Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Random Thoughts on Earthquakes and Atoms

As horrible as the Japanese earthquake/tsunami has been, and it is horrible with thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, it is something from which a nation can recover. It will take time and energy and money but Japan can rebuild. That may not be the case with the nuclear disaster currently unfolding.

Worst Case Planning
Engineers never plan for the worst possible scenario. Whether it is a dam or a building or a power plant, engineers always have to compromise safety with the accountants cold-hearted cost-benefit calculations.
In the case of the Fukushima nuclear facilities (above) the nuclear reactors themselves survived both the earthquake and tsunami. It was from the ancillary structures - emergency power, spent rod storage - where less care was taken because they were not considered vital that the crisis was born. In those soft structures and the wires and piping connecting them the tsunami found the vulnerable points to attack.
Fukushima, after.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe the horse was lost;
For want of a horse the battle was lost;
For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost—
All for the want of a horse-shoe nail.
Panic Mode
The latest news has workers using water cannons to try to cool the nuclear fuel. This doesn't fit in with some plan, it is pure desperation. Everything they've tried up to now hasn't worked, every morning dawns with conditions worsened. The emergency response template has long ago been thrown out the window. They have been reduced to improvising, and praying.

The fifty men still working at Fukushima have already received enough radiation to start showing early signs of radiation poisoning. They are all knowledgeable and know this yet they stay and fight.

The Future of Nuclear Power
As an environmentalist I have never been as opposed to nuclear energy as most of my fellows. Other forms of energy have their own dangers. My problem has been their weak concern for disposing of waste, which is nastier than the coal industry's arsenic waste. There is no profit in nuclear waste so the industry just wants to practice a dump and forget strategy.

Safe Until It Isn't
I also never bought their "nuclear energy is safe and clean" argument. Nuclear energy is like a handgun. It is perfectly safe until something happens, then it is very deadly. And I'm not very sanguine about the industry's dedication to safety because I know that for over 50 years the nuclear industry has been protected from liability by the federal government.

Ring of Fire
Just about everyone I know lives somewhere on the Ring of Fire. I'm kind of fatalistic about the dangers of earthquakes. I have stores of food and water, in case. But I know if the earth quakes hard enough there is not a precaution available that will be sufficient.

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