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Lessons from Fukushima

ByJean-Michel Cousteau

Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society
Photo: Carrie Vonderhaar, Ocean Futures Society

My concern about the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant continues as news from many sources continues to pour in.  Sadly, not much of it is good news and, even worse, some of what I hear is sensationalized.  Radioactivity continues to be released into the ocean and efforts to control it are not likely to resolve the problem in the near future.  Radioactivity has been carried by bluefin tuna to the waters of the eastern Pacific and the west coast of North America. The good news, at least so far, is that radioactivity in these fish is of low concentration and not a threat to the health of people who consume the fish. (But with that good news, a note of caution: bluefin tuna and other top marine predators are not sustainably harvested and they carry high levels of mercury, and for these reasons should be avoided altogether.)

My concern about the Fukushima catastrophe is based on solid science. We know some radionucleides cause cancer and birth defects. We know some are very long-lived. We know they can cause immediate harm in sufficient concentrations.  The lessons from Chernobyl are clear.  We do not need additional evidence that nuclear power is very dangerous.  This technology is complex and can fail.  It is vulnerable to human error and to unpredictable events such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

Scientific Thinking 

However, I believe that there is no place for exaggeration or hysteria in the case of Fukushima.  Rational, science-based thinking is absolutely vital in our dealing with such crises.  Science and its sibling, technology, enabled my father to co-invent the aqualung and our Cousteau team to create submersibles, underwater cameras and other innovations in ocean exploration.  Thanks to science we have cell phones, satellites, computers and amazing advancements in medicine. I have heard sensationalized reports suggesting radioactive pollution has made fish caught on the west coast dangerous to eat and, further, that it is the cause of a bizarre array of ecological disruptions.  Such reports become exaggerated because, despite the need, we do not have a data-gathering network that systematically measures waters, local species and migrating species.  The limited data we do have show contamination of our waters along the west coast is not sufficient to cause health problems.  I continue to eat sustainably caught, local seafood and am not worried about any related health issues.  The US and Canada need to establish a system of rigorous scientific monitoring. What the future will bring is unknown and only monitoring can give us the data we need to protect ourselves.  We need facts on which to base our personal decisions and government policies, not emotional speculation.

Everything is Connected

I reiterate, Fukushima remains a disaster and I am very very concerned about long-term effects of the radiation leakage. Coastal waters around Japan are still closed to commercial fisheries and scientists continue to monitor water, air, soil, fish and other animals for traces of radiation. But monitoring is not the ultimate solution. The ultimate solution would be to avoid nuclear reactors altogether; unfortunately, it’s too late for that.

Now let’s stand back a bit and think about how we approach environmental issues in general.  From my initial introduction to the ocean, my father, Jacques Cousteau, impressed upon me some important facts about our planet.  We live on a planet bathed in two fluids – the ocean and the atmosphere. These fluids are in constant motion, each interacting with one another and together sheathe every corner of the planet.

We must remember that nothing can ever actually be thrown away because there is no ‘away’. Everything is connected. A pollutant released on one side of the planet has the potential for far-reaching consequences everywhere. In terms of Fukushima, scientists are doing what they can to understand the short and long-term consequences of the radiation leaking on our environment. At risk is our own survival.

Human Arrogance

Human arrogance and error are part of our reality, just as natural disasters are entirely out of our control. There will be unpredictable events capable of upsetting the best of our human engineered enterprises.

In the case of energy, human error combined with a natural disaster may topple a wind generator, damage photovoltaic panels and even destroy a petroleum-based power plant, but the consequences of these are microscopic compared to the detrimental impacts of a nuclear power plant failure, as we’ve seen with the Fukushima and Chernobyl catastrophes.

Those who chose to ignore the past are doomed to repeat it.  I urge us all to learn from Fukushima and Chernobyl as we continue to monitor the situation in Japan. Be vigilant about the state of our planet. Be aware of the environmental issues we are facing as a society. Be concerned about the health of our bodies, our planet and our future. But also be critical; consider the sources of what you read online, in the news or on television. Take the time to learn about the issues – and most importantly the solutions, so that you can become another voice in the world for a better future.

It will take every one of us to make a difference – but change is where humankind excels. We develop, we grow, we invent and we progress. Let’s move in a direction where we don’t have to see catastrophes such as the Fukushima disaster repeated.

Lastly, I urge you to keep this issue in mind when casting your vote for the future leaders of tomorrow. We must consider our children, their children and all future generations to come as we address these important energy issues and the potential risks they pose to human health and the health our water planet. 

1 Comment Leave A Reply

One Response to “Lessons from Fukushima”

  1. permaculture

    I love your positive optimism. I have had alot of issues with the common man not thinking or caring about any of the most important things in this country and the world. There is too much information that is not getting out, and to find a person who is truly awake and conscious is pretty rare. How do you expect them to give up there happy pacified minds to figure out what is really going on. How many will go out of there way to seek knowledge when they don’t care about anything except themselves, and there day to day meaningless lives. Over the course of the next 5 years we will have several Fukushimas if the status quo remains. Arctic Methane Monsters Rapid Rise(84min) we have over 500 nuclear reactors around the world. I believe we have a small chance of surviving, but it will be a small fraction of the people currently on the planet.


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