Fukushima From Afar

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Journalists are often accused of cynicism and numbness in the face of tragedy. Yet by the end of last week, even the world’s hacks appeared shocked at the events that 2011 has brought thus far. Intercontinental war, unprecedented natural catastrophe, revolt and revolution as well as the continuation of the global financial crisis: it hasn’t stopped.

Last week, Japan was the theatre of tragedy, with shocking images of huge waves and serrated landscapes after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake was followed by a huge tsunami. Ten days after the earthquake, tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear accident devastated the country, the videos of death, destruction and panic continue to shock the international media.

The death toll is likely to be in the tens of thousands, says Dutch paper De Volkskrant, which reports Japanese authorities have again raised the number of dead and missing over the weekend, now thought be over 20,000 — representing a number far greater than the 6000 who died in 1996’s Kobe earthquake.

The damage left behind by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake has prompted some to search for parallels in the world history. Parisien daily Le Monde compares the event to the Lisbon earthquake in Portugal in 1755, which killed over 60,000 people.

"A large scale earthquake of magnitude 8.5 to 8.7 … was followed by a tsunami with waves of 5 to 20 metres submerging not just Lisbon, but also certain Caribbean islands and England," writes a historian in the paper, adding that the earthquake caused a huge philosophical polemic after Voltaire published a celebrated poem about the catastrophe in his novel Candide.

Refuting Gottfried Leibniz’s idea that God has organised the world rationally so that "each necessary evil is followed by a greater good," Voltaire questioned whether a good God could have created such havoc. "What crime was committed by the children [of Lisbon]?" the great Enlightenment philosopher asked. "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?"

With the authority of God no longer what it once was, it is Japan’s politicians who today are accused of standing by while a natural catastrophe turned into a manmade disaster. It is the men and women who ordered the construction of nuclear reactors in a seismically risky country who have awakened "a collective terror" linked to human’s "ancient fear of an invisible enemy," opines Italian weekly Espresso.

The magazine investigates why nuclear technology has come to be so widely used in Japan. Originally a solution "basically imposed on the Japanese" by the American occupation forces, which wanted to sell the newly developed technology, nuclear is today regarded as indispensable in Japan. Espresso quotes Hirotami Murakoshi, a progressive young hope in the governing Democratic party, who criticises the management of the Japanese nuclear industry by government, but not the technology per se: "I agree that real and credible information [about Fukushima]has been lacking, and that certain centres have not been run in a correct or transparent way, but an exit from nuclear is not only impossible, but also not wise".

It is the stubborn lack of reassessment of the nuclear industry — and the consistent inability of the Japanese government to be open about the situation at the Fukushima reactor — which have prompted much criticism in the international media over the past few days.

Madrid bi-weekly Diagonal offers its readers a hype-free scientific take on the situation in Fukushima. The mag quotes geologist Rámon Ortez, who praises the Japanese government’s management of the earthquake and tsunami aftermath: "in Spain, we would have had millions of deaths".

On the other hand, continues Diagonal, the government’s management of the Fukushima accident — originally caused by the combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami — has induced a controversy among scientists. Researcher at the Barcelona centre for Biomedical Research Eduard Farré says Fukushima is already a "slow motion Chernobyl". Farré continues that while the way radioactive material has been released at the two sites has varied — "in Chernobyl there was a single huge explosion, in Japan we’re having a slow loss of radioactive material and partial explosions in the two reactors" — the devastating impact will be similar.

Tough questions have to be asked about the Japanese political system after the events at Fukushima, says Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung. Pointing out that a Japanese inquiry in 2002 found that formerly state-owned Fukushima operator Tepco had "systematically broken" safety stipulations more than 200 times, the Süddeutsche blames a political class in Japan who are rarely held to account by voters for subsequent inaction at the site.

"The perestroika that Japan’s political system badly needs has scarcely begun. Incompetent and corrupt governments have rarely been voted out in the past … the media has failed to create a critical public sphere, rarely enquiring into the misdeeds of government and industry … well-informed, engaged opponents of nuclear energy hold tiny demos …[and]are surveilled, harassed and even persecuted by the police," writes Christoph Neidhardt in Tokyo.

Yet Japan is hardly the only nation where oversight of the nuclear industry is lacking, responds a correspondent of Brazilian magazine Carta Capital in Paris. France is one of the countries most dependent on nuclear energy, with 80 per cent of its energy deriving from nuclear technology, the magazine divulges.

Roughly half the French reactors are over 25 years old, continues Carta Capital, citing Stéphane Lhomme, president of activist research group the Centre for Nuclear Energy: "The reactors are at the end of their working lives and suffer from problems of age… [as well as]design defects that regularly cause malfunctions," says Lhomme, who worryingly asserts that France has been on the "verge of a nuclear disaster several times in the past decade."

The risks of nuclear energy may cause a rush back to fossil fuel technologies like oil and coal after Fukushima, writes Robert Misik in the Berlin newspaper Tageszeitung. Yet to do so would be wrong: "The contribution [of fossil fuels]to global warming is causing the polar ice-caps to melt, and threatens to cause huge rises in sea levels. In the worst case scenario … whole continents will become uninhabitable, and its possible that the life of billions will be severely effected".

Misik’s solution, which would require the "mobilising of whole societies" is a construction of an international "power grid," stretching from the Sahara to the North Pole, with solar energy captured in warm and sunny Africa coupled with huge power storage units trapping the energy in Norway, where cool temperatures promote optimum energy capture. Denouncing a debate over energy which forces citizens to chose between "illness and devastation," he concludes with a grim warning: "As long as we don’t attempt [a mass switch to renewable energy], we will be forced to choose between catastrophes; between a catastrophe like that in Fukushima — or else one of a different kind".

 

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