Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thoughts on Japan

First thought -- wow. Seriously humbling. I spend time thinking about how advanced humanity seems to be; how we're the most 'advanced' species on the planet in the sense that we mold and shape our environment to suit us, then something like this happens and reminds you how little power or control we all have in the larger picture.

How can someone look at the footage from Japan in the aftermath of these quakes and think that global warming will be something simple or easy to fix? It boggles.

Second thought -- let's give the engineers their propers, but let's also not go too far.

The previous candidate for the worst earthquake ever recorded was in Chile in 1960. Accounts of the number who perished in the Chile quakes vary, but every estimate is smaller than the current estimated 7000 dead in Japan.

Yes, it's true that Chile of 1960 had less population density overall than 2011 Japan, and it's also true that Chile, even today, likely has less 'advanced' infrastructure that would be vulnerable to earthquakes (skyscrapers, elevated concrete roads, etc.). It's also true that, while the epicenter of the Japanese quakes was some distance off-shore, the Chilean quakes were centered below land -- very near the populated town of Cañete, which today is as large as a typical U.S. suburb.

Let's wait a bit before canonizing the architect's of Japan's buildings and building codes, shall we?

Third thought -- can we please stop with the nuke gawking?

I do get why we're doing it. On a philosophical level, we're a generation still looking for our identity, so when our parents talk about Vietnam and their parents about World War II and their parents about the Great Depression, we want to feel like we have our own 'thing' to point to. Thus far, that 'thing' looks to be natural disasters -- hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards. If that's our thing, we should be at least knowledgeable about it.

The bigger driving factor, I think, is the novelty. Not only does this have the potential to be the worst nuclear disaster in history, but it's happening during what may end up being a unique time in history -- a time when media is both fast but largely unsupervised. The story from Three Mile Island took years to completely get out to the public. And while Chernobyl was known to be a disaster while it was happening, the idea of getting a live feed from people standing outside the containment building would have been unthinkable in the 1980s.

My problem is that, because we have the ability to share so much information so quickly, we're in danger of getting a bunch of really bad information into the pipeline that'll take a long time, if ever, to 'flush out' -- the chances of nuclear power making a comeback in the U.S., which looked promising given the recent oil shocks, now might be as dead as the Vikings stadium chances.

Some folks get this -- Rachel Maddow is doing an excellent job of trying to be precise when describing what's going on with the nuclear reactors in Japan. But even Maddow is oversimplifying or otherwise being imprecise in certain areas -- for instance, she describes 'the radiation' moving around Japan, as if the neutrons, photons, and other particles were leaping directly out of the reactor and cruising around Japan looking for people to irradiate. The key (as Maddow's guest Arnold Gundersson tried to explain) is that particles -- not just fuel particles, but even dust, rust, or other normally non-hazardous particles made hazardously radioactive by its exposure to neutron flux -- can get onto people and end up serving as a very local, very potent source of radiation.

In other words, the real issue is fallout -- a term that we're far more accustomed to hearing with respect to nuclear weapons, but that applies here as a matter of public safety and thus should be called by its name. Of course, now that I say that, I have to admit that I wouldn't trust Fox News anywhere within three time zones of the word 'fallout'.