sábado, 21 de abril de 2012

A Voice in the Wilderness - Conversations with Dr. Koide

Osaka. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and peered over the wall overlooking the castle moat and park, relieved that the sun had risen at last, putting an end to this long chilled night. Picturesque as it may be, it was a mistake camping here on the castle’s ramparts so late in October, unprotected from the weather. Castle Park, which I mentioned in my last post, was the epicenter of Japan's überorganized homeless movement of the 90’s; today however the park appears vacant. A public park is meant to cultivate community, but this one has been left fallow. After all, what is a park without its homeless stewards to make it feel lived-in and not just looked at? What’s left is the kaishain (salarymen) and other somnambulants, shuffling along the demarcated walking paths the way a train follows its tracks. Or perhaps I’m just here at the wrong time. Osaka is one of Japan’s major cultural centers and I’ll have to return to this city one day when I have more time to make a just exploration. Surely behind the polished facade of the urban center there remain pockets of the malcontent. My VISA however is running out and I’ve still got 500 km to Hiroshima.
Today’s destination was the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute (KURRY), which is nestled some 30 km south of Osaka City in the working-class suburbs of Kumatori. It’s here that I hoped to procure an interview with professor Dr. Hiroaki Koide, Japan’s most outspoken critic on the nation’s addiction to nuclear-power. I rode through mostly congested suburbs arriving at the fortified university entrance around lunchtime, vaguely hungry and indubitably intimidated. The campus is vigilantly immured and sentries man the barricaded entrance. Of course I’d failed to contact Dr. Koide ahead of time and I dismayed the improbability that such an important figure would grant an interview sans appointment.
The guards who blocked my entry may have been ignorant of the English language, but the word ‘appointment’ they confidently hurled at me with an interrogative pitch that tripped me up something bad. All I could do was flutter my eyelashes and feign confusion. As the guards phoned the professor, a group of students came to my aid, obviously intrigued by the incongruence of my appearance, a shabby-looking bike tourist in an immaculate institute of nuclear research.  The guards miraculously acquiesced and the students ushered me in past the barricades. We walked up a small and slightly inclined drive that was primed by manicured lawns and hedges that opened into a cluster of low buildings, where they deposited me at the professor’s office door with a ganbatte kudasai, good luck.
Dr. Koide appeared in the open doorway with eyes wrinkled in perplexity. He wore a grey blazer with matching pants and his graying hair stood in various directions of confusion.
Nihongo?” He asked.
“No. English,” I responded.
“I never received your request for an interview.”
“That’s because I never made one, sir”
Dr. Koide’s mouth formed a thin white line and he began to shake his head as he retreated into the darker recesses of his office, behind stacks of books into a nook where his desk sat littered with papers. He hadn’t yet sat down and I was afraid he was going to ask me to leave. In a panic, my mouth unloaded a fusilade of apologies and excuses about bicycle tourism and the righteousness of investigative journalism.
Something I said vindicated me and a sudden change came across the Dr.’s face.
“Did you say you arrived by bicycle?” He asked.
Dr. Koide promptly sat down and offered me the empty seat across from his. As it turns out, the good doctor is an avid cyclist!

