Friday, March 28, 2008

I Live By the River

On March 28, 1979, 30 years ago today, the unthinkable happened: one of the two reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania started to melt down. Though the cause and consequences remain in dispute, Three Mile Island remains the most serious nuclear accident in American history. Its legacy has loomed over the debate on nuclear power for decades. But as memory fades and recognition of climate change spurs the search for energy sources that don't emit carbon, nuclear power is being seen in a new light - and many people are pushing for construction and relicensing of plants for the first time since the accident.
- Lauren Redness, in The New York Times

I was a student in Boston at the time of the TMI incident, and recall the feeling of helplessness and the perception of being unprotected. Boston might or might not have been downwind of the site (who was to be believed?), and if the air wasn't safe to breathe, what choice did we have?

1979 was a dark year. It wasn't all disco and CHiPs like the VH1 specials would have you think. On November 4, Iranian protesters captured 52 U.S. diplomats and held them hostage for 444 days. Shortly afterwards , a botched rescue attempt resulted in eight servicemen's deaths and disturbing images on television of crashed and ruined helicopters in the desert. And by May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens catastrophically erupted in the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.

In the midst of all this dread, The Clash released their album London Calling on December 14, 1979, Britain's Christmas gift to the world. While we breathed suspect air, while we worried about the hostages and our government's impotence and apparent inability to protect us, the radio would broadcast the album's title song with it's chorus:

"The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in,
Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin,
A nuclear error but I have no fear -
London is drowning and I live by the river."

Joe Strummer later succinctly summarized the mood of the time: "We felt that we were struggling - about to slip down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails. And there was no one there to help us."

30 years later, and have things really changed? We worry about the air that we breathe. We worry about our government's actions in the Islamic world, notably in Iraq and Iran. We worry about a nuclear winter (the ice age is coming), global warming (the sun is zooming in), peak oil (engines stop running), drought and famine (the wheat is growing thin). Do we really need to add nuclear errors to our list of concerns?


Red Craig said...

I was in Pittsburgh when the accident happened. What I remember from it was that the reactor was destroyed and the reporters scared the wits out of everyone for hundreds of miles around. But no one was harmed. That's it: all these years people have been wringing their hands over an accident that had no consequences except to the owners of the plant.

And, all these years, Americans have been dying by the hundreds of thousands from the pollution from coal-burning power plants. But more than that, we're facing environmental catastrophe on a global scale.

So yes, we do need nuclear energy. It is an essential part of the solution. This is no time to let misinformation from political pressure groups get in the way of saving our habitat.

Matt Granz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Granz said...

Hmmm... last comment by me was sadly not so well written...

I say amen to the comment above by red craig. What will we think of when we view this time period where greed is king? Like the Disco revolution, there is currently only soulless meaning to the world of commercial musical art and the political landscape is seemingly the choice of worse or worse... and meanwhile, while Bush, Congress etc... are Fiddling while the USA burns, the prices of commodities are going up much faster than any employer can afford to up their employees' pay scale. Plus, there's that meaningless war.... I say Nuclear Power is much better than watching miners die in coal mine cave ins... I don't know of any American Nuclear power plant that has killed so many people who work to help produce the energy or otherwise... but we have our high definition television sets to keep us distracted, and lots of fodder to gulp down. man, this comment is fragmented!!! Thanks for the post!

Matt Granz said...

...but I really have no opinion.