Neither Here Nor There

Japan and the atom

Published on March 29, 2011

The events in Japan in the last few weeks have been horrifying to watch. The sudden loss of so much life is a frightful thing to contemplate.

The earthquake was as bad as anyone hopes never to see again, but the tsunami that followed was clearly killing thousands as it swept ashore, though the authorities will be unable to recover all the bodies, so the figure will never be certain.

A lot of people.

To behold the destruction that an unleashed ocean’s immeasurable power is capable of wreaking on a defenceless shoreline is awe-inspiring.

We, in this province, owe many thanks and much respect to the sea. The salt water at our door feeds us, gives us a means of transport and is the reason why most of us are here, but we know we must be wary of it. Nature is supreme.

As the Ocean Ranger and more recently Hurricane Igor have taught us, we must respect nature, because the consequences of not paying it the attention it deserves are monumental.

The much greater damage that still awaits Japan will be the result of just that. Japan was inhabited millennia before humankind knew the earth’s surface was made of tectonic plates and the fault lines where they meet are places of danger.

So, not respecting the threat of earthquakes can be understood. Though experience should have taught the Japanese the threat of tidal waves could not be ignored.

But let’s be honest. If something happens only very infrequently, we have the tendency to shrug it off, or at least not fret about it too much. Or, more importantly plan for it.

This is where the odds come in.

What are the chances there will be any damage if I build my wharf only as high as my neighbour’s? He’s over 80 years old and the water has never been higher than the top of the wharf he helped his father build, when he was just a boy.

So why don’t I build my wharf the same height as his? So I did.

It was only two years later my neighbour and I were standing together on his wharf up to our ankles in water and he was saying to me, “You know Peter boy, I’ve never seen the water as high as this. Never.”

I looked across to my new wharf, ankle deep in water, and thought one of the things that should affect any decision you make when you are weighing up the odds is the possibility of change.

Another, and one Japan will be facing shortly, is this. When you are weighing the odds, it is every bit as important to weigh the consequences.

Little kids, fairly early on, learn that if you run as fast as you can and jump as far as possible, the odds are pretty good you will make it across the puddle without getting your feet wet. And if you don’t, what odds.

You get a scolding from your mother. You’ll survive that.

That’s very different from figuring the odds look pretty good you can run across the road before that oncoming car gets here. Mostly it’s young boys who think this way.

Maybe girls are more aware of the importance of consequences in decision-making.

But the plight that faces Japan today is all about consequences. In building their nuclear power plants the Japanese designers, famous worldwide for the methodical approach, the diligence and attention to detail that has made their auto industry the world leader, can do nothing about the consequences.

Because plan all you like to avoid it, nobody can do anything about the consequences of nuclear power run amok. They are horrible beyond imagining.

I pray the people of Japan, after all they have had to face so far, will be saved the consequences of a total nuclear meltdown.

I was in my 20s, getting started in the cartoon and drawing racket, when I was offered an appealing job which would have been challenging, would have taught me a lot and paid very well. After asking a lot a lot of questions of people who knew about the topic, and doing a whole lot more soul-searching, I said no.

The company was Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. At the time they had as good a record as anyone in the business for building nuclear reactors, but I just couldn’t do it.

Though it should have been, my concern was not about the consequences of a nuclear meltdown. What I couldn’t understand was how they were going to take out the garbage.

Where were the used-up fuel rods going to go? 

No longer useful in producing power, but still pumping out frightening levels of radiation, they would continue to do so for a very long time. They were very, very dangerous. They still are.

Some solutions for taking out the garbage included drilling far down into the granite of the Canadian Shield and burying the spent fuel rods, or encasing them in concrete and dumping them into the deepest part of the ocean.

These didn’t sound like safe long-term plans to me. I didn’t get it. I still don’t.

Nuclear energy is clean, efficient and green, when it works. The odds are good nothing bad will happen. But when it does, the consequences are too horrendous to think about.

I cross my fingers for Japan, and all the rest of us who use nuclear power. Everybody, all together now, cross your fingers.

When you are not showing Nature the respect it deserves, you need all the luck you can get.