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Japan: Beyond Imagination
& Our Safety; What We Know
When asked if they had prepared enough for the recent disaster, a Japanese engineer said: “It was beyond our imagination.” And this is one of the most earthquake-ready countries in the world. Still, there was incredible devastation. How do you prepare for a tsunami?
I know other countries have also suffered in recent years, but for some reason this event just hit me harder. It’s been amazing to watch their reaction and patience. Imagine waiting all day for a little gas or small amount of food and water, without angry people in line. There were no protests, no rioting. Their commitment to contribute to the community, rather than disrupting it, was inspiring. I wondered where one would even begin again. Where do you put the debris? What about the car on the roof?
Now we are thinking about how similar our coast and nuclear facilities are to Japan’s. Are we safe enough? What we hear is we don’t have anything to worry about, but we’ve heard “Not a problem” for years. Won’t happen here. We’ve thought of everything.” I thought it interesting that an acronym for “not a problem” could be NAP, which happens when eyes are closed.
I received a NAP press release from the American Enterprise Institute, a self-described think-tank, on the morning of March 13, almost immediately after the March 11 quake. They couldn’t understand why DOE Secretary Dr. Steven Chu was silent and not making it clear that nuclear power is totally safe.
Well, I’m not a think-tank, but with a little luck I can sometimes access iThink—a pre-loaded Ap we humans have. The challenge—putting miracles and ah-ha’s aside—is that it requires self-activation. Can’t most of us think of a reason or two? Sending a PR out less than two days after the quake might be considered more tanking than thinking, when no one knew the condition of the nuclear plants.
Google California’s San Onofre or Diablo Canyon reactors. Wikipedia provides some things to think about: The Diablo Canyon plant was built to withstand a 7.0 quake. In 1927 a 7.1 quake centered 10 miles offshore occurred on the same fault. “A principal concern about the plant is whether it can be sufficiently earthquake-proof.” But, it’s been “updated” and redesigned to withstand a 7.5 quake. But, there was debate about the quality of the upgrade. Is it now taken care of or still beyond our imagination?
One surprising thing I read was that “during heavy storms both units [at Diablo Canyon] are throttled back by 80% to prevent kelp from entering the cooling water intake.” Heavy storms at sea? A tsunami is a heavy storm, right? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has decided to reschedule their decision on extending the life of the plant for 20 years from April 2011 to “pending resolution of the nuclear emergencies in Japan.”
And notice: “The July 12, 1982 edition of Time states, “The firm Bechtel was further embarrassed in 1977, when it installed a 420-ton nuclear-reactor vessel backward at San Onofre.” The second reactor at San Onofre is now used for storing radioactive waste. Neither site has been without controversy and both are built on “inactive” fault lines. Some recent articles question whether either site would be approved today, knowing what we know now and given today’s standards. Sounds like “beyond our imagination.”
The good news is that we’re questioning. The bad news is that doing so has revealed many buildings in LA that will not withstand even a lesser quake. With possible radioactive contamination and almost certain power losses, it’s worth remembering over 17.5 million people live from San Diego to Ventura, a distance of 164 miles. San Onofre is 66 miles from LA, 57 from San Diego—and only 28 miles from Vista! The Sendai quake was felt along a 1300-mile coast.
There are conflicting stories about how a similar quake, with or without the tsunami, can effect us. We must also consider that the “it was beyond our imagination” response reaches a level of honesty and truth seldom expressed by US politicians, regulators or even corporate America.
When Michael Brown turned the New Orleans disaster relief effort into a disaster, Pres. Bush gave him the Medal of Freedom. Taco Bell refuses to say what’s in their “taco meat.” What happens when the stakes are higher? Look what happened when an Army private, Bradley Manning, broke ranks and wikileaked low-level information that was classified “confidential.” When Jeffrey Wigand told 60 Minutes how tobacco companies spiked cigarettes with chemicals to make them addictive—and that they knew they caused cancer—his life was threatened.
Compared to honesty and openness, we’re much more familiar with CYA—cover your afterburner. Shouldn’t that tell us that it’s irresponsible for us to believe in NAP? Rather than be outraged at CYAs or NAPs, we should expect it. Plan on it, or we’re not activating iThink.
The deflection I find hard to believe is that our reactors have been better retrofitted to withstand quakes than those in Japan. That whole island rocks. A lot. Their survival depends on building structures that survive and they’ve made it an art form. I wrote about their early warning system months ago—and that a similar baby-step program in California was a budget-cut candidate, at least until the worst happens. Does this qualify? Or do we NAP until something happens here? Japan’s system saves lives.
To hear now that the Japanese are poor managers of their nuclear plants distracts us from the larger picture. To accept that idea, you also have to believe that there are Japanese who take nuclear radiation poisoning lightly (see Akira Kurosawa’s movie Dreams). When I think of their workers trying to cool the reactors and the radiation they were exposed to, I wonder if the Japanese people are showing us once again that whether it’s used for war or for peace, nuclear fission is a disaster.
The San Diego Union-Tribune printed (3/16) that at present “waste is generally kept on-site at each of the more than 100 nuclear plants throughout the nation. But almost nobody thinks that is a safe, permanent solution.” They suggested we rethink using the Yucca Mountain waste-repository that Pres. Obama stopped—or to their credit—“come up with a better idea.” I vote better idea. Nobody wants that waste—or deserves it. It doesn’t work anywhere.
There are many, many better ideas. We have wave, wind, solar and geothermal energy. When the worst happens, they simply disconnect. An article several years ago in Scientific American showed us a pathway to renewables.
Someone moved beyond NAP. Since the Japan quake, Germany has decided to eliminate all of their nuclear plants. They will go with renewables, even though, and they said it—they don’t have California’s sun. We do. Our President responded with a NAP. The Germans, however, were exposed to Chernobyl’s radioactivity. We haven’t gone through that, and don’t seem to be learning from others’ experience.
For me, the radiation question is really one of those “if you have to ask” questions. If we have to ask how devastating it could be or debate how many will die—we have the answer. If we have to ask, we can’t afford it.
Nor can we afford to let it get beyond our imagination. Can we trust that we are hearing the truth, or is someone going with NAP or CYA mode because the stakes are so high?
For all the esteem it gets, the truth, unfortunately, is always—and only—what we know so far. I hope it doesn’t get any worse for the Japanese. What we do know is the stakes are simply too high to play this nuclear game. We have too many alternatives.
There are some things we can do that can save lives. Keep basic earthquake supplies on hand—at work, home, in cars—and hope they are accessible when we need them.
One of our big concerns should be that knowing we have challenges similar to Japan, the House majority might send a delegation to Japan. We both are dealing with radiation and nuclear safety, earthquakes, tainted food, bad air and water, and have infrastructure to rebuild. But I’m afraid they’d tell them to balance their budget first. Cut funding at the EPA, FDA, USDA and NRC—take a NAP, problems disappear. That possibility shouldn’t be beyond our imagination.
In times of war we always find money to spend; so isn’t it time for an Energy War? Isn’t it time to add in the health costs when we calculate the cost of energy? Wouldn’t a “war” create jobs, clean our air and water, and perhaps renew and focus us/US. What makes us/US strong? Compared to hunting down terrorists on the other side of the world, which option would better “provide for the common defense”?
Have a great month,