Risk and use of nuclear energy


published Saturday April 16, 2011


The Fukushima nuc­lear disaster occur­red as a result of the tsunami. The earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale did not cause any direct damage to the nuclear installation.

The Fukushima nuclear reactor was (according to various reports) designed after taking into consideration the frequency and strength of earthquakes and tsunamis in the region. The strength of the earthquake and the impacts of the tsunami were substantially more than what was taken into consideration at the drawing board. The point at issue is whether, in view of the possible (and eventual) impacts resulting from a failure of the reactor’s cooling systems, the risk taken as a result of the design assumptions was justified.

After the Fukushima happenings, German Chancellor Angela Merkel changed her opinion on nuclear energy turning around 180 degrees in the space of a few months.

The European Commissioner for Energy, Günther Oettinger, former CDU Minister President of the German land of Baden-Württemberg, stated in an interview with Der Spiegel International that “Fukushima has made me start to doubt”.  He added: “when Chernobyl happened, we in the west were comforted by the fact that it was the result of outdated Soviet technology and human error. But I have nothing but respect for Japan’s abilities when it comes to industry and technology. That’s why Fukushima has been such a turning point for me. It has made me start to doubt. If the Japanese cannot master this technology, then nuclear energy conceals risks I didn’t see before.”

That says it all. The Fukushima nuclear incident is the direct result of the “risk society”, which acts on the basis of the probability of a particular event happening.

Notwithstanding advances in technology and human knowledge, there will always be an unresolved element of risk when adopting technological solutions to cater for human needs. The risk can be reduced but it will never be eliminated. As Dr Oettinger himself states, at the end of the day, in the case of a nuclear power plant, faced with the residual risk, “either you accept this residual risk or you shut down”.

To date, various governments took the risk. After Fukushima, a number are coming to their senses and are adopting the option to shut down. After the recent thrashing at the polls, Chancellor Merkel’s CDU too has changed course and has reluctantly started moving towards adopting a “green” nuclear policy!

There have been four major nuclear disasters since the late 1950s. The first took place in Windscale UK in 1957; the second at Harrisburg US (Three Mile Island) in 1979; the third occurred at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima was the fourth.

In addition to the above, there have been a countless number of other “small” incidents and a number of near misses. In France alone there are about 700 minor incidents every year, most of which go unreported.

Kenzaburo Oe is a Japanese Nobel Laureate having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. In an essay published in the New Yorker on March 28, entitled Tokyo Postcard. History Repeats, he states that the use of nuclear energy in Japan is a betrayal of the Hiroshima victims.

He says: “Like earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural calamities, the experience of Hiroshima should be etched into human memory: it was even more dramatic a catastrophe than those natural disasters precisely because it was man-made. To repeat the error by exhibiting, through the construction of nuclear reactors, the same disrespect for human life is the worst possible betrayal of the memory of Hiroshima’s victims.”

Nuclear technology disrespects life as it has been shown time and again not only to be unsafe to use but also that it places whole regions and eco-systems at risk.

While, later this month, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster will be commemorated it is pertinent to ask whether any lessons have been learnt. Chernobyl was considered as being an exception easily explained by the then Soviet Union’s state of technological development. Fuku­shima is a different kettle of fish: Japanese precision and technological knowledge is second to none.

The question, however, remains that, at the end of the day, some event that has not been given sufficient weight in design considerations happens. Be it the earthquake’s strength, a tsunami’s force or the frequency of adverse weather conditions. Engineering ethics permit this as it is accepted practice that one cannot design for all eventualities.

This is the risk society that plays games with our lives. The risk society does not consider life as being sufficiently worthy of protection. It only weighs probabilities and projects these into costs.

In this scheme of things life is worthless, hence, the validity of the observation of Kenzaburo Oe that the use of nuclear energy disrespects human life and is possibly its worst betrayal.

Nuclear energy? No thanks!

Nobel laureate and Soviet dissident Solzhenitsyn dies

published August 4, 2008



Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the dissident Russian writer and Nobel laureate whose portrayals of Josef Stalins labour camps and political oppression helped undermine the Soviet grip on power, has died, his son said. He was 89.

He died of heart failure, Stephan Solzhenitsyn said.

Solzhenitsyn revealed to the Western world the inner workings of the gulag, the network of prisons and camps that held as many as 20 million people during Stalins reign of terror and killed at least 1.5 million. He became a thorn in the side of Soviet authorities and was an icon for Russian intellectuals, helping trigger the demise of the communist regime with his calls for social conscience and historical justice.

