As we approach the first anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear tragedy in Japan, it is a fitting time to remember the human costs after several nuclear reactors melted down in Fukushima.
Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to dangerous levels of nuclear radiation, and the spread of radioactive contamination forced the relocation of more than 100,000 from their homes. Many will not be able to return for decades, if ever.
As an Iowa dairy farmer, it’s the plight of the farmers surrounding Fukushima that hits home the hardest.
Fukushima was one of the primary agricultural areas in Japan. After radiation spread from the failed nuclear reactors to surrounding land, sales collapsed for beef, rice, fruit and other agricultural products from the area. Since the disaster began, the Japanese government has banned the sale of milk and produce from a large region including Fukushima and three other prefectures.
Unable to sell their contaminated products on the market, farmers dumped millions of gallons of milk into rivers and tons of vegetables into pits. Twenty thousand cattle farmers were asked to stop grazing their cattle, costing them $600 million in feed silage. The total costs to Japanese farmers from the Fukushima disaster will not be known for years, but they almost certainly will be in the billions of dollars.
While the situation in Fukushima continues to unfold, MidAmerican Energy is trying to build more risky nuclear reactors here in Iowa. Knowing that no investor would put his or her own money into nuclear reactors, MidAmerican is pushing the Iowa Senate to pass a bill that would allow the company to raise electrical rates on Iowans in advance to finance future nuclear reactors — and to keep the money even if the reactors never get built.
This plan is an affront to Iowa ratepayers. And if the reactors are built, it would put Iowa’s agricultural economy and way of life at risk.
I’ve been farming for more than thirty years. Currently my wife Susan and I are milking 90 cows and producing milk, yogurt and cheese, which we sell to local grocery stores and restaurants in Fairfield. Just as farming is important to me, it’s a vital part of Iowa’s economy.
Our leaders in Des Moines must not force Iowa consumers to bankroll nuclear reactors that would be risky both economically and environmentally. The Fukushima disaster covered an area equivalent to 20 percent of Iowa with radiation. Were that to happen in Iowa, it would be disastrous for our people and our agriculture.
The good news is that the nuclear risk isn’t necessary. There are better and safer ways to transition away from dirty, outdated coal. On my own farm, I’ve put up solar panels for hot water, solar photovoltaics for powering water pumps and electric fences, geothermal systems for heating our house and our cows’ water tanks and I have plans for a mid-sized wind turbine on the farm.
Rather than giving preferential treatment to MidAmerican so that it can build nuclear reactors that put us all in danger, our government should support polices to develop a wide array of energy solutions that will help farmers become more energy self-sufficient with wind, solar and other safe and truly renewable energy systems. This would give us distributed electricity production and the wealth created would stay in local communities.
Nuclear rate hikes are not right for Iowa. It’s time for an energy policy in Iowa that can take our agricultural economy into the future rather than put it at risk.
~ Francis Thicke is a dairy farmer from Fairfield and the author of the 2010 book “A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture, Sustainable Agriculture for the 21st Century.”