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Archive for October, 2008

As elsewhere, here in Kansas we’re locked in debate over how to fuel our decadent* energy-consuming lifestyle. We’ve recently had to step beyond debate into action, though. In October, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment refused to grant a permit for the construction of two new coal-fired power plants. The agency cited environmental and health concerns. Huh, figure that. What a thing for them to be concerned about. The two plants would have provided power to Kansas and Eastern Colorado, and produced more than ten tons of carbon dioxide annually.

It’s an exciting time to be a Kansan. Sometimes I daydream about us starting an energry revolution as big as our push for freedom that started the Civil War. Hopefully not as bloody, but as stunning in the change it proposes: real efforts to use sustainable, alternative fuels. Governor Sebelius’s State of the State Address this year contained this observation: “The question of where we get our energy is . . . no longer just an economic issue, nor solely an issue of national security. Quite simply, we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this state.”

In a state where we have incredible wind resources and considerable solar exposure, there’s no reason to sink millions of dollars into power plants that are going to perpetuate our dependence on non-renewable resources that pollute the environment. Where from here, though? We have the wind and the sun, but no infrastructure to take advantage of it. We’ve got biomass, for sure, just drive out by Dodge City and breathe in the “biomass” fumes.

Of course, in addition to wind and solar power, there are people pushing for more nuclear power. Clean, safe, dependable, all that. It gives me the willies, as childish as that sounds. The coal-fired plants the KDHE rejected would have been located near their current coal plant, in Holcomb, Kansas. I grew up not two hours from Holcomb, and if I still lived there, I wouldn’t want more coal-fired plants near me. Sure, nobody wants it in their backyard, and that ought to be a hint that it’s a bad idea. The same is true with nuclear power. I wouldn’t mind a wind farm or a solar array in my backyard, but I don’t want a nuclear plant in my neighborhood, again.

Funny story about nuclear power: I used to live in Japan, in Niigata-ken, which is in the north, sandwiched between the Japan Sea and the Honshu mountain range, home of the most expensive high-speed rail line in the world. My little apartment was in a small suburb near a large temple complex and public park. I lived right over a small convenience store, and out my back windows was an incredible stretch of rice paddies–truly I lived in “inaka.” I also lived less than 30 km from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactor. About three months after I moved into that apartment, my doorbell rang, and I opened the door to an older man in a suit. He presented me with a formal envelope of very expensive paper. Bowing down, he rattled off what I think was an elaborately scripted apology, and then he departed. Inside the envelope was a letter and a check, made payable to me, in the amount of about $150 in yen.

My Japanese wasn’t very good, so I took the letter over to my boss’ house. He read it, nodded, and said, “Oh, yes, it’s your reactor money.” It turns out that everyone who lives within 50 km of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, and perhaps every nuclear reactor in Japan, receives a check to compensate them for the “inherent danger” of living so close to a nuclear reactor. If Kashiwazaki-Kariwa went Chernobyl in the middle of the night, I was as good as dead. My boss intimated that most people used the money to purchase additional life and property insurance. I, uh, bought a stereo and a really gorgeous meal at the only Indian restaurant in Niigata-ken. Live for today.

Since then, there has been a minor incident at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. An earthquake caused a minuscule amount of radioactive material to be flushed into the Japan Sea. Turns out Kashiwazaki isn’t Japanese for “Chernobyl.” All the same, I think I’ll pass.

The photo is of a mural in the church in Pripyat, Ukraine, within the “kill zone” of the Chernobyl reactor disaster. Formerly a town of 45,000 people, Pripyat is completely abandoned now. A few years back, some intrepid photographer ventured in through the security gates to photograph the truly frightening life-interrupted of a city that is uninhabitable, and will be for hundreds of years to come. The people who evacuated from Pripyat weren’t allowed to take any of their belongings with them, because everything in the city has been rendered lethally radioactive by the fallout from Chernobyl. No baby photos, no wedding china, no heirloom quilts. Nothing. They’re all memento mori now. Just like Jesus, smiling benevolently down from that dome, all the beauty of a silent Armageddon spread out in the streets around him.

More than seven million people are eligible to receive assistance as “Chernobyl victims.” Seven million people who have been victimized on a cellular level, people whose very DNA has been poisoned.

I think I’ll keep walking, turning off the lights, writing to my elected representatives to demand safe alternative fuel sources, and setting my thermostat at 85 in the summer and 65 in the winter. It’s not perfectly comfortable, but at least it’s not leaking roentgens into my body.

*My modest Methodist grandmother would turn over in her grave to hear her habit of leaving every light in the house on described as “decadent.”

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