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Last Weekend

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"Did you have a nice weekend?" a friend asked on Monday, before recounting all the fun things he and his kids did over the weekend.

I'm sure I looked at him as if he had just arrived from Mars.

"What did you do for fun?" he insisted.

I watched television last weekend, something I rarely do. I woke up in the middle of the night to check not my BlackBerry for messages, but my favorite news sites for the latest horror. I stared at the endless pictures and studied all the interactive models of how nuclear energy is produced, how the cooling process works, and why they were pouring in seawater and letting out steam. I shook my head that one of the world's leaders in technology -- operating plants with state of the art technology -- could be reduced to pouring in seawater and letting out steam, and could be stymied by a stuck valve.

The pictures of human suffering coming from Japan are nothing less than terrifying. I know, we saw the pictures from Katrina and the pictures from Haiti. The world is full of horrible disasters and unspeakable tragedies. You think you're used to it. But -- and I hope this is a good thing and will always be so -- the suffering of thousands of people, the fear of millions, is not something that will ever be routine for me.

Some of it, to be sure, is selfish. It is fear about our own country, our children and our safety that makes it hard to sleep. If Japan, with all their smarts and savvy and know-how, can't handle an earthquake, how could we? What if my son -- student of, of all things, Japanese -- had been visiting, as a group from his school had been planning to do this summer? What if the winds bring all that radiation to our country, to the West Coast, where I live?

And what about the two plants right here in California, a state known for its extensive network of faults? Why should I believe the newspapers when they say it couldn't happen here? Didn't they say the same thing in Japan? Didn't they say their plants were designed to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis, that they had redundant safety systems, that the reactors would automatically shut down in the event of an earthquake? The reactors did shut down, but the electrical systems that were supposed to cool them did, too.

The easy answer, and the one I expect many politicians to jump on, is that nuclear power is just too dangerous. But so is our dependence on the Gadhafis of the world to provide us with oil. So are the mines in which men risk their lives and health every day to bring up coal. Does anyone really think that solar is the answer to everything, that windmills will save us from dirty and dangerous sources of energy? I don't.

To be an adult is to know that the world is not a safe place, that bad things happen, that no one can ever say for sure that everything will be fine. When my children were little, they used to make me promise each time I left for a trip that I would come home safely. And I would solemnly promise, knowing it was largely beyond my control, but refusing to deny my children the comfortable security of childhood.

Oh, to believe such promises could be kept. By anyone.

Children who watched television last weekend, and certainly the children of Japan, have come to understand that the security of childhood is a fairy tale that even one of the most advanced nations in the world cannot make real.

What did I do last weekend? The truth is, I cried.


See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.  

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