Monday, August 08, 2011

Does a young life count more than an old life?

Most people outside Japan do not realize that the Fukushima calamity is still a part of the daily reality for many Japanese. One thing that actually hasn’t been solved so far is the threatening “meltdown” of the power plant, which can be stopped only, as a website explains, by “suppress[ing] the nuclear chain reaction by inserting control rods into the reactor core and … gradually cool[ing] the fuel rods with constantly circulating water.” However, the cooling system of the Fukushima nuclear plant has been destroyed, too. A temporary solution has been found by hosing the nuclear reaction system with water, but it is only a short-term solution. Moreover it can lead to nuclear pollution of the environment. So a more permanent solution has to be found, like repairing the damaged cooling system or replacing it by a new one. But as the same website says: “Repair or installation of the cooling system will unavoidably be conducted in an environment highly contaminated with radioactive elements with serious risk of future health complications.” Since apparently this cannot be done by robots, the question arises then: who should do the job? According to Yastel Yamada, a business consultant who manages the website just mentioned, it is not expedient to take younger people for it: “Young people with a long future should not have to be placed in a position of having to undertake such a task. Radiation exposure of a generation which may reproduce the next generation should be avoided, regardless of the amount.” Besides, it is not they who are responsible for the construction of nuclear power plants but it is the older generation that is and this generation has also benefitted most of them. Therefore a “Skilled Veterans Corps” should be formed consisting of “volunteers of veteran technicians and engineers who are much more qualified to carry out the work with much better on-site judgment.”
At first sight this argument sounds reasonable but is it really so? There may be nothing against using volunteers for doing the job, but what I am annoyed about in the argument are the implicit (and partly explicit) suppositions that the older generation is guilty, anyhow, of the construction of the Fukushima power plant and that a younger life has more value than an older life. I think that there are good reasons to question both suppositions. Here I do not have the space for an extensive discussion of the arguments, so I want to limit myself to a few remarks. First, a dichotomy between a younger and older generation does not exist. A generation is a sociological category but in fact age differences are on a continuum. Should we then introduce degrees of responsibility and degrees of eligibility for the Volunteer Corps? Second, the “younger generation” may not be responsible for the construction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, but did it protest against it? And didn’t it profit by the plant as well? Third, “generation” is a sociological category and generations do not exist as such, as I just explained; only individuals exist. How can we make then the “older generation” as a whole responsible for the Fukushima power plant, despite the attitude of its individual members to the plant and despite the degree they have profited by it? Fourth, how to weigh a younger person of say 40 years old who becomes ill after 30 years because of exposure to radiation by repairing the Fukushima power plant against a person of 69 years old who becomes ill after one year, as may happen? Fifth, that the still to be born must not be exposed to radiation is a strong point, but many young people have already children and do not want to have more or they can choose not to have children. Sixth, how to value a life? Hasn’t life a value as such? How to weigh a 70 years old person (who might become 100 years old) against a younger person (who might die young?). Since the length of life can be statistically indicated (but only for a “generation”, not for individuals), is statistics then, for example, a good foundation to value the worth of a life? Or the kind of education a person has received? Or what else? What matters in what the value of a person is and who values?
These are only a few comments that occurred to me when I read the proposal for a Skilled Veterans Corps for repairing the cooling system of the Fukushima power plant, and certainly more can be added, against it and in support of it.

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