By Sheila Johnson
Last December, on a visit to Japan, I had a chance to spend a day being driven around Sendai and its environs to see at first hand some of the earthquake and tsunami damage of March, 2011. We did not go anywhere near the ‘dead-zone’ around Fukushima’s nuclear reactors, but what I saw was shocking enough — lamp-posts bent like pretzels by the force of the water, entire towns wiped from the map, and rice-fields that would normally have been covered with rice-stubble instead scrubbed clean of all topsoil.
Even worse, these rice-fields had been covered, I was told, by six feet of sea water. How long, I wondered, will it take for the salt to be leached from the soil so that rice can grow there again? And what about the nuclear fall-out and its damage to soil, plants, and animals?
When I came home I began to reflect on these matters. I live in a house within sight of the Pacific Ocean, about thirty miles north of downtown San Diego but also about thirty miles south of two nuclear reactors at San Onofre. These reactors became operational in 1983 and 1984 (except for one, now being used to store spent fuel, which dates from 1968). The two operating reactors have had several “problems” and are currently closed down for repairs. But as recently as February of this year a water leak resulted in a small escape of radioactive gas. Nearby residents have not been told about the nature or seriousness of these problems.
So I was interested when a local group of peace activists organized a protest at San Onofre both to commemorate the tragedy at Fukushima and to call attention to our own vulnerability in case of an earthquake and tsunami. On Sunday, March 11th, I joined several hundred protesters who gathered at noon near the reactors.
We began with a prayer by a member of an Indian tribe that used to live near where the reactors now stand. Then we had a minute of silence in memory of last year’s tragedy in Japan, and we heard from two Japanese visitors from Fukushima prefecture. Both of them carried small geiger-counters and spoke about their worries about their children, the milk they drink, the playgrounds they use, and the long-term effects of radiation. They stressed that Japanese authorities had not been forthcoming about the dangers of the nuclear melt-down, and several American speakers warned that in fact the Fukushima plant was not yet secure and was continuing to leak radiation.
As I listened and looked at our own two reactors, I reflected on how similar my situation is to that of the people of Fukushima. I, too, live near a major earthquake fault that could rupture at any time. The San Onofre nuclear plant sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, behind a seawall less than five meters tall at high tide. There is no emergency plan for evacuating our area’s approximately 3 million people. The coastline where I live, like Fukushima’s coast, has often been described as a beautiful earthly paradise, but it is also a fool’s paradise. We are foolish because we neither take proper care of this fragile environment, nor do we plan for the natural (let alone the man-made) disasters that may occur.
The nuclear reactors in both countries are run by businesses intent on making a profit. For every day they remain shut down, these businesses lose money. In the U.S. no insurance company will insure them against nuclear accidents, and in Japan Tepco may go bankrupt not only because of the clean-up cost but also the law suits it faces. In both countries, the “regulators” who are supposed to monitor and regulate nuclear industries are in collusion with the industries themselves.
The rally I attended left me with one hopeful impression, and that was the extent to which both our Japanese visitors and more and more Americans have begun to distrust their governmental authorities and business spokesmen. The Japanese told us that many of the things Americans had learned about the Fukushima disaster were kept from people in Japan. But Americans are becoming equally cynical about what their newspapers and government are telling them.
There is a famous Latin phrase — Quis custodiet ipsos custodes — which means “who guards the guardians?” The answer is that only watchful citizens can and must do that. Attend local city government meetings and hearings, we were told. Ask questions of your officials. Sign petitions. Become more active in your communities.
Many people at the rally were carrying signs about Fukushima and nuclear energy. They also wore T-shirts with peace signs on them. I wore a T-shirt that said “Pogo was Right.” Pogo was a much-loved comic strip character of the 1950s and 60s — a politically-minded possum who lived in a Louisiana swamp. His most famous utterance — printed on the back of my T-shirt — was “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This T-shirt was actually a gift to my husband, Chalmers Johnson, by an admirer who had heard him use the phrase in a speech he gave about the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wore it in his memory and also as a reminder to myself and others that many of the dangers we face are self-inflicted.