4 Apr 2011
Dead cities, dead planet, dead system
Unlearned lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima Do we collectively care about
our planet, our home, this Earth, or don't we? When the economic bottom line
rules decision-making, losses elsewhere can be staggering.
By Henry Shukman
April 3, 2011
As far as I could tell from the advertising at the hotel where I stayed in
Kiev last year, Ukraine's chief export these days is brides. But it wasn't
always that way. Twenty-five years ago this month, Ukraine's best-known
export was a whole lot of radiation.
After Reactor No. 4 blew up at Chernobyl power station on April 26, 1986,
the resulting disaster took two years and 650,000 people to clean up. Except
it will never really be cleaned up. Nuclear fallout and waste can be moved
and sequestered, but not deactivated. Even today the meltdown at Chernobyl
leaks radiation through cracks in the vast "sarcophagus" of steel and
concrete that was intended to seal it. The whole area around it is still
deeply, if unevenly, contaminated.
And that contamination isn't confined to Ukraine. A quarter-century later,
there are farmers in Wales whose lamb is too radioactive to sell, and just
last summer thousands of wild boar hunted in Germany were declared unfit for
human consumption for the same reason.
In 1973, the ecological prophet E.F. Schumacher wrote, "No degree of
prosperity could justify the accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic
substances which nobody knows how to make safe and which remain an
intangible danger to the whole of creation." He was talking about nuclear
waste from the relatively young nuclear power industry. To pursue nuclear
power, he declared, meant "conducting the economic affairs of man as if
people really did not matter at all."
Does anyone still read Schumacher's "Small Is Beautiful"? It came out nearly
40 years ago, but it might as well have been written last year for its
relevance today. Its central thesis is that we have allowed economics to
overtake philosophy, religion and morality as the dominant ideological force
in our world. Does it make sense to do X or Y? The answer will be found in
the numbers, in the bottom line. No other concerns need be considered.
Do we collectively care about our planet, our home, this Earth, or don't we?
If we've spent our whole life in the concrete jungle and don't know what
mountains, lakes and forests truly are, it may be hard to know just what
exactly there is to care about. As long as the refrigerator runs and the
lights go on when you flip the switch, you may never stop to ask where all
that power actually comes from.
Last year I went to Chernobyl to visit one place that was demonstrably
treated "as if people did not matter at all."