Atomkraft? – nein danke!

“They looked up and saw the eye of death.” – Time magazine, 7 August 1995

A man looks over the expanse of ruins left by the explosion of the atomic bomb on in Hiroshima, Japan. (AP Photo)

A group of schoolgirls were helping clean the streets of Hiroshima at about 08h16 on Monday, 6 August 1945, when a B-29 Flying Fortress flew high overhead. Their teacher drew attention to it – “There’s a B-san (Mr B)” and they looked up at it.

In seconds, their world, and the worlds of hundreds of thousands of others in that Japanese city, had been irrevocably turned upside down, and for many the world had simply come to an end.

There was a blinding flash of light which brought darkness to thousands in seconds after the bomb dropped by the B-29 detonated some 580 metres above Hiroshima.

It was the birth of a totally new chapter in the long history of humanity – a chapter which is still being written, and the denouement of which is still in doubt.

Albert Einstein put it well: “…the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

The bomb dropped on Hiroshima caused an estimated 40000 deaths related to ionising radiation injuries, in addition to the

Formation of keloidal scars on the back and shoulder of a victim of the Hiroshima blast. The scars have formed where the victim’s skin was directly exposed to the heat of the explosion’s initial flash. (U.S. National Archives)

90000-odd deaths from the fires that raged after the detonation, and some 86000 injuries. The after-effects of the bomb were felt for many years afterwards with higher than normal cancer rates in survivors, and miscarriages and abnormal births at higher than normal rates among those exposed to radiation in utero.

Just three days later Nagasaki also was hit by an atom bomb, causing some 76000 deaths.

Since the bombs were dropped those dreadful August days in 1945 there have been many nuclear accidents both to nuclear power plants which have proliferated, and to bombs, though no nuclear bomb has been dropped in anger since 1945.

Atoms for peace?

The Chernobyl plant after the accident. It has been enclosed in a concrete “sarcophagus” built to last 20 to 30 years. The effects of the accident will be around for centuries

One of the major concerns about nuclear weapons and the so-called “peaceful” use of the power of the atom is the disposal of used nuclear fuel which typically is radioactive and so potentially very harmful to life.

This harmful potentiality typically lasts for a very long time – the half-life of some nuclear fuel can be up to 10000 years, during which time it has to be kept in tightly-controlled high-security containers to prevent harmful leakage.

How can we be sure in the long term that these containers will remain safe, or even that people centuries from now will really understand the dangers contained in them.

In the short term, the security needed to protect these containers is possibly not too compatible with democracy. It will take a high degree of authoritarianism to control access to these containers, which will be made more urgent by the danger of terrorist use of such materials.

Atomic energy is also often touted as a “safe” alternative to coal or other sources of energy but this I believe is not at all so. As physicist Amory Lovins has said: “Nuclear power is the only energy source where mishap or malice can destroy so much value or kill many faraway people; the only one whose materials, technologies, and skills can help make and hide nuclear weapons; the only proposed climate solution that substitutes proliferation, major accidents, and radioactive-waste dangers.”

The Fukushima accident of 11 March 2011 is an example of the risks to people and environment. Although it is not as great a calamity as the 1986 Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine it is still likely to be decades before the area surrounding the plant is decontaminated. Many lives have been irrevocably changed due to the effects of the accident.

Fukushima and Chernobyl give us a foretaste of what a nuclear holocaust could be like, and such a holocaust is by no means a distant possibility. With the levels of nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors around the world such a holocaust, though not an imminent likelihood, is certainly a possibility, especially as much of the nuclear weapons and reactors are located in politically volatile areas of teh world like the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, China and the Democratic People’s Repbulic of Korea.

“A republic of insects and grass”

Bumper-cars in the Chernobyl fair grounds, one of teh most polluted parts of the town. Photo by Sophia Walker

Author Jonathan Schell painted a frightening picture of what such a nuclear holocaust could look like in his very informative book The Fate of the Earth (Picador, 1982), originally published in The New Yorker.

It is not a pretty picture at all.

The first sentence of the book lays the foundation: “Since July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was detonated, at the Trinity test site, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, mankind has lived with nuclear weapons in its midst.”

Since that time successive governments of the United States, Russia and Great Britain, among others, have attempted to control the proliferation of these weapons. The numbers of nuclear warheads is not known accurately, nor is anyone fully certain which countries have such weapons.

