Friday, March 25, 2011

What Keeps You Warm?

by Sheila Connolly

Couch-bound as I am with this broken ankle, I’ve been watching a lot of news reports about the cascading crises in Japan and Libya. It’s almost as though the universe has arranged entertainment for me, and I'll even admit to having become a bit ghoulish about it, keeping CNN on in the background constantly, waiting for the next piece of bad news. There have been plenty.

When I was in Ireland, I spent a couple of weeks watching BBC broadcasts (and the occasional RTE Irish broadcast), and I was struck by how sensation-driven American news is in contrast. Here we seem to think that all headlines or leads must end with an exclamation mark. Everything must be the biggest and most horrific example possible--or at least in the last few days. Sad to say, a lot of recent events have met that criterion, to the point that we risk becoming jaded by the constant barrage. No longer are we satisfied by one death, or even ten; now we want thousands, with pictures and human interest stories to follow.

It was my unscientific observation that the US is rarely mentioned on the BBC News abroad. Apparently other countries have different priorities, and are not quite so concerned with Big Events and Breaking News. I will admit I found it refreshing, and it’s appropriately humbling to see that the US is not The Center of The World (and I’m also ashamed of how poorly the US covers events in other countries).

What has been happening in Japan has been horrifying from anyone's perspective. The sequence of events has been disastrous beyond the comprehension of most of us, so much so that our own newscasters seem to dole out updates in an almost deliberate way, as though we can’t handle more than a little at a time. They kindly allowed us time to absorb the staggering details of death and destruction and imminent peril, and only then do they start slipping in longer-range issues. How does a country recover from such widespread destruction? (Irreverently, I always wonder where they dump all the rubble.) How do the morgues handle an influx of bodies beyond anyone's best-laid plans? How do you manage to transport food, water and fuel to more remote areas when the roads are destroyed or blocked? The mechanics of the process, on such a scale, are daunting.

And then there are bigger issues: what is the impact of the stunning paralysis of the world's third-largest economy on other countries? We can't just say "it's Japan's problem," because these days we have a global economy--we're all connected.

It can't happen here, right? Well... Some of us grew up in an era when "nuclear" was a dirty word. Somehow we got past that and began to build nuclear power plants, and now we rely on them for something like 20% of our nation's electric power. Of course, in the face of the structural problems that the Japanese plants have revealed, there are those here who are calling for the reduction or elimination of nuclear power in the US. Note that they don't make it clear how we will replace that power.

I live less than 20 miles from a nuclear power plant in Plymouth, MA--a fact that I conveniently ignore. The main components of the plant were made by General Electric, and it’s the same model and the same age as that failing Japanese plant. Not reassuring, is it? But try to implement an alternative? There’s a plan to install more than a hundred windmills off Cape Cod that’s been fighting an uphill battle through the regulatory agencies in Massachusetts for over a decade now, and it’s been stalled because Cape Cod residents don’t want their pristine seascape views marred.

When I was in Ireland, staying in a cottage high on a hill, surrounded by rolling green fields, I could believe I had stepped back in time—except for the three wind farms I could see from my windows. I’ll admit that selfishly I was troubled by the intrusion, but you have to give the Irish credit: a decade ago they decided to make a major national effort to increase their use of wind energy, and now it accounts for almost 40% at peak times. I salute the effort.

Pretty views don’t keep us warm. But what would you want in your back yard? A wind farm? A nuclear reactor? How close is too close?

Look closely, just left of center:  windmills


Sandra Parshall said...

As an environmentalist, I should favor wind farms, right? But they have their own drawbacks, aside from marring the landscape. They kill bats and birds. I don't know what the answer is. Coal, oil, and gas are finite resources that will run out someday. Our house is heated with natural gas, btw -- but at least part of our electricity is generated by a nuclear plant. The rest comes from dirty old coal.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Even 911 in New York pales in comparison to what is happening in Japan, but having lived through the former, I'm acutely aware of the huge rift between being distant enough to experience a disaster of that magnitude as sensation-driven entertainment (not judging anyone--it's just the way we perceive events that don't affect us personally) and being directly affected. This was brought home to me once again last night during the dinner conversation after a Sisters in Crime meeting. One sister has relatives in Japan who live in the area the tsunami hit as well as in Tokyo. They're all safe, but it took days for the good news to come, and their homes are rubble. We also talked about Three Mile Island, where apparently the damage was a lot worse than got out through the press. Charles Dickens said: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Our own current era in a nutshell.

Julia Buckley said...

A great question, and yes, hard to answer. But I have to say, seeing what the Japanese are going through--what has become their reality--makes me very fearful about all of our nuclear power plants.