March 11 was the one-year anniversary of the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami.
Despite everything I've said about being too old for long day trips, that Sunday found me on a bus with a bunch of anti-nuclear activists - a term I dislike - headed toward a little church in Waynesboro.
There, in the shadow of Plant Vogtle's cooling towers, the ladies of the Fairfield Missionary Baptist Church graciously served lunch - baked chicken, turnip greens, and cornbread - to those of us who gathered for a Day of Remembrance. Some of the visitors had come from as far away as Japan.
In a time when nuclear power is in decline, Georgia Power Co. is trying to engineer a "nuclear Renaissance" by building two new reactors at its Plant Vogtle site. The licensing process has yet to be completed, and there is a good chance the reactors may never produce a single kilowatt of electricity. But Georgia Power already has begun construction and has raised its rates to cover the cost.
I don't enjoy speeches, and I don't like being told stuff I already know. I particularly don't enjoy sitting on a cramped bus for six hours, but the men and woman who made that trip to Waynesboro were my friends and compatriots. I had to be there.
We numbered about 50: black and white, Christian and Buddhist, Japanese and American, well-to-do and just-getting-by. But whatever our differences, we all understood what Albert Einstein meant when he said, "... the atom has changed everything, save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."
The world is waking up to catastrophe but seems unable to change its thinking. The folly of nuclear power is clear: There is no way to make it completely safe, and "safe enough" simply isn't safe enough.
Moreover, nuclear power is financially unsustainable. The cost of nuclear energy continues to go up while the cost of alternatives is coming down.
According to a Duke University report, solar energy now is cheaper than nuclear. Perhaps the biggest problem of all is that after 60 years, we still don't know what to do with the radioactive waste. Some of it will remain dangerous for thousands of years.
Why do we continue? Remember Dwight Eisenhower's warning about the military industrial complex? We didn't listen.
Anthropology is the study of man, his culture and his institutions. One of the first things the anthropology student learns is that institutions, while not human, have much in common with humans. Institutions grow and evolve. The people who run them die and are replaced, but institutions are basically immortal. An institution, like a human being, has a will to live. It will fight for its life, but unlike a human being, it has no conscience.
Nuclear is more than bombs, more than electricity. It is an institution.
The nuclear industry is very rich and very powerful. Furthermore, its ties to the military provide it with a level of secrecy that's dangerous in a democracy.
Georgia Power is also a very powerful and protected institution. You only have to look at the Georgia Public Service Commission. Tasked with protecting the public, the PSC repeatedly fails at its job when faced with Georgia Power. What Georgia Power wants, Georgia Power gets.
Confronted with this overwhelming situation, the average citizen gives up. Moreover, institutions like Georgia Power have brainwashed us into thinking we can't get along without them. The truth is if we want to survive, we have to change the way we think about all institutions.
There was some good news at the end of our Day of Remembrance. After the Fukushima crisis, Japan shut down 52 of its 54 reactors. Someone in the audience asked the visitor from Japan how the country was managing the loss. Very well, he said. Local communities have come together to supply power in a number of creative ways. There are no blackouts. Some adjustment, some discomfort, but the country is coping quite well.
The message is this: Despite what the industry wants us to believe, we don't need nuclear power.
Joan King is a Sautee resident whose columns appear regularly on alternate Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.