Nuclear Power….and Earth!

For thousands of years, humanity has been using different resources for food, energy, and all that it needs from Earth. The brain of humans has been developing over long periods of time, trying to find better resources for their increasing, unstoppable needs as their populations kept increasing. In the last two centuries, the consumption of the energy resources was incredible, exceeding the Earth’s ability to renew these resources.

Several advanced countries use the magnificently powerful, recently found nuclear energy generators to produce some of their populations’ needs of energy. Many scientists and researchers consider nuclear power to be a good substitute to the other shrinking energy resources like black gold and charcoal.
Claiming to be working safely and efficiently, the Japanese government had over fifty functioning nuclear reactors at one point, producing less than 20% of the energy use in Japan. Nonetheless, the Fukushima accident in 2011 required more caution and rethinking about nuclear energy production in Japan. As a result of that accident, more than 95% of nuclear generators in Japan have been shut.

On the other hand, some voices have been trying to reach light in this continually developing world, asking governments to stop generating nuclear energy. Dr. Hiroaki Koide, a research associate at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University, is one of some Japanese scientists who work on raising awareness regarding the inevitable hazards of nuclear energy. In 1970, Dr. Koide realized that the severe threats associated with generating nuclear energy cannot be contained. During a special meeting with him, he explained to us that no method to efficiently dispose nuclear waste has been found yet even in the most technologically advanced countries. For example, digging a very deep hall in the South Pole or in land to hide nuclear waste does not prevent it from affecting the Earth and causing damage to the environment. This being the case, the future of humanity, the future of our planet, is endangered.

His talk reminded me a lot of the information presented in the movie “HOME,” which emphasizes the unique equilibrium between our planet and the multitude of organisms that dwell on it, including us, humans. This outstanding movie is made available and free onYoutube to raise awareness and increase knowledge among people to respect and appreciate this home, the Earth.
I strongly recommend watching the movie, which is available in more than one language.

 

Fukushima

When I say the word “Fukushima”, it’s probably safe to assume that most people, myself included, would think of the nuclear meltdown.  That raises a lot of questions about nuclear power.  Some people might ask, why would a country that was devastated by nuclear bombs in World War II attempt to harness nuclear power, especially when they knew how bad the damage could be?  However, it seems like people have started to realize that.  The only difference in opinions is how bad the situation is to begin with.

First, we met with two Fukushima prefectural officials, and they explained their plan to revitalize Fukushima.  They were kind enough to take time from their schedules to speak with us, and to give us postcards and other things that are native to Fukushima.  When asked about the nuclear radiation, they had said that most of the radiation was gone, and that it was safe to move back to Fukushima.

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The other nuclear expert that we spoke to was Koide-sensei.  He was a little more frank about his beliefs concerning the nuclear damage.  He believed that Japan had already done irrevocable damage to itself due to its use of nuclear power.  He wanted them to stop using nuclear power completely, but he wasn’t sure what sustainable resource could be used instead.

Sustainability is definitely a buzzword right now, and with good reason.  We don’t want to waste limited resources more than we already have.  That’s why I think the research being done to find alternatives to nuclear power is commendable.

Fukushima’s Future

On the first day of our trip, we were very fortunate to meet with an official of Fukushima Prefecture and learn about the current situation and the future of the Prefectural. It has almost been 2 years since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The disaster had caused great damage to many sectors of the Prefecture. Even after 2 years of working to recover from the disaster, Fukushima prefecture had to bear a bad reputation in its name. This might largely due to the misconception that the whole Fukushima prefecture was contaminated with radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Fukushima prefecture has an area of almost 14,000 km2, while the highly contaminated area is only 20km radius around the nuclear power plant.

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A group photo of us and the officials of Fukushima Prefecture

Nevertheless, Fukushima prefecture is working hard to recover the contaminated area and rebuild their reputation. They have many projects planned to restore the area. One worth noticing project is the promoting of renewable energy for the prefecture. They aimed to be completely independent of nuclear power and rely entirely on renewable energy source by 2040. I’m looking forward to hear more updates on this project in the next few years.

Sustainability

Does ability to fluently speak a language mean that you will not have any troubles and misunderstandings communicating with people from a culture where this language is native? Neither of us can really speak Japanese yet, but even without knowing Japanese perfectly, we clearly understand now that the answer is no.

