Tuesday, May 06, 2014

It wasn't an accident

A devastated Hiroshima in the aftermath of the nuclear bombing.
The photo to the left isn't quite as recognizable as the one below, but the mushroom cloud in all its immensity does not capture for me the incredible devastation wrought by something small enough to fit in my kitchen.

The last topic I covered in intro chemistry this semester was nuclear chemistry, which I think is a critical topic (pun intended!) for many reasons.  I hope to give the students a more nuanced sense of risk around nuclear materials. So we talk about where exposure comes from (living in a brick or stone house exposes you to more radiation than living near a nuclear plant), how background radiation varies with location and altitude (the background radiation in the evacuated areas around Fukushima is lower than the normal background in Philadelphia).  We talk about risks and accidents.  How many people have died in coal mining accidents versus in accidents at nuclear plants - making power costs people's lives.  I tell them one of the most serious accidents happened in Brazil — four people died of radiation poisoning, including a 6 year old girl, hundreds were contaminated — and had nothing to do with nuclear power.
The mushroom cloud, 11 miles high, 
over Nagasaki

Suddenly a hand went up in the back.  "What about Japan," my student asked, "that wasn't an accident, was it?"  The class stirred restlessly as I searched for an answer.  "No," I said slowly, "no, that wasn't an accident.  It was a terrible, unspeakably horrific thing."  Now they are silent, still looking at me.  I confess I am a pacifist.  I tell them they should read John Hershey's Hiroshima.  I tell them that this, too, is a risk of having power, nuclear and otherwise.

And at some level, I want to briskly brush this question away, and go back to talking about why Brazil nuts are so radioactive and how much uranium is in a granite kitchen counter top -- things that by comparison seem brightly ordinary and safe.

Instead, I listen to their silence, realize I will not recapture the ordinary in the 4 remaining minutes, and I send them away...

They shall beat their swords into plowshares 
and their spears into pruning hooks; 
One nation shall not raise the sword against another, 
nor shall they train for war again.  Isaiah 2:4b

1 comment:

  1. What a blessing for your students to have a faith-filled chemistry professor who shares her pacifism with her students. That is not a popular viewpoint but it is one that I share with you.