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Earthquake/tsunami in Japan

March 12th, 2011

Yet another terrible disaster, this time in Japan. Already our floods which destroyed so much, and killed a number of people seem like a relatively modest event in retrospect. And all of these things are insignificant in comparison to the daily toll exacted by poverty and hunger in the world.

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  1. Scott
    March 12th, 2011 at 08:25 | #1

    The terrible tragedy in Japan is just mind-boggling. We live in such a volatile and active planet, and we shouldn’t make life harder for ourselves with selfishness, greed and hatred.

  2. Ikonoclast
    March 12th, 2011 at 08:28 | #2

    Neither Japan nor the world economy can ever recover from the latest Japan earthquake, the turmoil in the Middle East and the world environmental constraints which have hit us. The reasons are both financial and resource related. The world economy and the major national economies (with the exception of China) are so heavily indebted that the raising of capital to rebuild Japan looks impossible under the current system. There are also not enough resources left in the world to complete the development of the BRIC group (Brazil, Russia, India, China). Nor are there enough resources left for nations like the USA and Japan to rebuild after major disasters.

    The combined effect of all these problems will now push the world into the Endless Depression which will continue until global civilization collapses before the end of this century. Much reduced regional civilizations might survive. The current daily toll exacted by poverty and hunger in the world is insignificant compared to the toll which will be inflicted by the Endless Depression.

    It is terrible to contemplate but we ought to have the intellectual honesty to make the inescapable objective assessment.

  3. Alice
    March 12th, 2011 at 10:46 | #3

    @Ikonoclast
    In terms of the financial spects Ikono – to whom are so many entire nations indebted? – our new rulers in the global financial system who have taken so much from so many and concentrated it the hands of so few, that it is now almost beyond comprehension the global damage that has been inflicted by their freedoms. We speak in debt levels that are so insanely high they have no meaning…..it is difficult to imagine that there will not be defaults coming.

  4. John Armour
    March 12th, 2011 at 13:13 | #4

    Alice and Ikonoclast

    The Japanese government has an infinite supply of yen. There are no financial constraints. Whether the government chooses to issue debt, yen for yen, is a political choice.

    A public debt/GDP of some 200% so far has not been able to stir the inflation dragon. Maybe the stimulatory effect of the reconstruction might do the job.

    As tragic as this is, it is a mere inconvenience compared to the damage they suffered in 1945.

  5. iain
    March 12th, 2011 at 14:55 | #5

    @John Armour

    A large part of Ikon’s points highlight that you didn’t have the ecological overreach in the past, compared to what we have now. Peak oil, climate change etc. are far bigger factors now than 1945 (for example).

    Whilst this latest disaster might well be an “inconvenience” (in your mind, I guess), couple this disaster with Brent crude approaching $120 barrel and more energetic climate change and it’s hard not to see some merit in Ikon’s concerns.

  6. charles
    March 12th, 2011 at 19:52 | #6

    Ikonoclast

    A very half full view of the world.

    Replacing stuff with green alternatives is economic activity, rebuilding stuff that is destroyed by nature is just as much an economic activity as rebuilding stuff destroyed by war.

    I don’t expect a long depression I expect a very busy Australia exporting stuff to eat and build with, a very busy world using our raw exports and stuff from other resource exporters.

    A improving terms of trade is not the end of the world.

  7. March 12th, 2011 at 20:00 | #7

    The earthquake and the loss of life is one thing, but the reports of explosions and potential meltdowns in nuclear reactors is another.

  8. Ben
    March 12th, 2011 at 20:09 | #8

    All this time, advocates of nuclear power have been trying to convince the public that serious accidents would only happen in the Soviet Union and with inferior reactor designs. I deeply hope they aren’t proven wrong.

  9. John Armour
    March 12th, 2011 at 20:50 | #9

    Iain
    I didn’t dispute the other points Ikonoclast made, including the apocalyptic conclusions, but financial resource constraints will not be a part of that problem. I think Ikon placed equal emphasis on “both” ?
    Regarding the rising price of oil, well that may be a concern for a state with a trade deficit, but not a problem for Japan with a trade surplus denominated in US assets.
    Bracketting my use of the word “inconvenience” with pejorative quotes, without the qualification I supplied, in this particular context, is a bit unfair, don’t you think ? You do understand the relevance of 1945 ?

  10. iain
    March 12th, 2011 at 21:04 | #10

    @John Armour

    The rising price of oil is unquestionably a concern for Japan, John.

