Sunday, March 13, 2011

[I, Cringely] - Flea powder may be saving lives in Japan (Repost)

Ever since the nuclear accident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station No 1 began, the entire news media has been in an absolute frenzy.

And yet, for all of the improvements in the 'information age' - with updates happening in real time from the far side of the world (to us) - there is so little actual information.  The news sites talk, babble, scream, moan, and publish endless one-liners from so-called "experts" that range between guarded optimism to predictions of total apocalypse.  And yet they say nothing, all the while trying to generate excitement about their meaningless utterings.

The causes are many.  Certainly Tokyo Electric Power has not been saying a whole lot to reporters.  And why should they?  Do they not have enough to do without further goading the media machine?  Like talk to the IAEA, which they can (and should) be doing better?  Or maybe devoting every second of time towards pursuing every possible, potential solution to the crisis facing them?

Coverage at the sites is undoubtedly weak, owing to the massive infrastructure damage from the earthquake and tsunami.  Not to mention the fact that ordinary citizens are hardly likely to be allowed to wander a nuclear plant at will.  The risk of radiation is more than enough to keep nearly everyone at bay in any case.

And not to mention that there is an rather lot of other news to report - an entire country just got pounded, one way or another.  The hardest-hit areas have been surveyed by no one except, perhaps, the Self-Defense Forces and government officials.  And they don't have time to post the videos on YouTube - they have to find roughly 10,000 people that are missing and presumed dead, and provide aid to at least a half-million people that aren't.

Still, in my humble opinion, the best information to date on the Japanese nuclear situation may have been provided by Bob Cringely in his blog entry "Flea powder may be saving lives in Japan" .

Bob, you may be a dipstick sometimes, but not today.

And let's put a few things into perspective, for the record.  Chernobyl was unquestionably the worst nuclear accident in history, and no one would think to question the consequences of that.  But consider this:

  • The Chernobyl reactor was an astonishingly poor design, with no containment structure and an inherently unstable operating mechanism.  
  • It was horribly operated, starting with the decision to operate a reactor that becomes increasingly unstable at lower output at very low output, well beyond the boundaries of safe operating conditions.  
  • Training was bad, critical equipment was faulty or missing, and emergency procedures were absent or completely inadequate.  
  • Finally, the accident itself was covered up, with evacuations not starting until 12 hours afterwards, and then only after protests by foreign governments.
Does this sound at all like the situation in Japan?  Of course not.  Comparisons between the two are ridiculous.  And yet the mass media continues to spew nonsense about a Chernobyl-like disaster.

The contrasts between Chernobyl and and Fukushima Daiichi could not be clearer.  The Japanese reactors are a far, far safer design, and were built and tested to the highest available standards.  They were constructed with safety containment structures in place, and multiple "defense in depth" safety and shutdown strategies.

They have the best possible personnel and safety procedures, refined by 40 years of trade practice, were put into immediate effect.  And the Japanese government instantly deployed equipment from other sites, asked for immediate help from U.S. military assets and immediately took precautions to evacuate potentially affected areas before any real harm had occurred.

The depth of the Japanese determination is also quite clear.  Before anyone even realized it, they took the drastic (and costly) step to write off the reactors and contain them by any means necessary - including pumping damaging seawater into them.  While the true motivations for this will never be known, to my mind, this represents a corporate ethic on the behalf of Tepco that many companies should emulate: namely, placing lives before money.

And don't even mention Three Mile Island.  This was a massive scare, to be sure, and I do not want to belittle the people who had to live every agonizing, uncertain moment of it.  But the ultimate result was zero deaths, zero injuries (or, at least, zero detected injuries).  There was certainly widespread confusion and uncertainty at the time, resulting in resentment, anger, and a massive public outcry, but it was nothing like Chernobyl - a site that had to be sealed up twice, and still has a 30 km exclusion zone around it today.

I am sure it is absolutely no comfort to the survivors and legacy wounded of Chernobyl that their suffering was the alarm bell that the world needed to help ensure nuclear power safety.  And yet, their sacrifices paved the way towards saving other lives in this new situation - not a disaster, but a disaster averted.

Something similar might be said for the earthquake-resistant (not earthquake-proof) design of Japanese construction, in that it undoubtedly saved countless lives.  It is terribly unfortunate that similar measures do not exist to mitigate the power of the ocean, which destroyed huge areas, including at least one small city.

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