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Come Live with Us and Be Our Neighbour

The world has been giving us so much support in this time of dire need. If nothing else, this tragedy in Japan has taught me that emergency draws out our true colours, and what I've seen is more beautiful than I'd imagined. There is much hope for humanity yet. Of course, there are some ugly stories as well, like a certain hospital where elderly patients were deserted by staff, but that is only to be expected. Who can accuse anyone of trying to save themselves, when we are not the ones who were tested? There are also those stories, where staff refused to leave their elderly charge, and where a young girl in a village office kept issuing tsunami alerts, saving many lives, until she was swallowed by the tsunami herself. And the international response showed us what mankind was capable of. It was enough to make me believe that we are indeed in the Age of Aquarius, if it hasn't passed on to some other sign of zodiac since the 70s.

Yet, I have some reservations about the international media's reaction. When the nuclear crisis broke out at Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Plant, the world media seemed to go into a full meltdown frenzy. Nuclear scare is riveting. Fascinating. No doubt, it was aggravated by the scarcity of information at the initial stages of the ongoing crisis. Foreign media was quick to offer speculations and criticisms of the government's management of the crisis. It sounded as if they all grasped the real danger of the apocalyptic end for those of us in Japan, and knew just what had to be done, while the Japanese government simply hadn't a clue that we were facing a full-scale nuclear crisis. They seemed to relish saying that Japan wasn't aware of the gravity of the situation, while what the nation was trying to do was to keep calm in the face of the most serious nuclear accident we have experienced.

The noticeable lack of panic in the public and the Japanese media during the height of the crisis does us some credit, I believe, as Japan is the country with most reasons to react hysterically to nuclear scare. Most people have visited the Peace Museum in Hiroshima on their school trips, and certainly have some extensive visual knowledge of what atomic bomb victims had gone through. When I was a small girl, I used to look at fallen hair on my pillow and wonder if we had been bombed during the night (I seemed to have mixed up air raids and atomic bombing), for a while after learning about atomic bombing. So, our apparent calm took me by surprise. I guess we couldn't afford to panic. It is only those in safe distance who are allowed the luxury of nuclear scare frenzy.

While the world media was gripped by the nuclear apocalypse for Japan,  which seemed to overshadow the Middle East crisis, it was only the British media (or the British Embassy in Tokyo, to be more precise) that offered any calm perspective, from my not-at-all extensive search of foreign media. Trust the Brits to keep their cool in time of emergency; their upper lips stayed as stiff as ever even when talking about a nuclear scare in some other country.

It was only natural, I suppose, that a rational voice in defence of nuclear power should be raised from that quarter of the world, in the middle of increasing distrust of nuclear power. Guardian's journalist wrote a piece titled "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power" on 21 March, 2011. I personally think he spoke too soon, when the crisis is not even over yet, but I do understand why he would feel the urge to speak up for nuclear power right now. What he says may or may not be valid; there are so many conflicting opinions about the world's electricity situation that I cannot say if renewables alone (or in combination with fossil fuels), without nuclear, could cover the demand. (One thing for sure, we need to have a serious look at energy portfolio and at how much electricity we waste daily. We are trying to be extremely frugal with electricity in Japan at the moment, due to power shortage. It seems we should be able to live with much less electricity, at home at least.) Anyway, you can judge for yourself what he says here: "Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power" by George Monbiot.

He says, "I'm not proposing complacency here. I am proposing perspective." I'll give him perspective from the ground level, as it were.

It is too early to speak of the consequences of Fukushima No.1, when the situation is still far from over and done with. It may take some time yet until we hear the words, "cold shutdown," while continuing to hear reports of contamination in water and agricultural produce. There are restrictions on distribution of the vegetables which are contaminated over the safety standards; the sales of vegetables from those areas in general have been negatively affected. This is a grievous blow to the already earthquake/tsunami-stricken areas. Some countries already have placed restrictions on imports of vegetables from the affected areas. There is no knowing, as of now, how extensive the total damage brought on by the nuclear plant accident will prove to be, on our mental health (if not physical health, touch wood), and on our economy. These farmers and dairy farmers, who were spared in the unprecedented natural disasters the country has seen, are now threatened of their livelihood.

So far, the specialists tell us we needn't panic. The scientific data doesn't seem to warrant mass hysteria on a national scale. There are some who argue strongly that we shouldn't discard the vegetables which would not affect our health, even though they are contaminated over the safety standards (the provisional safety standards are very stringent, with the idea that the total radiation exposure should be below 5mSv even if the contaminated food/drink was consumed regularly at the national average rate for a year). It is shocking to see vegetables and milk go to waste, and to imagine what impact this will have on the farmers' lives. I understand these outcries against the restriction, although I do not see any other realistic response that the government could have taken. (Say, if there was no restriction placed on the risky vegetables, there would surely be mass hysteria, and the government wouldn't be able to claim that all "other" vegetables on the market were safe. If they lowered the very strict safety standards, rationally reasoning that regular consumption of the affected products over a certain period of time wouldn't affect our health, there still would be panic when foreign countries started banning imports from Japan, according to the strict safety standards.)

So we do our very best to be rational and to eat our greens, drink our milk, and not to rush to supermarkets to buy bottled water, so mothers with infants will have water to buy. (And just to preempt any criticism from those living outside Japan in a safe environment at those who do buy bottled water just now, we do not know when this crisis will come to its end, how it will play out, or if water might not become contaminated beyond the safety standards for adults as well. Our fear may prove irrational, and I hope it does, but who could call them selfish and inhuman when it is not their safety that is threatened, and it is not their integrity that is tested? Fear of nuclear is deeply rooted, and no amount of rational reasoning can eradicate the uneasy feeling that you might be taking in toxic substances that would eventually harm your health.)

But surely it is not normal to have to stop and think, "So the radiation level is only this and that, so we needn't worry," every time we drink tap water or go out in the rain. I don't know how long we must stay rational. The cleanup of Three Mile Island reactor 2 took 12 years. I would appreciate the journalist's rational approach, bigger perspective and all that, but there comes a point when I'm simply done with being rational. Reading this article was one such point for me. I'd love to shout out at him, "No you twat, nuclear isn't safe or viable."

He says in the conclusion, "Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power." The crisis ain't over yet. So, there has been no death attributed to the plant accident, as yet. Nuclear people tend to point at "no death" (during nuclear power plant accidents) as if that's proof positive that nuclear is so safe. But "the impact on people has been small"? Say that to those workers, firefighters, policemen, and SDF men, who are risking their lives to contain the situation. And to those farmers and dairy farmers who may lose their livelihood. If he really wanted to show rational support for nuclear power, he should raise his voice against the restriction of Japanese vegetables' imports. Or, better still, he could move to Fukushima, preferably within the 30km-zone. There'll be any number of empty houses, and plenty of free vegetables and fresh milk that he can drink to his heart's content.

Sometimes "rational" sounds only sanctimonious when it's not your thyroid glands that are on the line.

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