I am in grief over Japan. My personal feelings don’t matter but there is a pool of universal grief that disasters open up and we all find ourselves tapping into it, in one way or another. Port-au-Prince, Christchurch, Sendai. The Gulf of Mexico. The dying baby dolphins. And now, with Fukushima Daiichi (it means “Fukushima Number One” but it has 6 reactors), the grief ripples further back to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Nagasaki, Hiroshima.
Grief has never seemed like a useful emotion—it just is. It is not a motivating force. It stops me rather than moves me. Anger seems more helpful, especially when disasters are human made. Anger focuses us on what is wrong and what needs to change. Anger moves us to action. Anger says never again.
But grief lasts longer. I still grieve over Chernobyl and that happened 25 years ago come April 26. I remember the date because it’s my wedding anniversary and because I was working at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists when that worst-case nuclear power scenario became a reality. I edited the articles about Chernobyl that we published in a special issue that September, which won a National Magazine Award.
The words of those articles haven’t stayed with me over the years—I had to look at the NYTimes diagrams to remind myself of how nuclear meltdowns happen.
What stays with me is the absolute, sinking grief over what was happening. Grief for the women and children and the unborn of the area, helpless in the fallout and the confusion. For the heroic workers who only half-knew what they were getting into when they were putting out the fires and entombing the reactor. Many got sick on the spot and died later. Grief for the poisoned soil and water and animals and plants. Grief for the human stupidity and heedlessness and desperation that leads to big mistakes. Grief for human arrogance.
And now I’m seeing it happen all over again in Fukushima. The details are different, of course. But it’s the same story, too. The big oops. Human beings apparently can’t foresee things like 9.0 earthquakes followed by tsunamis when siting systems like nuclear power plants where so many things can go wrong.
It’s grief that stops me again. I don’t know what to do. I don’t have anything to say that has not already been said. Of course we should stop nuclear power construction in its tracks. Of course we should review all our assumptions about safety. Of course we must get our own energy house in order. That’s been said before and we forget, we turn away.
If I were to march on a nuclear power plant today it would not be shouting and carrying signs. It would be wearing black. It would be in the company of mourners who know how to wail. It would be to sit in grief. It would be to keep open some wells into the universal pool of grief for as long as it takes.