Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chernobyl and now Japan

Twenty-five years ago, I wrote the article below. I wrote it as a warning, and to make people think. Now, what I feared so long ago has come to pass. Can we learn from this catastrophe, or do we wait for “the third time is the charm?” I fear we are really running out of time.

Our hearts go out to the people of Japan, their suffering is unimaginable. They have been battered by an earthquake and tsunami of Biblical proportions and now they are in the middle of a cascade failure of nuclear reactors with a far greater destructive potential than Chernobyl. We may feel, or breathe, the effects of that failure around the world.

Stephen M. Osborn

©1986 Stephen M. Osborn

The Time: Summer, 1956, shortly before dawn.
The Place: A passageway leading to a lightwell aft of the conning tower of the escort carrier, U.S.S. Badoeing Strait, at sea off Bikini Atoll.

An eighteen year old boy stood with his back to the lightwell, his arms tightly crossed over his eyes, shivering with anticipation as he listened to the voice on the intercom. Other than that, absolute silence reigned about the ship.

"...Five ...Four...Three...Two...One...Zero."
Intense light! Seen right through the arms and clenched eyelids.
Heat! As though standing before an opened furnace door.
Eerie silence.

After a time, the light began to fade; the boy cautiously removed one arm from before his face and winced, for it was back, shining through the remaining arm, but again fading. When he could finally open his eyes, he squinted up the lightwell at a sky so brilliantly blue it dwarfed the noon. Finally, he peeked around the conning tower at the fireball and glowing cloud of "Cherokee," later described to us as a "twenty megaton plus thermonuclear device, detonated at an altitude of twenty thousand feet, at a distance of approximately thirty miles."

Now that young sailor is forty-eight, with a grown daughter and a seventeen year old son. He can still, when he closes his eyes, see those glowing clouds in his memory and feel the shock wave hammer the ship. He still, upon occasion, has the nightmares.

I have written elsewhere of my impression of that nuclear test series and the effect that it has had on my life; on all of our lives. Every time the "cold war" is warmed up, the "Star Wars Program" is extolled or more missiles are deployed, I go through agonies of depression and apprehension. I write, to the Kremlin, to the White House, to the U.N.

The U.N. sends me literature and refers me to my government. My government answered me once. The State Department sent me a copy of one of Reagan's speeches and told me that the President was as concerned about peace as I was and that was why we needed to build more modern, efficient missiles - and retire the obsolete ones. The Kremlin never replies, but a couple of times they have used almost the same language as in one of my letters. A coincidence, no doubt, but it made me feel good.

For a time, we cooperated in space, visited each other's stations, even designed the docking bays so both nation's ships could use them. Now, we are to use space as a battleground. We are to lift satellites into orbit with a nuclear device on board. Good thinking, when we are zero for three and can't even put a weather satellite in orbit.

If we get them up there, they are supposed to be detonated through a device to zap "most" of the incoming missiles with x-rays. Of course, some ten percent are going to get through.

I remember when they detonated a nuclear warhead in space and it screwed up the Heaviside layer so badly that radio communications were knocked out for weeks. They quickly made a treaty never to do that again. We have a rather finely tuned set of screens shielding us from solar radiation. We are not too sure what it would take to damage it beyond restoration, but the scientists have a pretty good idea of what life, or the lack of it, would be like without that screen. With the magic of "Star Wars," they seem to have forgotten all about that test and its effects. (My son just walked in and asked me if I had seen the weather report in the Chronicle? "For the first time in history," he said, "'Scattered showers this evening with minor traces of radioactive iodine.' Wow!")

That brings us to the point of this article; Chernobyl.

Chernobyl was a minor incident. A single reactor failure. The explosion was a simple chemical one, the fire a chemical fire, rather intense and hard to extinguish, but simply an extension of a coal mine fire. The amount of nuclear fuel was probably a few tons at best.

Yet the effect of that small incident has been felt, physically, half way around the earth and the cloud is still moving East. The area surrounding the plant, the local reservoirs, crops, livestock, the earth itself, contaminated perhaps for decades. [now estimated to be 300-600 years] Discussions are going on as to removing the soil and replacing it with uncontaminated soil from elsewhere. Very good. Bring in livestock, new plant stock, new soil. Perhaps in a few years it will be just a memory.

Multiply that by even a small nuclear exchange, or perhaps a major meltdown, say a whole complex of reactors. Where are you going to put the contaminated soil? Where are you going to find the uncontaminated soil to replace it with? We can't even dispose of our current nuclear waste from normal operations safely to date.

Oh! We're in high dudgeon about the Soviets not keeping us informed of what was going on. At Three Mile Island, the state officials couldn't get any information about what was going on for days, just the usual "Situation under control," followed by "A small. amount of radiation was released," then "Well, it was a bit more than we thought," etcetera. When the Titan exploded at Vandenberg, the local officials could get nothing from the military about the toxic cloud of Red Fuming Nitric Acid vapor drifting across the landscape. Union Carbide wasn't exactly free with information on either of their spills and just try to get toxic dump information out of any company or agency without a court order. Come on, now, the Russians didn't do anything differently than we do.

We crow about our containments, but they cannot withstand infinite pressure. Why do you think they valved off radioactive vapors at TMI?

Russia offered a moratorium, unilaterally, on nuclear testing. No more tests, period. Reagan said, "You can come over and watch ours." We then proceeded to set off three tests, while the Russians kept saying, "No more testing, please." After we set off three, they called off the moratorium and Reagan said, "See, the Russians can't .be trusted." Since then we set off another one. Who is showing bad faith?

Our seismographic stations around the world can pinpoint any explosion over a few hundred tons. That makes verification quite easy. We could have supported the moratorium. Ending the arms race is the only thing in the world that makes sense. It is bankrupting everything but the military-industrial complex. Even a one-sided nuclear attack is going to destroy civilization and most of the life on the entire planet. We are getting a little fallout from Chernobyl. What does the government think would happen if we hit the Soviet Union with everything we've got before they could get anything off the ground? They would be the lucky ones, most of them would be quickly dead, we might take months, but we would have sealed our fate and that of the rest of the world as well.

The lesson of Chernobyl, TMI, the Fermi Plant near Detroit, Bikini, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Nevada and Utah is clear; Star Wars, hardened sites and missile subs have nothing to do with it. We must leave the nuclear beast alone until it is tamed and its waste made harmless. The best way to do this is to talk, and listen, then act to dismantle this beast. Perhaps, if we do this and the world heaves a collective sigh of relief, we can then bend our efforts to solving some of the problems of hunger, poverty, disease and illiteracy here on earth. With that under control, perhaps we can even begin the joint adventure of exploring the stars.

It is twenty-five years since Chernobyl. We have many more reactors in service, the cold war arms race has begun yet again, to the enrichment of the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Complex and the death or crippling of millions around the world as we pursue endless wars for oil and mineral wealth in other countries. Now we have a cascade reactor failure in Japan with possibly up to five reactors and their cooling ponds melting down and spewing into the atmosphere

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