Cultural Sustainability

I have heard about specifics in Japanese culture several times, but never had a clear idea of how exactly all this looks like. It is hard to say what is more important in this country – to know the language on an appropriate level, so that you can say what you want to say and understand what people tell you, or to be aware of cultural peculiarities, social norms, and unspoken rules. Such peculiarities are very important in every culture, but I believe that in Japanese culture they have their own, special place, and people of all ages value them a lot. We, foreigners, can be forgiven for not knowing and thus unconsciously violating them from time to time. However, the impression that we make in such situations is not the best one. But Japanese people are really delicate and tactful, so they may never tell you that you are doing something wrong. Japanese people themselves, on the other hand, can never be forgiven for violating the rules and norms that they are all supposed to know.

All this may sound too complicated and completely unnecessary, and yet it is not so at all. I personally see some kind of charm and specialty in this subtlety of communication. This shows that Japanese people have brought their own traditions and customs through ages without being completely influenced by other cultures. They have not lost their mentality, which I find worthy of great respect.

Cultural Sustainability

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Language Sustainability

But mentality is not the only thing that Japanese people have been keeping for ages. I find Japanese language magnificent as well. There is no surprise that it is difficult to learn for non-native speakers, but I am certain that it is worth learning. Though kanji characters may sometimes seem complicated, if you look at them closer, they all make perfect sense. Besides, the characters are not meant to be written in a hurry, and that is why each of them carry special atmosphere of calmness and concentration in every stroke. Exceptions are common in Japanese language, the amount of characters is enormous, but all this is an essential part of the whole Japanese culture, and it cannot be replaced by any other type of language.

We talked to a lot of people during our trip, and most of them did not know English, which is known as an international language. It may be seen as an inconvenience in communication, but for me it is clear evidence that Japanese people value their language very much and do not want to change it for any other, even if it could open lots of new opportunities to them. It is an illustration of self-sufficiency, rather than estrangement.

Language


Environmental Sustainability

The self-sufficiency which I mentioned above can also be seen in a way how environmental resources are used in Japan. Land of the Rising Sun is small, especially considering such big population, and the situation with resources can be tough. But our visit to Takayuki Mori’s environmental friendly house left a deep impression on me – not only because it was very cold in it (which is not surprising, as Mori-san does not waste the energy when it is not necessary), but mostly because it showed that people in Japan know how to efficiently use what they have and how to live in harmony with the environment that surrounds them. Using solar panels, reusing, recycling, and consuming only the amount of energy that they need without wasting it for nothing – everything mentioned is clear evidence of wise usage of resources that Japan has got.

A lot of places that we visited, both in big cities and in the countryside, were surrounded by strong green trees, crystal clear water of lakes and rivers, and were full of fresh air. On the other hand, everything is made for people’s lives to be convenient. The recycling system is greatly developed, and no garbage can be seen on the streets. Even when me took a local train (which I cannot call a subway train as it is not underground), we could see beautiful mountains most of the time, which fascinated me a lot. People and nature are neighbors in Japan. They are friends, not a consumer and a prey, and not rivals.

Golden Temple

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Nuclear Sustainability

Another thing that I found surprising was a lecture on nuclear sustainability in Japan given to us by Professor Hiroaki Koide. I am strong in neither biology nor chemistry, so there were things that I did not completely understand, but I got the main point from the very beginning: most of what I had thought about nuclear power is not true at all.

First of all, nuclear power is not as sustainable as it is believed to be. It uses uranium, and we do not have a large amount of it left, so soon enough people will run out of it. Second, nuclear power does not prevent global warming; rather, it makes it worse by heating the oceans and the whole atmosphere. So this is just another myth about the benefits of nuclear energy, which is not actually true. Also, the harm caused by radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants is enormous. And the worst thing about it is, there is no safe way to dispose it.
All this, along with most people’s unawareness of what the nuclear power plants really are, is not just a problem that needs solution. It is a disaster that can by no means be ignored, but yet it often is. And this is really frightening.
I, however, believe that the way out of this situation can and will be found soon. During these eight days, I saw myself that Japanese people care a lot about environment of their country, and nowadays they tend to use more and more environmentally friendly resources and products, which shows their deep concern in what is happening in their country. This not only gives me hope, but also assures me that the solution will be found soon.

