Closer to Home

Matt Wan

Thousands of electric wires run across Chicago. Within their black rubber casings, sleepless bundles of energy wait for our cue to wake up and go to work, lighting our homes and running our refrigerators. But how we use energy is only one side of the story: where it comes from is an equally important, though sometimes troubling question. Over half of Illinois’ energy is produced by nuclear plants and there are more nuclear reactors in Illinois than in any other state. According to the Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS), a non-profit based in Chicago, “if Illinois were a country, we’d be the 12th largest nuclear power in the world, tied with China.”

April 26 marked the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl power plant explosion in northern Ukraine. On Monday, a crowd gathered at the Henry Moore Sculpture to Atomic Energy on the University of Chicago campus. Cast in  indomitable bronze, the sculpture has stood since 1967 to mark the location of the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction and the birthplace of the Atomic Age. Twenty-five candles were lit to the chime of a bell, and geographical distance of oceans and countries collapsed as those at the vigil recalled the tragedy at Chernobyl.

Years after Chernobyl, a disproportionally high number of cases of radiation sickness and cancer continue to burden people living near the site–and in the wake of the earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan, these concerns have returned to the fore. The shutdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility and the subsequent radiation leak has raised Chernobyl-levels of alarm across the globe. Residents within a twelve-mile radius were evacuated to avoid radioactive contamination, and thousands more are living with under the specter of spreading pollution.

Amid the many global relief efforts organized to assist Japan during this bleak time, a few UofC students are taking action. Immediately following the disaster, the Japan Relief and Rebuild committee was created under the Japanese Student Association. Tabling daily at the Reynolds Club, the committee encouraged students to donate to the cause, while last Friday’s “UChicago’s Got Talent” event raised funds for humanitarian relief. Reaching out to a nation halfway across the world, the committee assures those who contribute to their cause that “the people of Japan will receive our warm messages.”

Last week the UofC Alumni Association hosted a panel discussion entitled “Lessons from Fukushima,” in conjunction with the Argonne National Laboratory and the Harris Energy Policy Institute. Eluding any serious discussion of the human toll at Fukushima and only slightly dipping into nuclear energy policy evaluation, the message delivered was, according to Kraft, all too well orchestrated. On the panel, one of the Argonne scientists asserted the “intrinsic safety” of new reactor designs while Booth School economist Robert Topel spoke in the jargon of markets, profit, and externalities. Most sensible was Kennette Benedict, director of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who made explicit that we are the gatekeepers of a power that can destroy the world.

With International Radioactive Waste Awareness Day passing this Tuesday, many Chicagoans are unaware of our reliance on the seemingly distant Braidwood nuclear power plant, which lies merely 50 miles southwest of O’Hare International Airport and supplies electricity to the entire city of Chicago. The devastation in Japan looms a little too close to home: the Braidwood plant has experienced shutdowns and waste leakages as recently as August 2010. As Benedict said in last week’s panel discussion, “a nuclear disaster is one everywhere.”

As Chernobyl and Fukushima stand side by side this week, we can only hope that our messages, like the ones sent to Japan, will reach an ear that will listen.