Thursday, March 24, 2011

Our dysfunctional nuclear family

By S. Derrickson Moore
It’s a Hopi word, and I’ve heard the long and short definitions from Hopi elders I’ve known. The simplest is a version of la vida loca, or “crazy life.” Koyaanisqatsi is life that is out of balance, in great turmoil, disintegrating ... or what I think is now most apt and urgent: “a state of life that calls for another way of living.”
Koyaanisqatsi was the word that came to mind in the 1970s, when I worked for an Oregon nuclear safeguards ballot measure campaign.
What can you say about a world that builds nuclear power plants with untested cooling systems on coastal areas in high-risk earthquake and tsunami zones? How do we tell our grandchildren (and great-great-greats and more) that we thought it was acceptable to generate lethal garbage that’s toxic for thousands of years, before we know how to safely process, store or transport it?
Many of us raised those questions decades ago. Spokesmen for interests that spent a lot of money to defeat that ballot measure told me it was too dangerous to test those cooling systems for the “unlikely to impossible” contingencies we worried about.
Now we’ve tested them. At Three Mile Island. At Chernobyl. And this month in Japan.
They didn’t work.
We were told that ways to safely process and store nuclear waste were coming soon and in the meantime, we could safely stash the stuff in places like New Mexico that “never have earthquakes.” Especially “geologically stable” places like Carlsbad, which later became the site of the U.S. Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the world’s first underground nuclear storage facility. Carlsbad’s adventures since that first load of waste arrived have included some earthquake activity and a large explosion of a natural gas line.
I think of all the people I love in southern New Mexico and along the routes from the Pacific Northwest, the Northeast, the Southeast and the Southwest, all the roads traveled by those very toxic garbage trucks.
I know we invested billions in nuclear power at a time when many of us hoped it would be the safe, green, nonpolluting alternative we needed. The spin doctors are already gearing up to tell us we have too much invested to bail out now, while many nations of the world are seriously reexamining their commitment to nuclear energy in light of recent developments.
Some of us wonder what would have happened if we’d invested the same amount of energy — and money — in sustainable technologies like solar, geothermal, wind and other prospects that have the added advantage of avoiding messes for future generations to cope with and try to clean up.
We are a society with a short attention span.
The worst oil spill in our nation’s history seems a distant memory to many, less than a year later.
Newborn dolphins wash up on our shores. Birds fall from the skies.
It’s been 25 years since our worst nuclear plant disaster. When will Chernobyl be safe?
An online inquiry turned up this from BBC News: “The spent nuclear fuel is the most hazardous material to deal with. It includes one isotope of Plutonium, Plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years. After 240,000 years (10 half lives) only 0.1% will remain. After 720,000 years (30 half-lives) it should be fairly safe.”
Prophet and philosopher Tenny Hale, who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, told me innocence and ignorance were the spiritual diseases of her generation. Her diagnosis for our generation’s most challenging plagues: “Arrogance and greed.”
I thought of my Hopi friends when I heard from another amigo this week, erstwhile National Geographic photographer John Flannery, who now makes his home in aptly named Truth or Consequences.
“I go back to my old adage that homo sapiens is the only species you could remove from the ecosystem and indicate a plus, and maybe that’s what we are doing,” said John.
Is our dysfunctional nuclear family doomed? Or can we muster the right stuff to save humanity: wisdom to learn from experience, the humility, compassion and generosity to change course? Will we heed the koyaanisqatsi call for another way of living?

S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at; (575) 541-5450. To share comments, go to and click on Blogzone and Las Cruces Style.

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