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In conclusion, I can tell one thing: after visiting Japan myself I realized that I had had no idea what this country is. And this is normal, I guess, as I barely can imagine the whole country with its people, nature, and language by only reading my textbook and searching information on the Internet. After all, it is better to see something once than to hear about it hundred times, right?
But actually, there is one more thing that I know for sure: I will definitely visit Japan again, when I have an opportunity to do it. Eight days are enough to have some adventures and to form an idea about the culture and current state of Japan, but it is definitely not enough to explore this fascinating country.

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Influential Minds Part 1

Two of the five academic meetings on the sustainability trip left a very strong impression on me: those with Hiroaki Koide and Takayuki Mori. I’ll be writing about those meetings and the impact they had on myself, in two parts.

Professor Hiroaki Koide

Pictures weren’t allowed in the place that we met Professor Koide, so here’s a shot of how beautiful Japan is.

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Professor Koide’s name can be found, among other places, toward the top of wikipedia’s article “Anti Nuclear Power Movement In Japan“. Before meeting him, Professor Armstrong and Dr Takahashi handed out a pamphlet to the group, by the Christian Council of Japan summarizing the anti-nuclear power facts, with “Hiroaki Koide” listed on the back of it as editorial supervisor. When we met him,  the first thing I noticed about him was his beautiful loose walking posture when he greeted us outside, and his engaging, personal seated posture while he gave us the talk.  These are subtle hints of an honest human, to me. His lecture for us was a beautiful song of doom and gloom. Some of the main points from the pamphlet and his lecture:

  • The volume of radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants is vastly understated. Japan’s radioactive power plants have produced fission product equal to 1.2 million Hiroshima bombs. There is no safe way to store or dispose of nuclear waste, what’s done can’t be undone.
  • When I heard the above, I thought I was hearing a measure of proportion deliberately misappropriated for the sake of making alarming headlines. I raised my hand and asked the professor, “But radioactive waste isn’t the same thing as bombs, right?” His answer was that I’m under the mistaken impression that these plants were made to produce energy, and that nuclear plants were first brought into existence for the creation of weapons materials, they produce energy as a side effect. The pamphlet backs this up.
  • This is not green energy at all. The pamphlet has a diagram of how these plants operate using sea water intake and outtake back into the sea, and as a consequence are warming the sea. They kill wildlife, heat the ocean, and contribute to global warming.
  • Nuclear power is less sustainable than fossil fuels. They use uranium to produce energy, and uranium will run out in less time than fossil fuels would.
  • Many scientists and politicians that are for nuclear power are aware of the dangers involved, he said at the meeting. Professor Koide stated in a lecture on youtube, he believes it has to do with a race to military power, and has nothing to do with energy production. It was also stated (at the meeting with him and on the pamphlet) that there is more than enough power in the grid, the energy from these plants are not needed.

I took a few deep breaths. It’s an awfully bad pun that these things are called power “plants”. We’re all very lucky to be alive, and politics is corrupt – two things I always know in the back of my mind, but it’s never a comfortable thing to discuss(I’ll talk about my feelings on the matter more in the next post). Toward the end of his lecture he started reaching for “where to go from here”, regarding the energy crisis. Japan is pushing green power initiatives following the Fukushima disaster, but professor Koide’s feelings on the subject are that no energy is perfect and all energy has drawbacks, and therefore society should strive to use less energy.

I can make a comparison regarding human beings and limitations here: many of my generation get excited to buy more hard drive space, only to find that if we have 5 terabytes of space, we fill 5 terabytes with stuff. We get exponentially larger amounts than we think we’ll ever need, and suddenly we find new ways to use it, and forget what life was like without it. If someone told us that our terabyte harddrives were destroying the world and threatening our lives, could we change ourselves in the reverse direction, arbitrarily limiting ourselves? It’s what Professor Koide is saying we must do.

Giving it some thought, the “energy crisis” doesn’t have to be seen as crisis of science finding a greater power source. The crisis is arbitrary as our society is using so many things we don’t need. The energy crisis could be looked at as a cultural problem and not a technological one. Creating a more efficient, sustainability society was discussed at length at the next day’s meeting with Takayuki Mori.

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Japan really is beautiful.