Using Japan to discuss energy at home


I noticed this week that I’ve been writing and thinking about energy almost constantly. Obviously I’m not the only non-expert who has become obsessed with this subject, but it is interesting to me how something that used to seem so technical and dispassionate now churns the emotions so powerfully. Perhaps it is the very mysteries themselves of fuel extraction, conversion, and combustion that stimulate fear and fascination, and the fact that the whole world is dependent on substances and processes understood by so few. More likely, it is the heightened realization that when things go wrong they go very, very wrong, as in the cases of the recent horrifying BP oil-spill and the continuing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

On that subject, I have to say that I was hesitant to write about it, even though I’m on record with deep reservations about anything involving uranium and other radioactive materials. It feels cheap and mean to be smug in the face of so much suffering, and besides, I’m as complicit as anyone in my reliance on dirty power (I will no longer stand idly by when I hear people refer to nuclear energy as “clean”). My home in Mesa, Arizona, is powered by a combination of fossil fuels, coal, and nuclear fission, even though I live in the sunniest region of the country. True, solar panels are cropping up here and there, but they’re still mere gestures toward a possibly sustainable future. I hope to install some myself, but cost is an issue, as is the learning curve involved with installation and maintenance. Like a lot of people, I feel helpless and rather guilty.

All of this leads me back to a thought I had back in September, when I was trying to learn more about uranium mining amid a flurry of controversy over proposed increased activity in the Grand Canyon and Four Corners regions. There is no mistaking that uranium mining has already provided badly needed jobs for Native people and others in the area, but these jobs, like others in extractive industries, are subject to boom and bust cycles, not to mention the occupational safety risks and environmental perils involved in day-to-day operations. Still, a job is a job; mine is what keeps me living in a polluted, overpopulated urban area in a state determined to be the reddest and most retrograde in the U.S.

It’s tempting to just throw in the towel and accept that things are bad all over, and that only experts understand and can control our energy future. Most of us may not fully grasp the properties of exothermic reaction or blowout protectors, but we can definitely understand stories of devastation and loss. No advanced degrees are necessary to interpret the agony on the faces of Japanese residents faced with both natural and man-made disasters. Even in hard times we can speak up. It’s too bad that large-scale crises are sometimes necessary to spur us to action, but it’s worse if they are forgotten after a few news cycles. It’s encouraging to see the beginning of a new conversation emerging about energy production and its real effects on people and environments.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.

Image of nuclear cooling tower courtesy Flickr user HeyRocker.

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