x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The fear of nuclear energy is its unknown consequences

The nuclear crisis in Japan sparks thoughts on the human consequences of atomic bombs and Chernobyl's radiation leak.

'Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood," said the scientist Marie SklodowskaCurie, the first person to be honoured with two Nobel Prizes.

Since I truly admire Madame Curie, who was a pioneer in the field of radioactivity, I decided to conquer my fear of nuclear energy by educating myself through a trip to a Japanese nuclear plant.

I was supposed to be on a plane just one day after the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, there was no nuclear crisis yet, but nonetheless, the trip to the nuclear plant was canceled as a precaution. I recall my annoyance at that. But now bless the conservative Japanese authorities who had the foresight to avoid any risks.

I was to go inside the Tokai No 2 Power Station, Japan's first large-scale light water reactor plant. It is located in the northeast of Tokyo, and is known as the birthplace of Japanese atomic energy.

I had also planned to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where I could visit medical and research clinics dedicated to the hibakusha victims, which refers to radiation victims of the atomic bombs and survivors of nuclear reactor accidents. I was surprised to find out there are still people suffering from the bombing 66 years on. I was supposed to meet a few of them.

Now, with Japan's growing reactor crisis, the decades of work by these clinics will be priceless for anyone exposed to radiation. I am sure lessons learnt from history will help them to deal with the unfolding tragedy.

I am not a scientist and so I will not speculate on the safety of nuclear power. All I know is that back in 1986, on April 26, my family and I were in Poland when the relatively unknown town of Chernobyl in Ukraine made headlines when one of the reactors at its nuclear plant exploded. I don't remember much about the actual incident as I was just seven years old, but I clearly remember the fears expressed by my family. We were back in Saudi Arabia the next day - Poland shares its borders with Ukraine.

My parents weren't taking any risks, especially given that back then, Ukraine and Poland were under the Soviet Union, a power notorious for its suppression of information particularly regarding casualties. Given that radioactive debris spread all across Europe from that incident, I don't think my parents overreacted at all.

Decades later, when I travelled through Belarus and Eastern Europe to report on orphanages, I discovored a "Cherno" ward in one of them. It was believed that these children's deformities and illnesses were due to the world's worst nuclear incident. (I say "believed" because it is difficult to measure the effects of a naturally-occuring element on the human body, even when it is known to be harmful.)

All I know is what I saw. Children of different ages, including toddlers, were struggling, and it was heart-breaking. Some were missing limbs, others had deformed fingers or toes, and a third group had difficulty with their perception and coordination.

I can't forget how the supervising nurse told me that they kept these children away from couples that would come in hoping to adopt, as they could "scare them away". The "special" ward was more like the unwanted children ward. Some doctors, who are friends of mine, dismissed the idea that Chernobyl had caused the children's deformities, saying that statistically, at least, they were normal.

Whatever the case, since I didn't get the chance to actually learn more about nuclear power in Japan, I can only watch in horror as the country struggles with destruction and radiation risks that may last for years to come.

rghazal@thenational.ae