01.05.2011

Staying Awake

Nuclear and carbon pricing issues demand our attention and personal responsibility
It's tempting in the wake of Japan's nuclear disaster and carbon pricing controversy at home to shrug our shoulders and leave it to the experts. But, says Adrian Glamorgan, it's time to really wake up.

On the slopes of Welsh Snowdonia are 300 farms where the sheep are regularly checked with a Geiger counter, especially if they are off to market. If the Geiger counter shows more than 645 becquerels, the farmer cannot sell them. Such farmers and their animals are still affected by an event 25 years ago: the meltdown at Chernobyl, a nuclear fire the other side of Europe. Yet they are still paying the price, thousands of kilometres away, a quarter of a century on. A special licence is even needed to move these sheep around the farm every few weeks.

The Welsh farmers of these smallholdings were told in 1986 they would only have this nuclear problem for several weeks. It wasn't so. Irradiated grass is eaten by sheep and concentrates radioactive caesium, and this "bioaccumulation" continues up the food chain when humans consume the meat. And so farmers pass their time by Geiger-counting sheep.

The traditional purpose of counting sheep is to help us go off to sleep. But in our age of confident promises from the World Nuclear Association, which speaks of nuclear renaissance, first we need to go to sleep in order for the Geiger-counting to begin.

In 1986, the French were kept insulated in their dream at the time of Chernobyl, because their government imposed a complete media silence so no one would know that nuclear power had terrible risks and repercussions. Children played outside as the nuclear cloud crossed France.

Today, despite French dependence on nuclear power for energy (and to fuel their nuclear arsenal), the events in Fukushima, and the pervasiveness of the Internet have shown the French some unpalatable truths. They are waking up and, according to the polling, saying no to nuclear energy for the first time.

As I write, the brave men at Fukushima nuclear power plant still struggle with life and death, a month on, with no end in sight: the Japanese media call them their "nuclear samurai". Yet these valorous souls know no special bushido code: they were only ever employed as manual workers. These lowly paid workers, it has been reported, did not even wear radiation detectors on their lapels for the first week following the tsunami, so they do not know what radioactive dosages they may, or may not, have received directly. They battle on, loyal to the electric company and the people of Japan, as the disaster is rated to International Nuclear Event Scale 7, the runaway level of Chernobyl.

The best they can do at the moment is cool the radioactive cores of their wrecked nuclear plant with seawater, for a time taking saltwater to 7.5 times legal radiation levels, (some workers receiving radioactive burns wading in the contaminated water), desperately hoping the Pacific will take their problems away.

Alas, nuclear elements bio-accumulate: the water dilutes but the radioactivity concentrates as it works through a food chain: many little fish get eaten by fewer, bigger fish, and those irradiated fish get eaten, ultimately, by humans. This process may take some time, but, of course, the half life (the time taken to lose half its radioactivity) of silvery-gold caesium is 30 years, and silver-grey plutonium, 88 years. The seawater "solution" merely postpones a terrible problem, leaving it for others, later, to dine on.

All through the first few days and weeks of the Fukushima experience, the World Nuclear Association has talked down the deadly risks and talked up the nuclear power possibilities. Using phrases such as the "long term sustainability of nuclear energy", they asked us to overlook the skirmishes with meltdown. In fact, if there is a cardinal rule of public relations, it is to deny there is a problem, and, in this case, insist the Level 7 disaster proves the safety of the system - so long as one takes away the unpredictabilities. The very confidence and reassurance is calculated to settle those of us who know nothing about becquerels, so the men in nice suits can get on with it, even in the bare-face of a wide prefecture evacuation. Not even an earthquake and tidal wave have stopped the nuclear lobby.

The father of public relations was Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud's nephew. When it came to working out how to get women to take up smoking, or persuading people to use and throw away new-fangled disposable cups, or enabling fruit companies to invade Central American countries, Bernays wrote the rulebook. (So much so that, in a horrible twist of fate, German Nazi Dr Goebbels used Bernays' 1928 book Propaganda to engineer anti-Semitism). Bernays was unusually frank: "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it."

But it cannot be that we are like sheep. Or it ought not to be. Our defence, if there is one, is to think for ourselves, to rigorously examine matters, and to not rely on the assurance of others, or to allow our confusion about a complex debate to put us to sleep. The only way through this is by our own willed effort: considering evidence and patiently asking questions, to find out for ourselves through scientific reliable data, against which we can determine if something is real or not.

But it is not all a matter of the mind. We need to check what we find against our values, to check where our thinking is taking us, thus practising responsibility. These may seem worldly matters, but they are a deep ethical-spiritual practice too!

Right now, there is another storm in Australia, about carbon pricing. It may seem much less critical than a nuclear accident, though they connect in a few ways. The idea of the carbon tax is to put a price on carbon dioxide so that anyone who produces a lot of greenhouse gas pollution, for example, a company making electricity through coal-fired power stations, pays a lot more tax than, say, a solar panel producer. The reason we need to do this is to shift our economy away from industries that contribute to climate change to job-creating industries that do not pollute.

This tax would both discourage polluters from polluting and give quite a lot of incentive to change. Coal-fired plants need to give way to renewable energy, or at least adopt energy-saving features, and the money collected from the taxes can go towards developing a commercial renewable energy industry, and softening the blow of end-use fuel prices to consumers, especially low-income earners.

At some point, a few years from now, the tax will be replaced by a permit that people can buy and sell, which will reward low pollution producers and encourage high polluters to improve their processes, a market mechanism rather than a tax. The price would then adjust to accurately reflect "the price of carbon."

This process will happen at the same time as the electricity corporations across Australia have to heavily re-invest in new power stations, because the old ones are wearing out.

So, on the one hand, it is perfect timing to signal to energy-makers the kind of technology they should invest in (renewable), while on the other hand, opportunists can safely predict higher electricity prices. Even if we never ever pay a carbon tax, they will be right - our electricity charges will go up because of the need to re-invest in our electricity infrastructure.

The public relations experts will be in overdrive now and we have already seen their work. First, sow doubt over climate change, suggesting that they are sceptical, don't "believe" in it, as if it is a matter of faith rather than science. Then scare people about rising electricity prices, even though we know electricity prices will have to go up no matter what, in order to stop action on climate change. Then create astroturf (green like grass but not real) organisations that "revolt" over tax. Stir up the debate, confuse it, and throw in a few numbers of declining poll support for the government, and we hurtle into chaos, and very bad policy, with long term consequences for ourselves and others.

A reality check is the farmers Geiger-counting their sheep today, 25 years on from Chernobyl. It should never have come to this. To the brave manual workers of Fukushima: you need much more support than you have had, but at least you have many Australians' good wishes. But you will need much more.

We live in a time where being personally responsible has never been more important; spruiking politicians might want us to shrug and deal ourselves out of the conversation; the siren songs of the public relations experts beguile us to put ourselves into a comatose sleep comforted by reassuring promises. It takes effort to shake the torpor. To stay awake is the task of our time.

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