The Sword of Damocles is hanging over our heads

These past few days, I’ve spent much classroom time explaining to terrified seventh and eighth-graders that yes, what is happening in Japan is horrible and no, there is no direct danger to us at the moment.

At least half of my students were glued to the TV news this weekend (with breaks for following Deutschland sucht den Superstar) – so much for the geopolitical apathy of teenagers. The kids retain the information from the news broadcasts in surprising detail, too, especially since I know how problematic it normally is to get them to retain and recall facts. And they’re scared.

I was in seventh grade during the Chernobyl disaster, i.e. the age my students are now, and I remember that whole climate of confusion and fear very well. And also how grateful we were when a teacher, any teacher, interrupted the regular schedule to explain what the hell was going on and answer questions. At least today’s seventh-graders don’t have to worry about nuclear fallout and radioactive rain and whether it’s safe to go outside during the break or ride your bicycle home in the rain or eat blackberries or drink milk. But they’re still scared, not least because of the six nuclear reactors still operating in our area, the closest of which, AKW Unterweser/Esenshamm is only 60 kilometers away.

When I was a teenager, everybody knew about Esenshamm, how close it was and that we could say bye-bye to our homes, if it ever went up. Today’s kids know as well. It’s our very own Sword of Damocles, casting its shadow of doom on us. “At least they switched it off”, one boy said to me today.

The kids all know about Chernobyl, too, even though it happened more than ten years before they were born. They’ve all seen the pictures of the abandoned town, the rusting amusement park and all that. Interestingly enough, some kids were confused why everybody was blaming “incompetent Russians” for Chernobyl, since Chernobyl was in Ukraine, so what did the Russians have to do with it. It’s telling that the Soviet Union faded from public consciousness faster than its greatest disaster did.

Other tidbits of information come back, too. On the news, they had this computer animation showing which parts of the body the different radioactive isotopes attack, how long their half-life is, etc… and I thought, “Yes, I know all that. Get on with the news, please.” And then I suddenly realized how fairly obscure and specialized those tidbits of knowledge, radioactive isotopes, their half-lives and what they do to the human body, really is. The reason I knew all that was because I’d heard it before – the very same information presented on the very same news program, though with a different animation – in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. And after a quarter century, my mind still knows about Iodine 131 and Caesium 137 and Strontium 90.

I did not want to know this. And I’m sure that my students could have happily lived without learning about nuclear meltdown and fallout and radioactive isotopes. We could all certainly have lived without the ever-present fear of nuclear reactors.

What stuns me is that there is hardly any of that nuclear fear in the US. You find plenty of “Have no fear, nuclear energy is safe” posts and the comment sections of general information posts and news articles are invaded by pro-nuclear-power trolls who keep on harping how nuclear energy is safe and how coal is worse because it contains sulphur and mercury. And besides, the US Navy operates nuclear submarines and they are safe. Coming from a country where the majority of the population is opposed to nuclear power and even pro-nuclear power politicians suddenly change their tune in the face of the disaster in Japan (and with an eye towards upcoming regional elections), I find this mindset utterly incomprehensible. Is it because the USA did not experience the fallout from Chernobyl (both in the literal and figurative sense)? Is it because blind faith in technology is more widespread in the US? Is it because of the bloody submarines? Anyway, the whole “It’s not so bad, the media is exaggerating, nuclear power is safe” attitude in the face of the present situation strikes me as just bizarre.

And it gets even uglier. A livejournal user reports how US coverage of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan is affected by more or less overt racism, including some leftover Pearl Harbor induced hate. This just makes me sick. And as for Pearl Harbor, it was seventy years ago, for heaven’s sake!

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8 Responses to The Sword of Damocles is hanging over our heads

  1. Kaz Augustin says:

    Pearl Harbour??? Good grief. What I picked up, via a friend following this in the US, are the “towns and villages” lines from various news reports. I mean, Sendai itself, not even counting satellite populations, is home to more than ONE MILLION people???? Village, my arse!

    • Cora says:

      It seems in the mind of certain people in the US, cities only exist in America, the rest of the world lives in quaint villages. Though you’d think that the fact that Sendai has an airport would have tipped them off, because villages normally don’t have major airports.

  2. Sherwood says:

    Oh, Americans are worried very much about nuclear power–I hear it all around me. The thing is our complacent wreck of a government. So much money invested in nuclear energy, and more pouring in. I can just see those commissioners and senators, etc, shutting their eyes and thinking “At least *I* don’t live near one.”

    • Cora says:

      I must hang out at the wrong places online then, because I seem to run into unabashed American techno-optimists everywhere. Or the pro-nuclear power people have just very loud voices. Though I am glad to hear that Americans are worried about the dangers of nuclear power as well. Because seeing it touted as a solution to global warming annoys me to no end. One evil does not solve another.

      And I hear you on politicians and the big power companies continuing to push nuclear power, because so much money is invested in it. Never mind that the power companies, at least in Germany, never had to carry the full costs of nuclear power. Things like waste storage, the necessary protection, etc… were always paid by the tax payer and nuclear energy was highly subsidized for a while.

      The sudden turnaround of Ms. Merkel and her party on nuclear power is very much a political ploy. There are several regional elections coming up, including one in the state of Baden-Württemberg which Merkel’s party may well lose for the first time in forever. And Baden-Württemberg is home to several aging nuclear power plants, not to mention an expensive and controversial railway remodeling project. For that matter, Gerhard Schröder’s announcement in 1998 that all nuclear power plants would be switched off until 2022 was also a political ploy, since Schröder’s party had been very much pro nuclear power and most of the existing plants were actually built under an SPD led government, until it became politically unsustainable for them to support.

  3. Estara says:

    I’m actually happy to hear that your pupils really take note of this and worry about it, because at my school it seems to mostly get milked as “oh lets talk about this, so we don’t have to do the lesson” – if the self-congratulatory smirks on the faces of the people asking the questions are anything to go by.

    On the other hand, don’t mind me – I had an incredibly annoying and frustrating episode with a pupil today and am in no way, shape or form objective right now.

    • Cora says:

      Those students that ask questions are genuinely concerned and worried, while the complacent ones are no more interested in discussing the disaster in Japan than they are in learning English.

      And I hear you on annoying and frustrating pupils. Since the half-term reports, I’ve got a boy in one of my classes who is constantly trying to provoke me by constant deployment of rude words. Today, when he gave an inappropriate answer to a question, I said, “Do you really want me to write ‘[name of student] likes to fuck’ on the blackboard or will you give me a serious answer now?” That shut him up for a while.

  4. Pingback: On Japan and Nuclear Power | ABC Buhlert

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