“No writer that I can think of in history really was able to do so much through courage and literary skill to change the society they came from, wrote David Remnick, the New Yorker magazine editor whose account of the Soviet collapse in Lenins Tomb won the Pulitzer Prize. “And to some extent, you have to credit the literary works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn with helping to bring down the last empire on Earth.

Solzhenitsyn, who wrote more than 20 books, drew on his own experience as a political prisoner in his early works, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. He was stripped of citizenship, moving to Switzerland in 1974 before emigrating to the US two years later.

International recognition earned Solzhenitsyn a place in the ranks of the countrys most prominent dissidents, who included nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov, writer Vladimir Bukovsky and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Some turned to samizdat, the secret copying and distribution of banned literature, to promote human rights and freedom of expression. Others used self- censorship by employing Aesopian language to deliver a political message to Russian intellectuals without appearing on the radar of the Soviet censors.

Solzhenitsyns passion for Russian culture and disillusionment with Western consumerism prompted a return to the country of his birth in 1994.

His ideas were considered anachronistic in post-Communist Russia and he received little public attention in later years. Russian writer Aleksandr Genis described the repatriated Solzhenitsyn as “the last remaining prophet in the abandoned temple of absolute truth”.

Alexander Isayevich Solzhenitsyn was born on December 11th, 1918, in Kislovodsk, a north Caucasian town between the Black and Caspian seas.

Solzhenitsyn studied mathematics at Rostov University and took a correspondence course at the Institute of History, Philosophy and Literature in Moscow. He served in World War II as commander of an artillery-position-finding unit on the frontline. While in East Prussia, he was arrested in February 1945 for writing disrespectful remarks about Stalin in letters to a friend.

The sentence was eight years in a detention camp, considered relatively lenient at the time. The periods he spent in various camps and prisons were documented in works such as The Tenderfoot and the Tramp, The First Circle and Ivan Denisovich. He later said he wouldnt have survived his sentence if his mathematics skills hadnt earned him a transfer to a sharashka, a secret research laboratory where inmates developed new technologies and were spared hard labour.

In March 1953, Solzhenitsyn was sent into “exile for life” in Kok-Terek, a town in southern Kazakhstan. A year later, he was allowed to travel to Tashkent for successful treatment of stomach cancer.

His time in the clinic inspired the book Cancer Ward, which was published in 1968. All of his writing in exile was done in secret and financed by his job teaching mathematics and physics.

“During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written,” he wrote in an autobiographical profile submitted for his Nobel Prize in 1970. After the 22nd Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1961,

Solzhenitsyn gambled that the thaw in political thinking would allow his works to be published. He approached Aleksandr Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir magazine, who agreed to release Ivan Denisovich the following year.

The authorities terminated the printing of the book almost immediately and Solzhenitsyns papers were confiscated.

In 1969, he was expelled from the Soviet Writers Union for denouncing censorship in the country. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize a year later, though he didnt attend the ceremony. “We all know that an artists work cannot be contained within the wretched dimension of politics,” he said in Stockholm in 1974 at a banquet celebrating his Nobel Prize four years earlier. “For this dimension cannot hold the whole of our life and we must not restrain our social consciousness within its bounds.” Solzhenitsyn spent about two years in Zurich after he was exiled abroad. There he wrote his autobiography, The Oak and the Calf, and Lenin in Zurich, a book debunking the myths surrounding the father of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. In 1976, Solzhenitsyn moved with his family to Cavendish, Vermont, where he lived in isolation and wrote The Red Wheel, a historical series on the 1917 Russian Revolution.

For almost two decades he was rarely seen in public, with the notable exception of his commencement speech at Harvard University in June 1978. On that occasion, he lambasted the moral decrepitude of Western society, which stood at “the abyss of human decadence” and “in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.”

In 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev restored Solzhenitsyns citizenship and treason charges were dropped against the writer the following year. His return to Russia in 1994, preceded by an audience with Pope John Paul II during a stopover in Rome, failed to ease Solzhenitsyns alienation.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia embraced the consumerism that he so despised in the West, while its political system fell under the control of oligarchs whose actions bore a troubling resemblance to those of the old Soviet leaders.

“It is as if, just having survived the heaviest case of cholera, to immediately upon recuperation get the plague,” he said of the transition. Solzhenitsyns wife, Natalia, returned with him to Russia, while their three sons – Yermolai, Stephan and Ignat – remained in the US, where they held citizenship.

“As the Russian saying goes, ‘Do not believe your brother, believe your own crooked eye’. And that is the most sound basis for an understanding of the world around us and of human conduct in it, Solzhenitsyn once said.