Monday, March 21, 2011

Tsunami Warning

I haven’t had much time to keep up with the blog lately as I’ve been working on a new book, Hitchhiker’s Guide to Enlightenment, but I had to take a little time off to comment on the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan.

It’s ironic that Japan, the country that’s suffered most from radiation has relied so heavily - 30% of its electricity - on nuclear power. It is also, of all countries, most subject to strong earthquakes. Something like 20% of all earthquakes over magnitude 6 on the Richter scale happen in Japan. As you’d expect, with that background, Japan is, relatively speaking, very well prepared for quakes. Forty story buildings in Tokyo swayed like palm trees but didn’t crumble.

However, at 9.0 that was the 4th strongest quake recorded since 1900, and the strongest in Japan in 300 years. It moved the entire country 4 meters to the east. That was not something you’d ever expect, at least not in your lifetime, so not something Japanese officials cared to plan for. But they do happen and with the consequences of nuclear meltdown so grave, even a 1000 year event should’ve been taken into account.

Moreover, with the very word tsunami derived from the Japanese, that’s also something they should’ve considered. There again, this wave was so outsized nobody there would’ve believed it could’ve ever happened. Nevertheless, when dealing with nuclear meltdown, the worst case scenario has to be part of the calculation. It’s not like when a windmill crashes and all you have to do is recycle the metal.

The government had been saying that radiation releases have been small and not dangerous, but now they are admitting spikes of unhealthy levels of radiation. One slick move made by the Japanese government was to lower standards for allowable radiation exposure when workers at the plant were getting over the maximum limit, otherwise they would’ve had to stop working. No big deal unless you’re one of the workers who might die from that exposure. More recently, they announced levels of radiation in food produced in the general area that were over allowable limits, but then said it wasn’t dangerous. Then why have a limit if there’s no harm in going over it? Some people feel there is no safe limit, that any amount is harmful.

The conventional wisdom has it that there was little radiation released at Three Mile Island and nobody died from it, in spite of the fact that cancers in the area spiked for a whole generation. It boggles the mind how the industry and their government enablers either believe their own lies or don’t care as long as there are profits to be made. After all, they have to breathe the same contaminated air as everyone.

Moreover, the industry, aligned with western governments is pushing nukes all over the world. Turkey, China, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, amongst several other countries, are all planning on developing nukes, so further meltdowns are inevitable. Take India for instance, it’s a great country with a lot going for it, but they haven’t been able to figure out how to provide toilets for more than half their population so those people just shit around, even in the big cities, so how the hell could they be trusted to safely operate a nuke?

Fortunately, this will force a rethink of nuclear power plans around the world, though many countries are certain to go ahead with them anyway. Not one single nuke would exist in the world today without government subsidies and exemption from full liability insurance in case of an accident. Not one single bank or investor in the entire world will finance a nuclear power plant without 100% guarantees. They take 6 to 10 years to build and cost a fantasic amount of money and now their power is more expensive than wind power. Still, many countries will continue to build them.

Meanwhile, four different units in the Fukashima complex have experienced serious explosions. The great irony is that the problem stemmed from the breakdown of the conventional pumping systems. The tsunami wiped out the electricity used to operate the pumps as well as the backup diesel generators. Now they are dumping in sea water. These are Hail Mary passes, acts of desperation, last ditch attempts to avoid meltdowns because once the containment vessel is covered in sea water it’s toast as a power facility. Billions of dollars down the drain and the country is experiencing rolling black outs because they now have a shortage of power.

Having four reactors out of control at the same time also seriously complicates matters because it’s hard to work on any one of them with the others so close by spewing their nasty stuff all around you. Moreover, the greatest danger comes not from the reactor cores themselves but the spent fuel rods. They may be spent for the purposes of use in the reactor, but they still contain a lot of radioactivity and generate a lot of heat and require water to be constantly circulating to keep them cool. And further, the spent fuel rods are not enclosed in thick steel containment vessels as the reactor core is and thus in case of overheating will spread their radiation very easily.

There area around those plants will become a permanent exclusion zone. Without protective clothing, nobody will be able to safely go near those plants as far in the future as one can imagine.

There’s been a feeling on the part of climate scientists for several years that global warming could have an impact on earthquake activity. If you remove heavy land ice in places thus lightening up those areas, while adding water to the oceans making them heavier, that may well increase frequency and intensity of quakes. I’m also convinced that withdrawing vast amounts of fossil fuels and water from the earth’s crust has an impact. Finally, the latest natural gas extraction technology – hydraulic fracturing – has shown to be exacerbating earthquake tendencies. The idea is to break up layers of shale to get the gas out. If you take a strong solid shale formation and shatter it into a lot of pieces it has to be destabilizing.

So it can only get worse. The world should prepare, however much it’s possible, for a wave of 100 year, 500 year, 1000 year natural events. And tough luck if you gamble on nuclear power and lose.

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