As a way of marking the day I attended a public talk by well known anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman who has been campaigning against nuclear power and weapons for the past 40 years. Harvey addressed a crowd of over 200 mostly older activists in the meeting hall of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. I was struck by the average age profile (60+), which prompted me to wonder if the younger generation will continue on their work. I was also aware that these were people who had spent the last four decades working, mostly voluntarily, and against the odds, for a better world.
Wasserman, runs NukeFree.org, which is supported by Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. He co-wrote the 'song for solartopia' with the legendary Pete Seeger. He told a story of living in a rural community in the 60s and how they beat back the threat of a nuclear power station at a time when many people weren't aware of the dangers. This reminded me of the inspirational 1970s campaign which prevented a nuclear power plant from being built at Carnsore Point in Co. Wexford, Ireland. The story also had echoes of what is going on in North Mayo, in Fermanagh, and in communities around the world that are facing the might of fracking and mining companies.
Wasserman spoke of the health dangers of nuclear power and in particular of the safety risks it poses, which are especially noteworthy given that nuclear power plant owners are not insured against the risks. The Chernobyl disaster is the most obvious example of things going wrong and he spoke at length of the fall out of this, which included thousands of deaths and countless others who suffered cancers and other health effects.
He mentioned one statistic, one he said he hates quoting, that 85% of children in Belarus are Chernobyl victims, meaning, incredibly, only 15% of kids there TODAY are considered healthy. He talked about how the Soviet Union sent 100,000s draftees to clean up the nuclear disaster and how these soldiers were subsequently instrumental in ending the Soviet Union after experiencing its cruelty first hand.
After Chernobyl, it was promised that this couldn't happen again but in 2011 the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan reminded us of the grave dangers of nuclear power. Not much is known about the true scale of the fall-out as the Japanese government, media and nuclear industry are keen to prevent a deeper look. ( Read more here).
What is known is that they are struggling to manage the disaster and that their new attempts at building a massive ice wall seem inadequate. Wasserman claims that thyroid cancer rates in children are known to be 40 times higher around Fukushima and that he has yet to have any real opposition to his article 'Fukushima's children are dying'. In the article he quotes a study from Fukushima Medical University which showed nearly 200,000 kids suffering from pre cancerous thyroid abnormalities.
It is also claimed that Japan's water and fish are polluted and that this toxicity has drifted into the Pacific Ocean, which has led to claims that fish in California have tested positive to having traces of Fukushima nuclear waste. (Note, this study is disputed). Meanwhile, the company which owns Fukushima, (TEPCO) Tokyo Electric Power Company, maintains control of the plant and recorded a massive $1.8 billion profit last year thanks in part to government clean-up subsidies.
Wasserman paid tribute to Masao Yoshida, the courageous general manager of the Fukushima nuclear plant, whose actions (against company orders), he said potentially saved millions of people from a far worse faith. Yoshida has since died from cancer.
While it might seem that much of Wasserman's talk was apocalyptic and depressing, his tone was determined and upbeat, saying that, despite the mountain to climb, there are reasons to be hopeful as the tide is turning towards a revolution in renewable energy. There was the reminder that after Fukushima, Japan closed down all of its nuclear power plants, as did Germany, and that the industry appears to be losing support in France. Wasserman said that China plans to build more reactors, as does the UK (one very close to Ireland), but that the real momentum is now with green energy and Germany in particular is taking a lead in showing the world a new way. He proclaimed that technologies that were laughed at in the 70s are now on the verge of becoming mainstream and the future is a 'solartopia' made up of wind, wave and solar power among others. He said that neither fracking nor nuclear can solve employment or climate change challenges and that some major corporations are now seeing the light.
Siemens are trailblazing a shift in approach in Germany and energy giant G.E is building giant offshore windmills, while Norway and Portugal are pioneering wave power. Wasserman believes that the world will soon remember the great potential offered by the hemp industry which was once a huge force in the provision of food, shelter, building and energy before losing out to the petrochemical lobby. He called on us to take hope from the massive uptake in electric cars in the U.S and elsewhere and the ambitious plans of the Telsa motor company.
He encouraged the crowd to check out the work of the Rocky Mountain Institute and to remember that if anything is more powerful than the profit motive, that it is humanity's survival instinct.
The topic of Wasserman's talk was not easy going but his delivery and his attitude reminded me that it is people like him, people who dedicate their lives to people and planet, that are true heroes. They often go under the radar, but their work, in saying what some don't want to hear, forces humanity to face up to a dark side that affects us all. It is in acknowledging the dark that we can liberate the light, and Wasserman and his campaigning friends are doing us all a great service.
Fulbright scholar at Citizen Engagement Lab, Berkeley
“The only people who should be allowed to govern countries with nuclear weapons are mothers, those who are still breast-feeding their babies.” - Tsutomu Yamaguchi
News - Fukashima worse than previously reported