topic. I’m just a girl with family in Japan and a temporary life in Nepal. That may not give my say much credence. But from my perspective, I prefer the backward and completely vexing lack of energy in Nepal to the toxic and dangerous use of nuclear energy in Japan. In the U.S., authorities are watching the tragedy in Japan and rethinking the pursuit of nuclear as an alternative energy source. I applaud them for that. I think there’s a lesson to learn here, and I pray for the people in Japan.

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Posted in: Environment