What is certain is that however many there are, the effects of a war in which nuclear weapons are widely used would be calamitous to humanity and most other life forms, possibly excluding only insects and grasses, as Schell titles one of the chapters of his book.

As Schell wrote: “These bombs were built as ‘weapons’ for ‘war’, but their significance greatly transcends war and all its causes and outcomes. They grew out of history, yet they threaten to end history. They were made by men, yet they threaten to annihilate men.”

Perhaps as frightening is the realisation that has grown since Chernobyl and especially Fukushima, that nuclear weapons are not the

Nature has been reclaiming the abandoned town. Wild boars roam the streets at night. Birch trees have been shooting up at random, even inside some apartment blocks. Photo by Phil Coomes of the BBC

only things that threaten humanity with extinction. The effects of the Chernobyl accident are still being felt and the area around the plant is still a no-go area with radiation levels far exceeding what is safe for people or other animals. The accident was directly responsible for 56 deaths on site, but the fall out necessitated the evacuation of 350000 people and damage to property in the region of $7 billion. An estimate states that a further 4000 could still die as a secondary result of the accident. The town of Prypiat and the plant itself are abandoned yet still present threats which necessitate constant surveillance of the area.

At Fukushima the effects are also terrifying, and will continue to be for years. The tsunami-caused accident has been described by one nuclear energy expert, Arnold Gundersen, as “the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind.”

An October 2011 study found that Fukushima was “the largest radioactive noble gas release in history not related to nuclear bomb testing.” The nobel gas involved is Xenon-133 which is not absorbed by humans or the environment.

At the same time, hot spots of radiation are being found 60 to 70 kilometres away from the plant, further away than those from Chernobyl.

Since the start of the atomic era there have been an estimated 99 accidents at nuclear power plants, 56% of them in the United States. Considering the risks and potential damage caused by such accidents, especially the long-term effects, this is not a promising fact.

As one observer, journalist Stephanie Cooke, has written about Fukushima, in reaction to those who claim that nuclear power is “safer” than conventional power generating plants:

“You have people in Japan right now that are facing either not returning to their homes forever, or if they do return to their homes, living in a contaminated area… And knowing that whatever food they eat, it might be contaminated and always living with this sort of shadow of fear over them that they will die early because of cancer… It doesn’t just kill now, it kills later, and it could kill centuries later… I’m not a great fan of coal-burning. I don’t think any of these great big massive plants that spew pollution into the air are good. But I don’t think it’s really helpful to make these comparisons just in terms of number of deaths.”

The way ahead: allies of death or of life?

Children in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine have been suffering from the effect of the radiation released in April 1986. The Rechitsa orphanage in Belarus has been caring for the huge population of sick children.  Photo Credit: Julien Behal/Chernobyl Children’s Project

“It can be said that the world faces the greatest danger ever experienced by humanity. It could become the first step toward the ultimate catastrophe of the whole world. Suffice it to say that radioactive waste equivalent to one million Hiroshima atomic bombs are to be accumulated in the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant.” – Mitsuhei Murata, Former Japanese Ambassador to Switzerland, Executive Director, the Japan Society for Global System and Ethics (read the full article here)

Schell, in his book writes about the “two paths” which lie before humanity: “One leads to death, the other to life. If we choose the first path – if we numbly refuse to acknowledge the nearness of extinction, all the while increasing our preparations to bring it about – then we in effect become the allies of death, and in everything we do our attachment to life will weaken; our vision, blinded to the abyss that has opened at our feet, will dim and grow confused; our will, discouraged by the thought of trying to build on so precarious a foundation anything that is meant to last, will slacken; and we will sink into stupefaction, as though we were gradually weaning ourselves from life in preparation for the end.”

This is the discussion, the conversation, we as members of the great human family, must have if we are to be allies of life ionstead, if we are to, in Schell’s words, “break through the layers of our denials, put aside our fainthearted excuses, and rise up to cleanse the earth of nuclear weapons.”

I would only add that we need to cleanse the world of all nuclear apparatus. It is too dangerous, and not enough is really known about it, and it is politically problematic, to carry on. The dangers have been dramatically shown by the accidents that have occurred, especially Fukushima. The long-term effects are still somewhat unknown and we cannot really have the needed control over the long term to make disposal of nuclear waste safe. Most importantly for me, the very danger makes it likely that more and more authoritarian, indeed, draconian, government control will be needed to make it even slightly safe as the technology spreads. Whether such control can be compatible with an open, democratic society is really the question for me. I doubt it, and that’s why I say, “Atomic energy? – no thanks.”


