Letter from Thessaloniki

Yesterday, Kathimerini featured an entire page focusing on the «lies and truths about nuclear power.» And the other day someone who introduced himself as a «Macedonian» called the daily To Vima and declared that he has absolutely nothing against the construction of a nuclear power station in Greece – under the condition that it is erected somewhere in the Peloponnese. After a long silence, the debate about nuclear technology has finally reached the country. Due to concerns linked to the country’s high seismic activity, the option of building nuclear power stations in Greece has long been sidelined. However, hardly anybody, including the people taking part in all previous series of discussions, could say offhand exactly where the official and the secret nuclear powers now stand in the nuclear power control forest. New Democracy MP Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who presides over Parliament’s environmental protection committee, last week appeared to adopt a more open stance to nuclear energy, given that «Greece will be surrounded by nuclear power plants» in neighboring countries. At a time of soaring oil prices worldwide, it seems that this is the right moment, as proposal and counterproposal flutter down like leaves, to sum up what the nuclear power discussions have achieved, and then ask the seldom-asked questions that have been buried under the leaves. Such as, first of all: As analysts forecast that oil prices will continue to edge higher, should the world be trying to get rid of nuclear power? Answer: No; partly because it can’t be done, but also because it probably shouldn’t be done even if it could. Because «no one in his right mind is in favor of nuclear arms. So what?» as Stavros Psycharis wrote yesterday in his front-page column in To Vima, asking, «Can anyone force the emperors in Washington to destroy their nuclear arsenal?» Greece does not have any nuclear power plants and has repeatedly expressed the firm wish to avoid them. But… but, in a statement released three days ago the government indicated that a debate should begin on whether this form of energy could be adopted. One week ago, Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias suggested in a statement that «nuclear power is green power» – and created something of a furor. Development Minister Christos Folias followed, emphasizing that «all the neighboring countries are building nuclear power plants. The least we can do is learn what it is all about. Greece is not considering the option but we must get away from the habit of regarding certain options as beyond discussion.» Well, what will most probably happen from now on is that «we shall buy – at higher prices – electric power from our neighbors who use nuclear plants, and everybody will be satisfied,» Stavros Psycharis wrote, in jest. As previously mentioned, he also joked about that nameless «Macedonian» who wanted nuclear power plants as far away as possible from our part of Macedonia. Joking aside, there is a terrible precedent. NATO bombing in Kosovo in 1999 may have killed scores of people. Yet thousands more may have died from cancer and other delayed impacts of the war. At the time, the frightened inhabitants of Thessaloniki – who are about 500 kilometers (312 miles) nearer to Kosovo than Athenians – were convinced of some terrifying truths. «The incidence of cancer in certain regions of Serbia and Kosovo which were bombed by NATO with depleted uranium shells have increased as much as 500 percent, as in the case of Pancevo. The increase in cancer throughout Serbia compared to before the NATO bombings is estimated at 30 percent, while the next 30 generations will suffer the effects of the depleted uranium bombs.» So said Serb ecologists Biljana Tomasevic and Budomir Babic at a press conference they gave in Thessaloniki some time ago on the occasion of the event «From the Persian Gulf Syndrome to the Balkans Syndrome,» organized by Greek environmental organizations at Thessaloniki’s Macedonia University. Outrageously, the precise effects of depleted uranium, and therefore the scope of the human tragedy, can still only be guessed at. During their stay in Thessaloniki, the Serb ecologists underlined that the 31,000 depleted uranium bombs dropped on Yugoslavia have left behind a total of 15 tons of nuclear waste. It has been claimed that in order to be cleaned, the country’s soil must be removed to a depth of 2 meters. Babic stated that reports drawn up by independent organizations in the United States and the Netherlands have shown that depleted uranium is catastrophic for the environment and the health of the general population, stressing that Thessaloniki as well as cities in Albania, Bosnia and Bulgaria should be concerned. There is a local majority who wish that nuclear power (and weapons of course) had never been invented – and would never be invented at any time in the future. Yet this can’t be done. The invention of nuclear power has given man an historic opportunity to broaden the bounds of peace, as well as posing a fearful threat. Time has passed since the war in Kosovo. Recently at a presentation of a series of economic, sports and cultural events in Thessaloniki and Athens under the title «2 Nations – Athens 2008, London 2009,» an event designed to boost relations between Britain and Greece, UK Minister of State for Trade and Investment Lord Digby Jones said that nuclear power had long provided his country’s base-load energy and was also important in dealing with the impact of global warming. Greenpeace reacted promptly: «If someone suggests the nuclear option in the face of climate change, it means that he is essentially importing one big threat that could be destructive for health, the environment and security, to replace another.» What lies behind all these paradoxes is that human beings are still terrified of nuclear power although they also see it as a key to prosperity.