Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Problem With Technology: Nuclear Radiation Injury and the Need to Admit Our Limitations

Jacob Peter Gowy's The Flight of Icarus.

During my time at the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima (WNVF) I was struck again and again my the central role of technology -- or, more specifically, our failure to recognize the limits of technology -- in creating a hibakusha phenomenon that is truly global in scope.

The 20th century was the century of science and technology -- a time of belief that we can use science to solve any problem. "Everything is manageable."

The 21st century is starting to look like a century in which we say, "Knowledge, logic, ingenuity? Yes, but . . . . "

I remember the situation of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project in Chicago, and who thought their "expertise" would earn them the right to be heard about how the atomic bomb would be used.  (See Unfinished Business in Chicago (Nuclear disarmament, that is))

I think of the acres and acres of bags filled with contaminated soil from Fukushima. (See Radioactive Waste: "What are you gonna do with it?" )

Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster is replete with examples of how people in the Soviet Union thought scientists could make anything work. There was "the cult of physics" (p. 179) and everyone said "nuclear stations . . . they're safer than samovars" (p. 87) . . . "At school and at the university we'd been taught that this was a magical factory that made 'energy out of nothing,' where people in white robes sat and pushed buttons" (p. 164)

Why did that Chernobyl break down? Some people say it was the scientists' fault. They grabbed God by the beard, and now he's laughing. But we're the ones who pay for it. (p. 78)

"The scientists had been gods, now they were fallen angels, demons even." (p. 192)

Admitting our limitations

Dr. Hiroaki Koide
Dr. Hiroaki Koide provided sobering testimony during his keynote lecture at WNVF. He said that he had sought out nuclear studies in the belief that peaceful uses of nuclear energy for power could in some way compensate for the suffering caused by its military use [i.e. in the atomic bombing of Japan]. However, he said, he realized that that hope was "a mistake" . . . . He now realizes that there are no "safe" ways to "harness" nuclear energy.

(His statement had echoes for me of my own experience as a high schooler studying "nucleonics" in New Jersey in the 1970s.)

It is one thing to embrace science -- an understanding of the true nature of reality based on experiment, observation, and deduction. At the same time, it is necessary to see the limitations of technology -- human actions informed by science.

That's why the "Declaration of the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima (Draft Elements of a Charter of World Nuclear Victims’ Rights)" states:

Complete prevention of nuclear chain related disasters is impossible. No safe method exists for disposing of ever-increasing volumes of nuclear waste. Nuclear contamination is forever, making it utterly impossible to return the environment to its original state. Thus, we stress that the human family must abandon its use of nuclear energy. (emphasis added)

(Read the Declaration of the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima (Draft Elements of a Charter of World Nuclear Victims’ Rights) in English | in Japanese )

The very fundamental problem that we must discuss thoughtfully with everybody is the tension between the hopefulness inspired by the many amazing things humankind can do using science, and the reality of the utter failure to control nuclear radiation.

"Knowledge, logic, ingenuity? Yes, but . . . . " It's a 21st century idea. It's also one that some have been inviting us to heed for a very, very long time.

Related posts

I never quite understood how much of a Chicago story the Bomb and opposition to it really is. I can think of at least three reasons why people right here in Chicago -- today -- need to make themselves heard about nuclear disarmament . . .

(See Unfinished Business in Chicago (Nuclear disarmament, that is))

I'm marveling at the adjacency of a piece of public art -- one with a very clear message about the risk of human ambition and self-absorption and heedlessness -- to the center of political power in the city of Chicago.

(See NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Who will bring us down to earth? )

We can now entrust all the dirty work -- including war -- to robots. (Or can we?)

(See A Modest Proposal: Debate the Drones )

Do we have a way to immerse ourselves in the experience of what the use of those nuclear weapons would really mean -- prospectively -- so that we can truly cause ourselves to confront our own inaction?

(See Stop engaging in risky behavior )