Japan’s Meltdown

A surfer's perspective from Tokyo amid fears of nuclear disaster

A 2005 image of Brendan Margison surfing in front of the now-damaged nuclear power plant Fukushima in Japan. Photo: Aichner

Evacuation procedures reportedly have Narita International Airport in gridlock, with people waiting up to seven hours for a departure stamp. To my wife and I, however, immigration seems a ghost town. As the only non-Japanese passengers on our Guam to Tokyo flight, we clear customs in seconds, boardbag not withstanding. With very little fanfare, we are officially in Japan. Considering all of the media hype, we aren’t exactly sure what to expect.

Although aftershocks continue to rock the country, and the devastation up north has left over 25,000 dead or missing, Tokyo seems to have escaped the earthquake relatively unscathed. It’s the partial core meltdown at the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant that has people worried. Reports on the severity of the “worst nuclear disaster in 25 years” vary, but with mounting evidence that radiation has contaminated vegetables, milk, and drinking water, not to mention the Pacific Ocean and associated marine life, it is obvious that “clean energy” is going through a dirty phase. Although panic over jet stream-driven radiation seems to have subsided in the U.S., the situation in Japan has made anti-nuclear sentiment trendy once again, and many are openly questioning the wisdom of building nuclear power plants on fault lines.

In the wake of Japan’s ongoing crisis, the safety of San Onofre’s Nuclear Generating Station has recently been called into question. Located near five faults, the enormous atomic boobs looming over San O and Trestles are clearly at-risk for earthquake damage. Although many geologists claim an earthquake of 8.0 or above in the area is unlikely, it is not unthinkable that, under the right circumstances, a disaster comparable to the Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdown could occur on the shores of one of California’s most rippable (and crowded) waves. The station withstood a 7.2 magnitude quake in April of 2010, and Southern California sees upward of 10,000 tremors per year. With the East Coast still reeling from the BP spill and the western Pacific now suffering radiation exposure, there is certainly cause for concern, particularly for the surf community, which by definition should be sensitive to all things environmental.

Despite all the hype and concern, in general, we remain blind to the fundamental cause of these incidents. It is one thing to be pissed off about an oil spill, but another thing entirely to be willing to stop using gasoline. Likewise, it is easy to be “anti” nuclear power, but not so easy to live without it. The reality is that we as a country consume at an unsustainable rate. Making up only 5 percent of the world’s population, we use nearly 70 percent of its energy, and shamelessly flaunt our consumer ethos through films, websites, and various other forms of media, commercially evangelizing the developing world. Now, as more countries find themselves financially capable of aspiring to the American Dream, we are faced with an escalating global appetite for energy at affordable prices. Unfortunately, our current fuel supply and pollution sinks cannot support this appetite. Until the world, and the U.S. in particular, is willing to curtail its consumption habits, we will be forced to continue splitting atoms and drilling wells, and to accept oils spills and radiation leaks as the price of “progress.”

Shortly before flying to Tokyo, I came across a gas station advertising “Five cents donated to Japan Relief per gallon purchased.” I applaud this spirit of solidarity, and am all for aiding our neighbors in their moment of need. If we really want to fix humanity’s problems, however, the best thing might be to stop purchasing and start rediscovering the simple life. This shouldn’t be too difficult for those of us who surf. After all, the ocean daily supplies all the energy we really need, free of charge, and with no risk of a meltdown.

–Matt Rott