From Apartheid to Zaamheid – a book review

In the midst of the furore of the Limpopo textbook crisis and the gloom of the world’s economic failures a book arrived serendipitously on my desk and helped to keep my spirits positive.
From Apartheid to Zaamheid is a readable and practical book about making a difference, being a positive force for change in South Africa, rather than a perpetual whinger about all that is wrong in the country.
My only complaint really is, why did the book take so long to arrive on my desk? It was published by Aardvark Press in 2004 and yet I only came to see it this week. Well, maybe I’m not as awake as I like to think I am!
The author is Advocate Neville Melville who played a significant role in the transition from the apartheid regime to the non-racial democracy we live in today. He has also been the Banking Ombudsman as well as being appointed by former president Nelson Mandela as the Police Ombudsman.
The book is 130 pages long and presents, in very readable ways, the problems facing South Africa and a number of possible ways that individuals can make contributions to solving these problems – not in grand, sweeping ways, but in small ways that touch people’s lives.
The word “Zaamheid”, Melville explains, he coined from the international symbol for South Africa, namely “ZA”, and the initial letters of the words “alle mense (all people)” to form the “Zaam”, which sounds a lot like the Afrikaans word “saam” which means “together”. The suffix “-heid” means roughly “-ness” as in “apart-ness”.
Melville defines his new word as meaning “everyone working together” and he writes, “The choice of an Afrikaans-sounding word would, in itself, be an act of bridge building.”
That introduces the major theme of the book, which is also its sub-title: “Breaking down walls and building bridges in South African society.”
Some of the chapter titles give an idea of how this theme is explored by Melville: “The crack in the wall”; “The great wall”; “Behind high walls”; “A peek over the wall”; “Up against a brick wall”; and “Bringing down walls”.
In his analysis of the problems facing South Africa Melville makes it clear that the walls, both real and metaphorical, which continue to keep South Africans apart from each other are the source of the ills besetting the country: “The affluent continue to barricade themselves from the rest of the world in security villages with checkpoint controls. The workplace is increasingly becoming a no-go zone for whites, particularly if they are males.”
In the final chapter of the book, “The way ahead”, Melville makes some pertinent points, like “We are, as a country, spending too much of our energies in trading blame and squabbling amongst ourselves. Instead we should be focussing all our efforts into the challenges that face us. Until every last person has a stake in the country’s wealth, none of our individual wealth is secure.”
The book as a whole is a challenge to all South Africans to become bridge builders rather than wall builders.

How can whites live with the legacy of apartheid? – a moral question

“Nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

Prison wall on Robben Island. Photo by Tony McGregor

South Africa has always been, in Allan Drury’s words, “A very strange society” so it should perhaps not surprise us that 20 or so years after the official death of apartheid, that strangeness still afflicts us so severely. Drury wrote his book in 1967, when official apartheid was just 20 years old. Since then the strangeness has only grown.

The 1994 settlement which saw beloved elder statesman Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela become the first democratically-elected president in our twisted history, was heralded by many as a “miracle” – and there was much that seemed miraculous. For the first time that I know of in history a ruling oligarchy negotiated itself out of power.

But that miracle had some serious flaws, flaws which are more and more coming to light as the strains of adjusting to a globalised economy and a rapidly-evolving world political scene start to take hold. The very fact that the settlement was negotiated has left us with issues that need to be resolved. Negotiation is frequently, though not necessarily always, done through compromise and letting go of interests.

Negotiations took place in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) and the subsequent bi-lateral negotiations between the ruling National Party of President F.W. De Klerk and Mandela’s African National Congress, and then in the broader Multi-Party Negotiating Forum (MPNF) which hammered out an interim constitution for the country. In all these negotiations some critical issues were left to the future, one of them, the issue of land distribution which was greatly in favour of whites thanks to the 1913 Land Act which had made 87% of the land surface of South Africa an exclusively white preserve.

The MPNF left land tenure issues to be resolved by the so-called “willing buyer, willing seller” mechanism. By 2008 this policy had failed to resolve the land tenure issue satisfactorily and, according to Professor Ben Cousins of the University of the Western Cape, more people have lost access to land than have gained it through this mechanism. As Prof Cousins points out: “If land questions remain unresolved, the possibility clearly exists for populist politicians to focus strongly on these issues in order to build a support base, leading to unrealistic policies that promise much but fail to deliver real benefits. This in turn could lead to discontent and unrest.” (On the “Livelihoods after land reform” site, accessed on 21 August 2011).

