19 May 2011

This weekend I had the dubious honour of baby sitting a room.

Actually, it wasn't so much the room, as all the stuff inside the room. You see, we had an event at the embassy, with lots of kids and adults who weren't always entirely sober. Now, the main part of the event took place outside, since the weather was gorgeous, but since we couldn't be sure of that in advance, we had also prepared some indoors activities, in our lovely multipurpose hall.

The problem with this hall is the multipurpose part. There is a rather expensive AV-system there, and the walls are peppered with buttons and touch pads that control the AV-system, the air-conditioner, the lightning, the blinds, and so on. There is even a red button with a sign above it reading it capital letters - DO NOT TOUCH!!!  Obviously, this would be terribly tempting to touch...

Thus the baby sitting.

During my guard duty, two girls of about ten were playing in the hall. They were just that age. A little too young to realize the full consequence of their every action, but definitely old enough to know when they were doing something they were not supposed to. It goes without saying that they pushed the button.

Now, as far as DO NOT TOUCH!!!-buttons go, ours is relatively innocent. The only thing that happens is that it messes with the settings for the system, so it creates extra work for the next person using it. Hardly comparable to what I'm about to compare it with, but bear with me...

You see, these girls, knowing that they shouldn't be doing something, but not being able to resist it anyway, made me think of something else that is never far away from my thoughts these days. All things nuclear.

Mother nature produced radiation. But for the most part, she kept it neatly tucked away, out of our reach. As man grew old enough to realize there was something his mother was holding back, he decided to ignore that he didn't know exactly what consequences pushing the button would have, and just do it, even if he knew he probably shouldn't.

Humans wanted so bad to use these resources hidden from us. We put our best scientists to the task. They got some great results. Marie Curie's discoveries led to great achievements in medicine, but she eventually gave her life to her research. Like a Mummy's Curse, injuries from long-term radiation came sneaking in on the eminent scientist unexpectedly. Perhaps we should have taken this as a warning, and been content? Use x-rays and avoid developing these substances we did not know how to control further?

But there were more buttons to push. The power contained in the tiniest piece of all - the atom - was too tempting not to explore further. Like the explorers desperate to win the race to the South Pole in 1911, the curiosity - and perhaps the glory? - was too much to resist. In 1911 Robert Scott died in attempt to get back from the pole, after having discovered that he had been beaten by a countryman of mine, Roald Amundsen. Scott took four expedition members with him in death, people who willingly (I presume) had gone with him to try to be the first to go where no man had gone. The nuclear scientists who tried to do what no man had done,  also took others with them in death. Only the numbers are infinitely larger, and the willingness is more than questionable.

Japan knows the effect the enormous powers contained within a minuscule fraction can have. This nation has felt it up close, even if it is a long time ago. Stories of the horrors experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 66 years ago have been a part of what every Japanese child has been taught about their own country ever since. And yet. Japan too had to go nuclear when it came to energy.

I get it, in a way. With the bombs ending World War Two, then the subsequent 45 year standoff between the US and the USSR where both parties held enough nukes to destroy the planet multiple times. It must have felt good to finally be able to put the atomic power to positive use again. Nuclear didn't have to be a synonym to weapons. Power plants! Peaceful use of this wonderful energy!

How clever they must have felt, when the first nuclear power plant opened. It worked! It really did! It generated electricity, it was (relatively) cheap, it was - marvelously so - CLEAN! The nuclear age was upon us, and it was every bit as wonderful as imagined. People didn't even turn into spider-superheroes or other cartoony predictions. We touched the button, and the button had delivered.

Of course there was Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas warned us in The China Syndrome. Hippies sold anti-nuclear stickers. But the hippies also sold "save the planet"-stickers, and nuclear power plants was the only way to ensure stable, large-quantity, energy supplies that were also environmentally friendly. You can't have both, hippies.

I must admit I haven't been particularly nuclearly aware in my life. Norway doesn't have nuclear power plants - we don't really need them, due to an abundance of hydropower and then the oil and gas, of course. We have neighbours whose plants we aren't too fond of - an accident at the Russian plants in Murmansk, the British ones in Sellafield, or even the Swedish ones, might prove disastrous to Norway. We actually still have problems after Chernobyl, which due to the direction of the wind those fateful weeks in 1986 ensured that a significant amount of radioactive material ended up in the Norwegian mountains. But it never felt very close.

Here, in Japan, it definitely does. I've stood with you, Japan, through the crisis. I admired your high-held heads, your dignified grief, your determined reconstruction starting from day one. But if there is one thing I find hard to forgive in the midst of this, it is the nukes. Whose delusional idea was it to build a massive amount of nuclear power plants on a seismic fault line? Didn't it occur to you that even your superior technology might not be able to harness the wrath of Mother Earth once she decided that we had gone too far in pushing the buttons she deliberately asked us not to touch?

Those two girls discovered that pushing that particular button had limited effect. I asked them - a little sternly - not to touch anything, and explained why. They agreed not to do it again, and to my knowledge, they kept their promise. The system had to be reset, but nothing was broken.

The same cannot be said for the nuclear button. We pushed too hard, this time. It's time to find something else to play with.


Jan Morrison said...

wonderful post, Mari! Exactly right. Not too preachy and full of the right amount of info. Thank you.

Cruella Collett said...

Heh, I just realized I forgot to add a title. That's a first for me, I think...

And thank you. I feel so fed up with the whole thing by now. I can go away, but this thing won't. The nuclear age is not all they said it would be :(

CA Heaven said...

In the 19th century, Kelvin tried to calculate the age of the earth, from melting temperature of rocks, and cooling rates. His estimate was 20-40 million years, which is more than a factor 100 wrong (the current estimate is that the earth is about 4.5 billion years). Kelvin had neglected the most important effect; heat is produced continuously inside the earth, by nuclear decay. This is a natural process going on all the time. The problems arise when we try to concentrate and tame this processes inside a man-made concrete building.

Cold As Heaven

Shaharizan Perez said...

Mari, being around teenagers all day, I often experience the "rebellious, don't think of consequences" attitude. However, I love the connection you made with our exploration into nuclear, biochemical physics. The temptation was all too much and our resistance is all too little. :D

Sue said...

Mmmm. Lots to think about here. I love that about so many of your posts. I think, basically we've stuffed it up, but I suspect there's going to be an renewed push for nuclear energy here. sigh.