09.07, Tuesday 15 Mar 2011 Link to this post
Every morning I wake up to continuing news from the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, which engineers are fighting to control. The problems - fires, explosions, venting of radioactive gases, a fire in the spent fuel area, the risk of fuel rods melting and releasing highly toxic substances into the environment - are the result of broken cooling systems damaged by a tsunami, itself the result of an earthquake, natural disasters in which large numbers of people died, in highly local but massively multiple tragedies.
I write as if you didn't already know, mainly to wrap my own head around what's going on. From the other side of the globe, I really can't grasp what's been happening on the western Pacific Rim these last few months. The floods in Australia, earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, Japan's continuing crisis. I don't have the imagination, it's a struggle to put myself there.
There are a few dozen engineers, and they're fighting, warring really against this problem, this overheating. And there's little or no electricity, and everything they're doing is outside operational parameters. It's become chaotic. I can just about get a little-finger hold on what that's like. They said on the radio this morning (or maybe overnight) that the current attempts to cool the overheating fuel rods are all improvised now. The engineers are using fire engines to pump sea water in through internal sprinklers. It's rumoured that one of the fires started when a fire engine ran out of fuel and could no longer pump. I can almost grasp that, the scrambling, the constant brainstorming and the constant new emergencies. I can't quite get the rest. The danger of death from radioactivity, the hundreds of thousands of people evacuated from the local area. That's the size of the whole city where I went to school!
The nuclear aspect touches old fears. I was born and grew up in the Cold War. I was almost 12 years old in December 1989, at the time of the Malta Summit, when the corner was turned, detente found, and the end of the War declared. I'd had a childhood talking about atom bombs with my friends, and having nightmares about mushroom clouds and fallout. The fiction we read in class was often enough about nuclear apocalypse. A sudden escalation was not off the cards. I remember the first day, in the early 1990s, that I realised that the weight of possibility of nuclear war had lifted. I felt like I could breathe for the first time.
1991-2001 were blessed years in the West. The Cold War had ended, and the effects of foreign policy and a callousness to the rest of the world had not yet cross-multiplied with psychopaths and boomeranged into terrorism. There was crazy growth and there were easy recessions. India and China were off the radar, changing slowly, but not the obvious inheritors of global cultural leadership. The West was it.
I feel no guilt. That was the most carefree decade I'll have.
So the events in Fukushima touch an old terror for me.
They'll never read this, but I wish the very best of luck to all those fighting to bring the reactors under control. You're in my thoughts.
I want to end on something more abstract.
Matt Jones and I were talking in the studio yesterday and he mentioned the Holocene -- the geological period lasting from 12,000 years ago, the end of the most recent glacial period, until now. All of recorded human history is within the Holocene. But now, maybe (the story goes), we're in the Anthropocene: the epoch in which
human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth's ecosystems.
It's the era of human-altered climate and of artificial islands. When archeologists in a million years dig deep down and take a core sample through 2011 AD, they'll look at the thin, white, compressed layer of undecomposed plastic waste and iridium traces - a geological layer 100% due to human civilisation - and they'll point to it and say "Ah, the Anthropocene," before turning it into shimmering jewellery and what-have-you.
The thing we have to realise is that this isn't an era of control. Our attempts to control the world have multiplied so much that they themselves have become part of the system, part of the world, and the entire thing has once again become chaotic, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. We live in a world in which we must constantly adapt, improvise, and take care. We must show it respect (the world is not a resource: it is as big as us); we have to swim through it, not walk over it. Engineering is not only problem solving, and not only a way to manage risk, but an improvisational skill. We're going to need that.
It's all very grim in Fukushima. And I'm really feeling that grimness this morning, apologies for passing it on.