    It was the historical subsidy of cheap oil that helped fuel Japan’s rise, and this won’t be the case this time around, due to both peak oil production and geopolitical events in oil producing countries. No amount of paper money will increase oil production (if geological limits are breached). The bigger concern is that substitutes to oil are thin on the ground and difficult to bring on line in the next 5-10 years.

    Sorry, yes, my quote was unfair. But it was, I think, an unfortunate use of phrasing you used.

  11. John Armour
    March 12th, 2011 at 21:33 | #11

    “As tragic as this is, it is a mere inconvenience compared to the damage they suffered in 1945″

    Most unfortunate phrasing ?

    We reduced Japan to the stone age in 1945.

    You’re responding to a statement I made about financial constraints with an argument based on resource constraints, with which I have no argument.

    On resource constraints we seem to be in furious agreement.

  12. March 12th, 2011 at 22:15 | #12

    Poor Japan, first the atom bombs and now a few generations later what looks like a full on nuclear meltdown. I think the nuclear energy industry is now looking pretty much finished.

  13. Donald Oats
    March 12th, 2011 at 23:12 | #13

    The following story “Fukushima nuclear plant blast puts Japan on high alert” from the online Guardian newspaper is not good news, if true. To quote from the article:

    An uncontrolled temperature rise at the plant could lead to a meltdown of the uranium reactor core. This could burn through the walls of the vessel and release radiation into a containment building that surrounds the reactor. Some fuel is already thought to have melted in the reactor.
    Japanese media said officials had detected iodine and caesium, elements released when overheating causes core damage.

    [My boldface and my italics.]

    To make it clear: released iodine and caesium are nuclear reaction by-products of core damage, which may occur when coolant is lost. This is what everyone is waiting to find out; was there a serious breach, minor breach, or nothing to worry about?

  14. Freelander
    March 12th, 2011 at 23:44 | #14

    @Donald Oats

    When you said “which are typically claimed to be able to withstand a plane crash into them, thats how reinforced they are”, I thought: What awful luck, to suffer a Tsunami instead of the reactor simply being hit by a plane!

  15. Alice
    March 13th, 2011 at 08:05 | #15

    @Donald Oats
    The nuclear disaster is looking even worse – videos here of what the explosion actually did to the building -only the steel frame left. If anyone was inside or near its a bit hard to imagine there were no immediate deaths (bruises and broken bones being reported at this stage). The fact that they have resorted to the use of seawater to cool the reactors is pretty grim.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42044156/ns/world_news-asiapacific/

  16. Ikonoclast
    March 13th, 2011 at 08:30 | #16

    @John Armour

    John referred to printing money and Alice to debt deafults. Certainly, there is a sense in which money is unreal. It is an abstract invention and does not obey physical laws. It can be printed indefinitelty and debt can be vapourised. It can be created and destroyed by fiat. However, due to the accounting effects of money throughout the economic system and the way it is embedded in the social psyche and as a facilitator of transactions and behaviours, printing money and defaulting debts does have real effects as we are all aware. Sooner or later excess printing of money will cause inflation. Endless spiralling of debt causes a number of effects best explained by Steve Keen on his debt deflation site.

    To skip over a large part of Keen’s exposition and just talk about the end game, it seems clear that large debt defaults will mean the collapse of many funds, hedge funds, superannuation funds and so on. A great many people in their 40s to 70s with market linked funds (some already being retired and drawing down on those funds) will find their market linked super collapsing.

    With regard to rebuilding and maintaining 7 or 9 billion people with rising standards of living, we are in overshoot now and living off natural capital. A sustainable civilization would live off natural interest not natural capital. The real physical limits will constrain us. The financial problems are an internal impediment, and will compound our problems in the process of fighting against the inevitable collapse and trying to salvage something.

    Our civilization is like a man with internal injuries running from a bear. Financially we are hemorrhaging. The bear of external physical reality which would catch us anyway will simply catch us quicker. To take the analogy perhaps too far, after a severe mauling and playing dead for a long while (the civilizational collapse phase), we (the remnants of humanity) might be wise enough to crawl away and leave the forest and the bears alone.

  17. Ikonoclast
    March 13th, 2011 at 08:41 | #17

    @Alice

    The standard of Japanese structural engineering needs to be praised. There seemed to be no significant examples of large modern bulidings collapsing from the quake. Attempts at preventative tsunami mitigation (walls and barrages along the east coast) were far less successful. However, again the Jaspanese deserve no criticism for this. Tsunami’s of this magnitude are unstoppable.

    Where the Japanese do deserve criticism is for the mistakes of building nuclear reactors on the vulnerable east coast (or probably anywhere in seismicallty active Japan for that matter). This is a major error which will now exact a further toll.

