As the technological world progresses, natural disasters that once may have remained distant, static headlines on our national newspapers, are brought alive by video captured by cell phone cameras, Twitter testimonials, and a constant stream of news updates on the Web. Today, disaster anywhere in the world is made personal, such as the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
However, we cannot chalk up this whole disaster to nature. Man-made nuclear power reactors at Fukushima are damaged, having withstood explosions leading to radioactive gas releases.
Two weeks later, thousands of people from the United States West Coast, to the United Kingdom, to Russia, have purchased potassium iodide tablets from fear of radiation poisoning as emerging reports described a drifting radiation cloud dispersing from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. While the immediate danger of nuclear contamination does not warrant the panic and fear that has gripped many of us on the West Coast, it is clear that nuclear accidents of this magnitude will always be personal because they have the potential to reach from one corner of the earth to the other.
When I first heard about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I was on my way to work at the community health center in Bell Gardens, where along with a dedicated staff we provide medical treatment to low income and uninsured patients. One of my first responses was one that I’m sure many doctors shared: Are there enough medical professionals and rescue workers in Japan to cope with the widespread destruction caused by the quake? It wasn’t until later that I learned about the damage to the nuclear power plant at Fukushima, and I realized that with a reactor holding 1,000 times more radiation than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the potential cost to human health could reach far beyond those initially impacted by the earthquake.
The United States and other countries are now calling for the evacuation of everyone within a fifty-mile radius of the plant while Japanese workers struggle to keep the reactors cool enough to prevent a complete meltdown. As someone who works in a close knit working class community, where several of our patients may be exposed to dangerous chemicals and in factories, I wonder if the Japanese workers who on a daily basis risk their general health to work in a job and provide for their family, are also members of a community like Bell Gardens?
Who does the responsibility fall upon to sacrifice personal health to contain a nuclear disaster? Even when no disaster presents itself, who should sacrifice their daily personal health by working in or living near energy facilities or polluting manufacturers? While the situation is tragic, let’s consider this an opportunity to explore ways in which these questions can be avoided altogether.
With technology as complex as nuclear reactors, accidents are inevitable; they put us all in harm’s way. It is time we turn away from this dangerous energy enterprise and begin investing in clean, renewable and sustainable sources of energy. Even after the terrible events that have taken place in Japan over the past several weeks, the Obama Administration stands behind its position on nuclear power. Its request for $36 billion dollars to build new nuclear plants that have the ability to put every American and others around the world in danger still stands.
I personally do not want my government or tax dollars to contribute to a more dangerous world for my children. Failures in leadership in the past have already led to the construction of two plants in California, San Onofre and Diablo Canyon, which are located near earthquake fault lines. If we continue to invest in this technology, we are creating a more dangerous world, not a safer or better one.
In the coming weeks I will continue to follow the events in Japan, using technology to connect with others across the world, to follow daily developments, to hear stories of triumph and loss, and to observe a country’s struggle to recover after a devastating series of events. However, it will be years before all the effects of radiation exposure from the nuclear plant in Fukushima are felt.
There is no telling now how many lives will be affected by this nuclear disaster. It is time to think of our future, our children’s future. As a father, physician, and global citizen, I say it is time to take a stand and end our nuclear legacy.
Felix L. Nuñez, MD, MPH. Ambassador, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles
Dr. Nuñez is a board certified family physician with extensive experience working with underserved populations in Los Angeles County.