Luddism – that is, the smashing of inhuman technology – always seemed to me to be quite a good idea. If a new machine is killing you, wreck it, as the 19th-century West Riding and Nottinghamshire weavers selectively wielded their God-given hammers to dismantle a certain type of automated loom that was driving them into poverty. King Ludd's followers, who ever since have enjoyed a bad tabloid press as technophobes, lost their class war against the textile factory owners, and many of them were hanged or transported after bloody pitched battles with the British army on the moors.
The legacy of the Luddite defeat is to be found in the society we have today. Look no further than the GE-designed boiling-water nuclear generating plants – like the reactors failed or failing at Japan's Fukushima and Tokai complexes.
As of this time of writing, in the course of Japan's unfolding disaster, we know that 200,000 people have fled, or been evacuated from, the contaminated nuclear sites, which report "partial" meltdowns. Systemic failure, where rods are overheating – Units 1, 3 and 4 at Fukushima already have exploded, sending up radioactive plumes – and malfunctioning coolants and backup diesel generators are reported all over the Japanese nuclear network. Perhaps scariest of all is that Japan's nuclear safety agency, with its long record of mendacity, like the US's own Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is saying its reactors are "under control". I'll bet.
The struggle to cool the reactors isn't the only problem. There is danger of widespread radioactivity from an inability to cool Fukushima's spent nuclear fuel pools housed in less safe buildings. These ponds hold far more radioactivity than the reactor core. There are reports of escaping caesium-137, a deadly isotope that gives off highly penetrating radiation and is absorbed in the food chain.
Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano insists that radiation released into the air at Fukushima would not be "harmful" to people. Pull the other one. Already a number of Japanese workers have been hurt by radiation, and shipboard US Navy sailors on their way to a rescue mission have been contaminated.
I live between two nuclear stations, San Onofre down near San Diego and Diablo Canyon up by central California's San Luis Obispo. The plant operators insist "there is no immediate threat to the state" and all is swell. The operator of Diablo Canyon is Pacific Gas & Electric, the company successfully sued by the citizens of the small town of Hinkley after it had allowed poisonous hexavalent chromium to leach into their ground water and lied about it, as immortalized in the film Erin Brockovich. This Diablo reactor is built smack in the middle of four earthquake faults in a built-up suburbanized area. San Onofre, the plant closest to me, has tallied ten times the number of safety complaints by workers who are afraid to speak out fearing retaliation. For good measure, San Onofre is sited between both offshore and inland (San Andreas) active seismic faults. Its nearest large city San Diego has suffered 50 per cent more earthquake activity since 1984.
We Americans have a virile tradition of whistleblowers, nuclear and otherwise, although President Obama has declared a nasty punishing war on leakers who expose government scandals. The poor Japanese have no such historical legacy, which is one reason why they're in such a pickle. Japanese managers – salarymen used to working for one company their entire lives – keep their mouths shut. They must have known what we know now, that Fukushima's main operator, Tokyo Electric Power (TEP), never tested safety for a quake-and-tsunami anywhere near the 9.0-scale event that has devastated north-eastern Japan. Their nuclear watchdogs looked the other way. The result is "full-scale panic", because now they don't know what to do or how to do it.
So, there goes our American "nuclear renaissance" trumpeted by Obama in his last state of the union speech. To tamp down climate warming and solve our energy needs, he boasted, "It means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country." He aimed to give $36bn to the nuclear power industry and, for starters, a $4bn loan guarantee for two new nuclear reactors on the Texan Gulf Coast to be built by – guess who? – the same folks who brought you the Fukushima meltdown, TEP, assisted by the same American company that made false safety reports at New York's Shoreham nuclear plant. As if the Katrina- and BP-abused Gulf Coast hasn't suffered enough.
Of the 104 old, fault-ridden, leaky, rickety nuclear power stations in the United States, 23 are of a similar GE-Toshiba design that has failed catastrophically in Japan. If a commercial nuclear reactor goes "China Syndrome" – melts all the way down, as occurred at Chernobyl which made a huge area uninhabitable and caused unknown thousands of deaths – its radioactivity will contain 1,000 times as much as the Hiroshima bomb.
My atomic future and yours is in the hands of a president who hates whistleblowers and a Nuclear Regulatory Commission in hock to the industry it's supposed to control.