Compassion and reflection – Fukushima and Chernobyl

29 April 2011

At 5pm on Tuesday the 26th of April the candlelight vigil seemed like a very bad idea. Not only was it the last night of the Easter Break with half of Sydney stuck in traffic jams up and down the coast, the rain was so fierce it was coming in sideways and the wind was wild.

Having a vigil on the most exposed point of the Opera House overlooking Sydney Harbour seemed to redefine the word optimistic. Nevertheless there we were at 5.30pm setting up the sound and platform, pouring sand into brown paper bags and hoping the candles would stay dry enough to at least light, all the while casting worried looks skyward as a mountain of storm clouds massed above the Harbour Bridge.

Fortunately we weren’t the only optimists in Sydney that wet Tuesday evening. At 6.15pm the rain had abated enough for Swiss musician, Phillippe Wittwer, to come on stage and begin the night’s proceedings by playing beautifully soulful songs of mourning as a way of setting the scene. By that time there were about two hundred little candles shinning out in the night.

Steve Campbell officially welcomed everyone and began by reminding us that we were on Aboriginal land, that it always was and always will be Aboriginal land. Standing on Benelong Point we remembered the act of dispossession that began white rule in Australia.

Nat Walsey, an activist from the Arid Lands Environment Centre in Alice Springs, began her speech by remembering her own Babushka and by making the point that the hallmark of the nuclear industry was the dispossession of Indigenous people and communities across the globe.

Next Genevieve Kelly, NSW Secretary of the NTEU, asked us to remember whom it was that paid with their lives when things went wrong with nuclear power – the workers that went into the stricken reactors in Chernobyl and Fukushima the men that knew they would pay with their health and ultimately their lives.

Tomohiro Matsuoka, a member of Japanese for peace put it simply when he addressed the vigil, asking, how do we think the executives running nuclear power companies would assess the risk of this power if it was them that had to go in and clean up the radioactive mess?

In an extraordinary coup, Larissa Burak, world-renowned mezzo-soprano singer told us of her time in Kiev. She remembered watching images of young children being told to march down the streets of Kiev, five days after the disaster and all of this was show the world that Russia had the disaster in hand – nothing to worry about here.

Then Larissa sat down and got out her ancient Ukrainian bandura instrument and sang a song she composed, “The Cranes Keep Coming Back to Chernobyl.” It was breathtaking to hear her voice soar through the stillness of the night with the bandura supporting her.

Finally there was a minute silence. A silence that ended when Riley Lee began playing his shakuhachi flute. Lee is the first non-Japanese to attain the rank of dai shihan or Grand Master.

Listening to his music under the wings of the Opera House in 2011 our thoughts and prayers went out to our sisters and brothers that have suffered so deeply from this appalling power in Chernobyl and Fukushima in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear is never safe – not ever.