By Arthur Binard
My history teacher in junior high, Mr. Kelly, wasn't fond of counterfactuals. On the first day of the school year, he announced, "History doesn't deal in 'ifs.' In my class, you'll learn about what actually occurred, and we'll consider why and how. Save any 'what-might-have-beens' for your free time after school."
His point was valid, to a certain degree. You could spend a whole semester imagining how things might have turned out differently if George Washington had surrendered to the British or if Tokugawa Ieyasu had turned down Hideyoshi's deal to move to Edo. Such historiography is full of interest, but in the end, you're left with the same reality. No matter how many counterfactuals you manage to stack up, the factual on the other side of the scales will always be weightier.
Even so, whenever there's a chance, the stream of my consciousness flows toward "if." I suppose that's why I ended up writing poetry instead of history books. This past month has been terribly "iffy." I've spent part of every waking hour of every day wondering what might have been if, on March 11, my friends in Iwate and Miyagi had been given another five minutes to flee to higher ground. If only they'd had one extra minute … if only 30 seconds more … .
I've also been pondering what could have happened if Aomori, the northernmost prefecture in Honshu, had gotten hit even harder by the earthquake and tsunami. There's a massive nuclear reprocessing plant in a village called Rokkasho, on Aomori's Pacific coast. I know the area well, having worked as a commentator for Aomori Broadcasting these past 16 years. The Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant is one of those operations that sound scary when you first hear about them, and then become progressively more horrifying as you learn the details.
The plant stands atop an active fault line and stores some 3,000 tons of used fuel rods. The plan is to chop up those rods, sift out the plutonium and uranium, then reuse the stuff to make ever more dangerous MOX fuel rods. This reprocessing, even under ideal conditions, would release plenty of radiation into the environment and when it comes to nuclear waste, conditions are never ideal. Test operations have revealed numerous miscalculations and blunders, and the spent fuel pool is filled to capacity. At any time, a loss of power or a failure in the cooling system could allow the rods to heat up and burn. Indeed, the plant did lose power March 11, but luckily, its backup diesel generators happened to work. Although the pool leaked hundreds of liters of radioactive water, the situation didn't become as serious as the multiple meltdowns in Fukushima. But what if next time … .
The dangers of nuclear power are so extreme, they require that we use all the "ifs" in our imagination. If 3,000 tons of spent fuel gets out of hand, the human race faces extinction. What if Ieyasu and Washington had poured their tax money into constructing nuclear power plants? The costs of dealing with their spent fuel would have bankrupt us all a century or two ago. Even if we manage to shut down hundreds of reactors around the world this year, the children of the children of the children of the children of the children of our children will be paying through the nose just to store the deadly waste forever. And what if they mess up, the way we have at Fukushima and Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island?
We need to get out of the nuke business now, no ifs or buts about it.
Shukan ST: April 15, 2011
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