An image from the aftermath of the Fukushima earthquake is forever seared into my memory.
It is not the 16-metre wall of water turning towns to tinder.
Nor is it the empty school halls where the fallen had fled.
Or the ravaged faces of those who had lost everything.
It is the innocent pose of a toddler, arms spread as if to embrace his mother.
A man in a protective suit runs a geiger counter over his tiny body.
He is being tested for radiation after the meltdown of three reactors at the Daiichi nuclear plant.
One third of Fukushima’s children were affected.
Yet we seem to have collective amnesia about the event.
A coterie of columnists continues to bask in the nuclear glow.
On his Channel 10 show yesterday, Andrew Bolt expanded on the theme of his blog headlined, “Fukushima fact check: no deaths, just 10 people with some radiation”.
He quotes Gerry Thomas from the Chernobyl Tissue Bank: “Not an awful lot (of radioactive material) got out of the (Fukushima) plant.”
Thomas then praises the quick and thorough response by the Japanese government.
I must be living in a parallel universe.
The Economist magazine has collated reports into the catastrophe over the past year, and puts it succinctly:
“The reactors at Fukushima were of an old design. The risks they faced had not been well analysed. The operating company was poorly regulated and did not know what was going on. The operators made mistakes. The representatives of the safety inspectorate fled. Some of the equipment failed. The establishment repeatedly played down the risks and suppressed information about the movement of the radioactive plume, so some people were evacuated from more lightly to more heavily contaminated places”.
For two months, cabinet Ministers as high as the Prime Minister denied there’d been a meltdown.
They said it was Level Four.
It was eventually raised to the highest level, Seven – the same as Chernobyl.
Theoretical physicist Professor Frank von Hippel from Princeton University, who’s worked on nuclear policy for more than 30 years, says up to 1000 people will die from cancer as a result of being exposed to radiation there.
So much for “no deaths”.
Estimates of mortality rates from Chernobyl have recently been raised to around 27,000.
These denialists seem to suffer from cognitive dissonance.
Cheap oil is running out, gas extraction is plagued by environmental concerns, and alternative energy is costly.
Nuclear power is a simple solution; until you start asking questions.
At a lunch two years ago, I quizzed the head of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Doctor Ziggy Switkowski.
He said wind, solar and geothermal will never be able to supply enough baseload power.
When I asked about safety following the Chernobyl disaster, he replied, “That was an ageing Russian power station. Something like Chernobyl will never happen again”.
I believed him. Right up until the 11th of March last year.
He now says Australia is the perfect place for nuclear power stations because we’re not on a major fault line.
According to Associate Professor Malcolm Wallace from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne, “Despite popular belief, Australia is a geologically active continent with moving fault-lines and regular seismic activity”.
Within weeks of the Fukushima disaster, Germany and Switzerland announced they would close all nuclear reactors.
A year on, the vast majority is still operating.
John Ritch, director-general of the World Nuclear Association, believes it created a small pause – nothing more.
In the United States, tough new rules were put in place.
But nuclear energy analyst for Greenpeace Jim Riccio has told Bloomberg, “The industry is trying to do it on the cheap and not have safety-grade equipment. But who knows if the commercial-grade will function in the midst of a meltdown”.
Proponents of nuclear power say it’s safer than coal: air pollution from coal burning causes 100,000 deaths per year.
They say it’s the solution to climate change.
Frankly, this argument doesn’t have a very long half-life.
In the words of American physicist Amory Lovins, “Nuclear power is the only energy source where mishap or malice can kill so many people so far away; the only one whose ingredients can help make and hide nuclear bombs; the only climate solution that substitutes proliferation, accident, and high-level radioactive waste dangers”.
In Japan, the government is torn.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda wants to phase out nuclear power.
But it generates a-third of the country’s electricity.
A strong message was sent yesterday when nuclear refugees gathered in Fukushima.
Many areas will be uninhabitable for up to 20 years.
They are demanding all children be evacuated immediately.
“Leaving the situation like this, is like they are committing murder every day,” says organiser Setsuko Kuroda.
It’s worth asking the question: Is it worth risking the lives of our children, for the privilege of powering our homes?