Japan should have sought immediate help from Russia with Fukushima – ecologist

The Fukushima disaster has revived concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants. Russia – with its sad experience after the Kyshtym and Chernobyl tragedies – offered help to Japan, but for some reason it wasn’t accepted immediately. Professor Sergei Baranovsky, president of Green Cross Russia, discusses possible ways to reduce the nuclear threat in the world and reflects on whether it is both possible – or reasonable – to get rid of nuclear energy completely.

Good afternoon. The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan has engendered numerous speculations. Can this be called an environmental disaster?

It absolutely can. Mistakes made by the plant’s engineers have turned a natural disaster into a man-made catastrophe. This has seriously alarmed people not only in Japan but also in all adjacent regions. The alarm was raised after, admittedly negligible, traces of radioactive material from Fukushima were detected across the world.

Environmentalists raised the alarm because, well, that’s their job. But if you ask nuclear professionals, they will tell you that while there is a threat, it is not all that serious.

I cannot agree. This is a terrible threat. As always, we need to learn from this tragedy. What happened, happened. Japan, unfortunately, did not have the negative experience we had after the Kyshtym accident in 1957 and Chernobyl in 1986, or Americans after the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979. I think the Japanese have made many mistakes, first of all when they did not request our assistance on the very first day after the accident, although we have accumulated considerable, if tragic, experience at Chernobyl and Kyshtym.

But those accidents were much worse than Fukushima, weren’t they?

Of course, they are not comparable, yet the Japanese could benefit from our experience.

Some claim that nuclear energy is unsafe and that nuclear power plants must be shut down. The green movement is on the rise now, in part thanks to Fukushima, pardon my cynicism. But is nuclear energy really dangerous?

As someone involved in the green movement, I should start with the caveat that there are Greens and Greens. A rough classification of these movements was compiled in the 1990s. Reasonable, constructive greens, if I may be so bold, appeared with the establishment of the Green Cross and Green Cross International.

Before that, there were only two groups of greens: pro-governmental ecologists, who said and did what the government told them to, and classical radical environmentalists who protested against development and innovation, arguing that all development has [unfavorable] environmental consequences.

These radical environmentalists bothered the government so much, even though they were sometimes right, that now there is no dialogue of any kind between the government, the environmentalists and the public. Especially as there are such tame pro-government organizations.

Green Cross International’s charter stipulates the principle of “Cooperation Not Confrontation,” and we also believe it is better to be part of the solution than part of the problem.

Many public environmental organizations, apart from the Green Cross, currently work in accordance with these principles in Russia. More than 70 such organizations have come together to form the Environmental Congress of Russia. They are working to protect the environment, resolve specific problems as and when they arise, and also to prevent violations of environmental law.

First and foremost, we are advocating a more open dialogue with those making the decisions on the development of nuclear energy, operation of nuclear power plants, creation of nuclear bombs and the like. We are doing all this and more, trying to find solutions that satisfy both the powers-that-be and the public.

So, if we did have dialogue like that, you would not oppose the development of nuclear energy?

We should be very cautious about nuclear energy and certainly do what both the radical and non-radical Green movements say. We should try to resolve the problems that are already worrying ecologists, in the 21st century, such as the problem of nuclear fuel waste. There is no technological solution to that, it poses a great technological problem and involves equally great expense. We need to resolve these problems.

What is done with nuclear waste now?

Nuclear waste is accumulated and often described as a raw material. There is an ephemeral hope that future generations – our children, but most likely grandchildren – will come up with some technology for recovering useful nuclear substances from waste that could be used as nuclear fuel again.

When you say that waste fuel is accumulated, do you mean that it is not buried?

It is buried in some cases, but in other cases it is accumulated at special sites, at large plants such as Mayak in Russia. Part is recycled there, but a vast amount of waste fuel and other radioactive waste is not recycled. This is the problem that worries green movements and all reasonable people.

Radical solutions such as shutting down all nuclear reactors are unworkable. Even if nuclear energy were outlawed, as some environmentalists demand, it would take the international community at least 50 years. It entails shutting down not only nuclear power plants but also all other enterprises that are indirectly connected with nuclear energy.

Furthermore, the countries that have nuclear weapons, and those that want to have them, will never outlaw nuclear energy for reasons of national security, and this is what we should fight. As long as there is the danger of a nuclear war, which there really is, then nuclear energy will continue to exist. And so long as that is the case, no one will think seriously about the environment.

On the other hand, what is often referred to as peaceful nuclear energy is quite useful. It has become part of our daily lives; many medicines cannot be made without nuclear material, and so on. But we should continue to search for a solution and start by banning nuclear weapons. After that we may find technological solutions, build reactors that are better protected, recycle nuclear waste, and lastly, there is still the theoretical possibility of giving up nuclear energy.

Thank you for your time and comments.

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