I was fortunate to have reached Dr. Koide on his lunch break and I am indebted to him that he so generously agreed to spend his precious free time speaking with the likes of me. Dr. Koide has held a tenure as assistant professor at KURRY since 1974 and he has to his credit an impressive array of books and articles dedicated to the abolition of nuclear power. Since the Daichi debacle, Japan has begun to take Dr. Koide’s prognostications quite seriously; previously, his was, as one reporter put it, “a voice in the wilderness in a nation committed to nuclear power”. In a highly publicized event, in those critical days following the Earthquake, Dr. Koide was one of four expert guests invited by the Government Oversight Committee of the House of Councilors to address the members of the Diet. Today, people flock to his lectures in numbers that evoke pop star status. His most recent book, “The Lies of Nuclear Power”, has became a near instant bestseller and his blog continues to be the most popular and trusted source for information related to Fukushima.
Dr. Koide’s story begins in 1968, when he was a freshman at Sendai’s Tohoku University, studying to be a nuclear engineer. Koide was a diligent student and began his university career very much committed to the nuclear optimism of his day. Some might think it ironic that a country, which suffered so much destruction at the hands of two nuclear bombs, would embrace so readily an energy of the same source. However, the splitting of the atom was a scientific breakthrough that was cause for enormous excitement and the 1950s saw a nuclear weltanschauung that dreamed a future in which nuclear power would fuel everything from medicine to automobiles. Furthermore, Eisenhower’s dubious “Atoms for Peace” campaign had a Cold War motive that spawned an arms race and obscured other promising energy technologies of the day, such as solar.
It was in Koide’s Freshmen year that he found his abolitionist calling, when a nuclear facility was to be erected in a nearby community of Onagawa and not in the city of Sendai, for which it was intended to serve. The Onagawa residents who protested its implementation were soon joined by Sendai’s Tohoku student movement, of which Koide was a member. Koide took to interrogating his professors about the true costs of nuclear power and it became evident to him that nuclear power was not as safe as its adherents claimed. Koide was particularly incensed by the socio-geographical choice for the location of the power plant, of which poor and marginal communities pay the biggest price. In short, the conclusion that Koide reached, which has become the leitmotif of his career, is that the risks of nuclear power far outweighed its benefits.
I asked Dr. Koide to break it down for me: the perceived benefits of nuclear power vs. its inherent risks. 
“To begin with it is a myth that nuclear power is a finite energy source or that it has a longer future than other nonrenewable energy sources. The power reserves of commercially exploitable coal alone can provide 60 to 70 years worth of global energy demand. If we could use the total reserve of coal, it would provide 800 years worth of world demand. Next to that, we have reserves of natural gas, oil and other sources that we are not really using right now, such as shale and tar sands. I had thought that these fossil fuels would someday be exhausted and nuclear energy was the future; but in fact, the world’s reserve of uranium is only a fraction of that of oil, and a small percentage of that of coal. Uranium is actually a very scarce resource”.
As for the risks, we are all too well acquainted. But what if we were to compare these risks to the likes of a nuclear bomb, such as Hiroshima?
The bomb consisted of 800 grams of uranium, which exploded annihilating the city. Nuclear power however, requires one ton of uranium for one year - an enormous amount of radioactive material! A nuclear plant is a machine. It is expected that machines go wrong and cause accidents. It is we humans who operate the machines. Humans are not bad. It is only natural that humans make mistakes. No matter how we wish that no accidents occur, there is always the possibility of catastrophe. So what measures did the nuclear power policy makers take to deal with the possibility of accidents? They just assumed catastrophic accidents seldom occur. So they decided to ignore the possibility by labelling it as an ‘inappropriate assumption;. Here’s how they denied the possibility of catastrophic accidents. I took the following illustration from the website of Chubu Electric Power [At which point, Dr. Koide turned to his computer, pulled up the Chubu website and read me the following quote from the Energy Company’s media outlet] ‘There is absolutely no possibility of the containment vessel, the final barrier to contain radioactivity, being breached. A radioactive leak would be impossible. Therefore nuclear power plants are safe under any circumstances whatsoever and any assumption is an ‘inappropriate assumption’’. But a catastrophic accident has occurred and is still going on. Tragic events are underway in Fukushima, as you know. And the government’s responses to the ongoing accident have in my view, been highly inappropriate.”
What was the government’s response in the days following the Daiichi disaster and how was their response received by the Japanese people?
“The government hid information and delayed evacuation. The government has underestimated the risks and made optimistic assumptions. They delayed appropriate labeling of the accident, raising it from 4 to 5 and then at the last moment to 7. Evacuation first at 3km as ‘a precautionary measure’, then 10km ‘Just in case’, then 20km ‘preparing for the worse’. I believe disclosing accurate information is the only way to avoid panic. That way people would trust the administration of the government. The government has made plant workers and local residents sacrifice. They have raised radiation dose limit for the workers at Daiichi. They have also raised dose limits for residents. If Japanese law were applied strictly, an area the entire size of the entire prefecture of Fukushima would have to be abandoned and the havoc it would reek would be catastrophic. It is doubtful the country could afford to pay for it financially.
What do you believe is the current situation on the ground in Daiichi?
“I believe the reactor pressure vessel has a large hole, not the small hole that TEPCO says. There is no definite data as to whether there is any water in the containment vessel. Considering the reactor building basement is flooded with water, I think it is possible that it melted had already damaged the containment vessel. We’re in the unchartered territory that we enter for the first time ever since the human race started to use nuclear energy.
As to whether the radioactive material are going to be released into the atmosphere [from the meltdown and breach of the Reactor Pressure Vessel (RPV) and containment vessel], I don’t think it is likely as of now. The concrete foundation of the reactor building may have sustained some damage, but as a whole, I don’t think it is completely broken. I cannot properly assess the possibility of the corium melting through the concrete foundation and reaching the water table. If that should happen, the radioactive materials will flow in the groundwater and contaminate the ocean even more.
The thing to worry about is how far down the concrete the corium will go. The water circulation system using water in the building proposed by TEPCO is tantamount to admitting that the containment vessel is broken. It is a much more serious situation than I envisioned and there’s no other way to cool [the corium] other than the one proposed by TEPCO. However, if the corium goes into the concrete, no point in talking about circulating water to cool. There will be nothing you can do. The only way may be to entomb the whole building in a concrete coffin
How does the severity of this nuclear disaster compare with that which occurred at  Chernobyl?
Fukushima is still ongoing. There is a possibility of further hydrogen explosions and it is still possible that Fukushima exceeds Chernobyl in terms of magnitude of the disaster.”
Dr. Koide, having to return to his work, walked me out to my bicycle; but not before proudly showing me his own two-wheeler, which was parked just outside the building to his office, unlocked of course. Dr. Koide is a man who lives by example. He exhorts that the Japanese people must learn to live a lifestyle that consumes less energy and he himself, often rides his bike to work. With one final piece of wisdom, Koide sends me off with a quote of Mahatma Gandhi, which was noless inscribed on his memorial and of which Koide adapts to the precepts of nuclear abolition:
“The 7 sins of Nuclear Power: 1. Politics without principle; 2. Wealth without work; 3. Pleasure without conscience; 4. Knowledge without character; 5. Commerce without morality; 6. Science without humanity; 7. Worship without sacrifice.”

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