It is this discontent and unrest that is very visible in South Africa today, and is articulated very vividly by the former president of the ANC Youth League Julius Malema, who not long ago called whites “criminals” because they stole the land from the blacks. “They (whites) have turned our land into game farms… The willing-buyer, willing-seller (system) has failed,” Malema was reported as saying. “We must take the land without paying. They took our land without paying. Once we agree they stole our land, we can agree they are criminals and must be treated as such.” Many whites responded to these statements with defensiveness which, while understandable , showed but little historical insight.

Solomon T. Plaatje

In fact much of the land was taken by force and, in 1913, by law, when the infamous Land Act was first promulgated by the Parliament of the newly-formed Union of South Africa. This Act made a black South African, in the words of contemporary writer Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje “… not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.” That perception of pariah status reached its apogee during the apartheid era and has continued to some extent up to the present.

A disturbing result of the demise of official apartheid has been the rise of white denial of the distress caused by apartheid – the rise of people who would argue that apartheid was not that bad, that blacks under apartheid were better off than blacks in the rest of Africa, and even, to some extent, than blacks in other parts of the world, for instance, the United States.

The other side of this denialism is that the same critics use the undeniable corruption that is plaguing South Africa to discredit the ANC government and imply that blacks cannot be trusted or are naturally prone to corruption and are un-skilled or other such racist inferences.

Philosopher Samantha Rice from Rhodes University in Grahamstown asked in a recent (2009, Journal of Social Philosophy) article, “How do I live in this strange place?” Rice points out that “…an honest and sincere public dialogue about race has not yet happened in South Africa—the subject is too close to the bone for many and too much is at stake and too confused—race is the unacknowledged elephant in the room that affects pretty much everything, in and outside academia”

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Photo by Tony McGregor

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu recently caused some more concern among whites when he raised the issue of reparations for blacks who had suffered under apartheid – remarks which, not for the first time, caused some to call him racist. Tutu has consistently argued for more moral dialogue, for a greater commitment from whites to engage with their black fellow-citizens about issues which concern both. Tutu, however, is articulating, in more reasoned tones, to be sure, what Julius Malema is also saying – for the vast mass of blacks have up to now experienced little improvement while whites continue to live much as they did under apartheid. Whites continue to live in white areas, their children go to well-resourced schools, they have regular holidays and participate in many cultural activities. Most of these things are denied to blacks.

Now of course there is the class issue – but in South Africa class and race coincide to a very large degree and whites are seemingly in the main so habituated to privilege that they don’t see themselves as privileged, and hence the denialism, the refusal to engage in the debate but rather to minimise the negative effects of apartheid. As Rice noted, “Because of the brute facts of birth, few white people, however well-meaning and morally conscientious, will escape the habits of white privilege; their characters and modes of interaction with the world just will be constituted in ways that are morally damaging.”

So how can a white person really live a moral and authentic life in the circumstances of South Africa at the beginning of the 21st Century? Certainly not by attempting to minimise or deny the evil of apartheid. Certainly not by attempting to escape the dilemma by claiming not to have benefited from the system. Rice is rather more pessimistic than I would be about this. She states flatly “I do not think that it is possible for most well-intentioned white South Africans who grew up in the Apartheid years to fulfill their moral duties and attain a great degree of moral virtue.”
Her prescription to deal with this moral issue is that whites should adopt a demeanour of humility and silence. I agree with the humility part, but not necessarily with the silence part.

In the face of the great moral evil that apartheid represents, humility on the part of whites is most definitely appropriate. We benefited greatly from a great evil, there is no doubt about that; even though many white individuals might have struggled through the apartheid years, their struggles were not of the same order, either physically or morally, as the struggles of blacks.

From that position of humility, of appropriate contrition for apartheid, we should express our solidarity with all South Africans in the struggle for a just, more equitable society, to listen to others with openness in order to understand what they would expect from us in the struggle, to accept black leadership and initiative in these matter.

Neither condemnation nor retreat is likely to be useful. A humble engagement might help ourselves and the country more. Failure to do this, failure to commit to the struggle to overcome the painful legacy of apartheid, will in a very real sense mean forfeiting our right to stay here.