Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bombs over Daiichi 1 through 4

I have a very clear memory of the many times in the 70s and 80s I went to lectures on the dangers of nuclear power. The chief concern was what to do with all the nuclear waste. But right up there with it was the concern about how little we knew of risks. What happens when a plant breaks down? And there’s that tug of war between those making only financial arguments, especially those with vested interests, and those who fear all kinds of human error.

Somehow I stopped hearing about the problem of nuclear waste. Did it go away? Have we found places to bury used fuel rods where nobody will dig them up for 20,000 years? Actually, we know the answer to that question. In Japan, at least, they're storing the rods right at the sites, where they are building up and becoming a serious problem.

I’m most worried about human folly now. I’m still angry over the discovery a decade ago when there was a leak at the Tokai plant, much closer to where I was living in Tokyo than the Fukushima plant. It turned out JCO, the plant's owners, were not only faking it (making it look like there was no danger) but actually lying about what was going on. In the present case it's not JCO, but Tepco (Tokyo Energy Power Company), another of Japan's fifteen power companies, but the shenanigans are the same. Looks like it’s appropriate to call this Japan’s BP incident.

Even without the deception, there were miscalculations with dire consequences. Following an accident in 1999 when some workers were apparently carrying uranium in a bucket (or so the incident got reported), Tepco cleaned up its act. Allegedly. Actually they didn't, because in 2002 it came out that they had given false information on 200 separate occasions between 1977 and 2002. And then, unbelievably, after promises by the new management that things would be fixed this time, it was revealed in 2007 that there were a large number of unreported incidents. And, as is commonly the case in Japan, the company refused to identify any individuals responsible. The heads simply go on television, bow deeply in apology, and we all move on.

The second order of difficulty in following the news is that the technical stuff is beyond most people’s ken, of course. But one can learn when given the facts, and the first order of difficulty is the fact that both Tepco and the Japanese government authorities are conditioned to say as little as possible. And when they do speak they say infuriating things like “We are doing our utmost… We must take all possible measures…” and the like. Add to that the problem of credibility and their woefully inadequate response to previous accidents, and it’s really hard to remain calm. Seems to me the only thing to do at this juncture is to demand information and hold it
up to scrutiny.

I thought this was all behind me, this struggle to get information in Japan, struggle against the paternalistic tendency to withhold information from you if it might upset you, struggle against the all too quick surrender to authority and unwillingness to create disharmony by challenging the information giver (or non-giver, as in this case), the struggle against all the vertical loyalties, where people will hide information that might shame the institutions they work for.

Now that we see how inadequate were the walls to keep tsunamis away, how foolish it was to miss the obvious, that electricity would go off in an earthquake and require auxiliary pumps, and putting the diesel pumps above ground would make them vulnerable to tsunamis, and that even the second backup, batteries, would only last for eight hours. Now that we see all this we can avoid these errors in the future.

But what about now? Most people simply look elsewhere, and trust they will know soon enough if a disaster has occurred. I’m burned out watching endless loops of devastation and so I play around with probably insignificant facts and pieces of the larger puzzle, like where all the nuclear plants are in Japan, while I wait for this emergency to end, and try to learn a bit of background. (If you want to see how a nuclear power plant works, and specifically how they are dealing with the failures, BBC has an easy-to-follow graphic, entitled “Fukushima: What went wrong?”)

I’m not in Japan, and should be grateful for that. But instead, the survivor guilt (is that what it is when the disaster hasn't happened yet?) I am trying to rid myself of seems to morph into frustration at the lack of information. So I dig. Where are the maps? What is the extent of the tsunami flow? And with the present emergency, who are the people we should listen to? How is one to filter through the media silliness to get at a good grasp of the situation?

So far, I think I’ve found the two extremes available to American news consumers. On the one hand there is a guy named Lake Barrett, one of the guys involved in the cleanup after Three Mile Island. He said on the PBS Newshour the other night, “…I believe, if the people follow the directions of the government… from the health point of view, I think they will be at very low risk….I don't believe this is a health catastrophe.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the outspoken media-savvy physics professor, Michio Kaku, interviewed on ABC’s Nightline the other night. (And shame on ABC for sticking him on at the very end, as an afterthought, and giving him the bum’s rush, without debate or discussion.) Kaku insists pouring water on the reactor sites is like hitting them with a squirt gun. What is needed, he says, is a massive drop from the air of cement, sand, and boric acid, the way they did in Chernobyl, to simply bury the entire site for good, before it’s too late. So what is it? Business as usual until we get more information? Or a time for preemptive action?

And these are only extremes that strike me as reasonable. There are others, particularly those insisting Tepco should be held criminally culpable, which go much further, whose "reasonability" I am not in a position to judge.

There is no evidence for the view that things will be all right. There’s no evidence that it will not be all right, either, but why the hell can’t people say, “We don’t know yet.” Saying there is no danger here might well turn out to be like saying there is no danger to falling out of a ten-story building. It’s not the fall that you have to worry about; it’s what happens when you hit the ground.

I’m with Kaku. Bombs over Tokyo sounded great to me as a kid. I was born five years before the end of the Second World War. But Tokyo has become my home since then. Now I want the city and everybody in it to be safe. Bomb the power plants at Fukushima, I say. They are a loss anyway, aren’t they? Isn’t that what pouring sea water into them means? That they will then become useless?

What is everybody waiting for?


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