Back in March 2011, I was sitting at the bagel shop when news of the Fukushima disaster came in over the TV. As I sat there and asked myself if the end of the world was nigh, my imagination got to work, and I pictured how killer waves and the toxic atom might also one day befall the city of Wilmington, where we rely on nuclear electricity produced here on the Carolina coast. It would begin with a once-in-a-century hurricane, which would arrive at lunar high tide, and the power of the waves upon the edifice of the nuclear plant would break the containment around the reactor and release radioactive matter into our surroundings. What would we do?
I had occasion to revisit this nightmare scenario last weekend, as I was crossing the Cape Fear River on the Memorial Bridge. A friend and I were discussing the shadowy plan, which has been tabled for the moment, to bulldoze several blocks of homes in the historic district to make way for a new bridge, supposedly necessary and inevitable. A while back someone had circulated a flyer that explained the logic of the new bridge, and it had included two sheets of evacuation maps to show two evacuation scenarios: the hurricane and the nuclear meltdown. The possibility that these two disasters would coincide is considered impossibly remote, but so too was the earthquake-tsunami-radioactive-leak scenario.
Not long after the events of Fukushima, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek addressed the nuclear disaster during a lecture in which he raised a plausible scenario that boggled the political and logistical mind: What if the entire main island of Japan, or at least the area of Greater Tokyo, had to be evacuated completely? Žižek pointed out how close the Japanese had already come to this apocalyptic scenario; the authorities of the Tokyo Electric Power Company had already warned that children, the elderly, and pregnant women should not drink the tap water in Tokyo. In other words, there was definitely something to worry about, but the threat is subtle enough that healthy adults will probably not notice anything, or at least won’t get sick enough to sue, or take to the streets.
And there we were, driving over the Cape Fear River and laughing about the evacuation of Wilmington from a super-hurricane. I did not feel like raising the whole nuclear hurricane scenario, nor did I feel like mentioning the more germane matter of what was coursing through Wilmington’s water supply, the mystery toxin known as GenX. Radiation suddenly seems boring by comparison. What if the joke is on us? What if we had to evacuate Wilmington? What if we could no longer drink the water, here in a place where water surrounds us, where the river meets the sea? The worst nightmares people had about the Titan cement plant have crept back into the vicinity of possibility.
What we ought to find most frightening is precisely the ambiguity of GenX as a toxin which is certainly dangerous, but whose properties are ultimately unfathomable. An almost total absence of independent science clouds the situation tremendously, and it is folly to attempt to read the situation out of the batteries of data produced by the same corporate laboratories where GenX was designed. Though there is no royal road to science, the first step for popular enlightenment on this matter must be an independent scientific inquiry conducted at state universities, separately from the parallel investigation by state authorities. (Of course, as things stand presently, it is much more likely that the bio-technologists at UNC, NC State, UNCW, et al., would find themselves working to design and formulate GenY and GenZ and thus to join the alphabet-soup ranks of “technology transfer” start-ups to make billions of dollars with patented knowledge produced at the public’s expense. But that’s another story.)
But of course the portents of apocalypse appear in different forms than the ones we imagine and anticipate. From All Saints’ Day 1755 in Lisbon to Sichuan in summer of 2008, from San Francisco 1905 to New Orleans 2005, invariably the major impact that a natural disaster has on human life is mostly to do with the way that they break down the functioning of cities. But where are the screams, where is the debris, to herald this enigmatic poison molecule, this alien matter that cannot be filtered away?
We have reached the point where we can only apprehend the toxicity of our drinking water when it registers a spike in the rates of illness and disease—for the most part, cancers. This is because the regulatory control of utility companies and the giant sectors of toxic industry at large has dwindled to the point where the institutions that commit ecological crimes never really have to say they’re sorry. We can infer this from the outrageous arrogance shown by Chemours (Chem-ours, as in “no admittance except on business”) toward our local institutions and our elected representatives of local and state government. Who told them they could get away with dictating the terms of the meeting where they will answer questions about their own misconduct? If they think their responsibilities begin and end with the walls of a factory up the river near Fayetteville, then it is up to us to show them how wrong that is.
This time, here in Wilmington, on the threshold of summer 2017, we confront an environmental disaster that has arrived, not with a bang, but with a whimper.