  18. Ken Fabos
    March 13th, 2011 at 09:02 | #18

    I think I’ll wait and see how the nuclear reactors actually hold up in what can only be considered a worst case scenario in one of the most earthquake prone regions on Earth. Whilst I’d much rather see proliferation of other solutions to emissions that can be deployed without the security, proliferation and regulatory problems that come with nuclear, if the net result of this is a victory of fossil fuel interests entrenching more dependence on their products, I think this tragedy will hurt much more than Japan.

  19. Alice
    March 13th, 2011 at 09:13 | #19

    @Ikonoclast
    Ikono – where the Japanese have made a mistake is in building nuclear reactors at all. Already in Canada – the chatter coming from nuclear regulatory agencies is “oh ours are fine because they are built on sturdy ground ad we dont get earthquakes” (yada yada yada). It will be some other accident for them…reactors, when they blow up wipe out hundreds of miles of productive land and maim and kill for generations. There isnt just reactor one at risk in Japan.
    They are just ugly things. Period. The entire industry and all its batwing participants and advocates should be erased from the face of the planet before they erase us.
    If we need power we have to come up with something better because these things just plain suck. Why should some companies profit by inflicted death and misery on innocents for generations to come. The pro nukers will all go straight to hell if there is a hell.

    There is or was a video out there called “scary situation surrounding Fukushima plant” by Damon Moglen. MSN seems to have restricted it? Damon Moglen is with friends of the earth and greenpeace.

  20. John Armour
    March 13th, 2011 at 09:19 | #20

    Ikonoclast

    You make some excellent points, and make them excellently.

    It’s important however to keep it simple and distinguish between private debt, public debt, and public debt denominated in foreign currencies as they all have different effects and consequences.

    Understanding this helps put to flight the other bear in the forest, the Deficit Bear, the imaginary bear in the neo-liberal story book.

  21. Ken Lovell
    March 13th, 2011 at 09:28 | #21

    Not only is the Japanese earthquake a reminder of the deadly perils of nuclear power, but the recent Christchurch quake points up the unreliability of the ‘geologically stable’ arguments often made about various parts of the world including Australia.

    Nevertheless there are no grounds for predicting the end of nuclear power generation. It may well be that the Japanese disaster serves to prove how well-engineered the plants were in the face of such a massive shock. Our calm acceptance of the road toll (not to mention continued oil drilling close the the US coast, even after the gulf spill) demonstrates that human beings are quite prepared to tolerate a level of death and environmental damage as a cost of contemporary living.

    By the way the complex adaptive system known as human civilisation is already developing alternative technologies that will compensate for more expensive physical travel. Haven’t people noticed the extraordinary pace of development in communication technology? Travel for pleasure may be beyond the means of most people in years to come, but business and public administration will carry on using IT, and it will be more efficient and effective than current practices that rely on everyone having to gather physically in a common location.

    Many people look at the way we live now and say gosh won’t things be awful when the resources we rely on now become scarce. It’s a failure of imagination that can only visualise human existence in one-dimensional terms. Our ancestors must have been worried stiff what would happen when the firewood ran out and there was no more wild game to catch but life changed in ways they could not possibly have conceived, just as it has even in my lifetime and will continue to do in future. Some study of history and reflection on its implications for the present provide a useful counter to predictions of imminent catastrophe.

  22. March 13th, 2011 at 09:45 | #22

    One of the apparently realistic prospects for addressing climate change has suffered a enhanced public image problem by problems at two Japanese nuclear plants. Realistically the shock was on an unparalled level but many will (rightly) rethink the case for these technologies and the scale of the ‘worst that can happen’ disasters that they need to anticipate.

    I noticed videos of the anti-Tsunami barriers going up before it arrived. They were clearly hopeless attempts to prevent damages from 10 metre waves of such power. But overall it seems the Japanese Government and people were well prepared both in terms of emergency planning and community attitudes.

  23. Alice
    March 13th, 2011 at 10:06 | #23

    @Ken Lovell
    On the matter of nuclear use Ken, I beg to differ on your optimistic view of mans ability to advance technologically by complex adaptive systems. I would have more respect for your argument if you suggested that this complex technological adaptive capability we have could come up with sustainable alternatives to nuclear use.
    The Japanese clearly ommitted some large and rather obvious risk factors from the costings of these plants (and you would think of all peoples they may have been more cautious). Japan has a long history of earthquakes on its east coast yet it chose to build not one but eleven nuclear power plants along the coast? (correct me if I am wrong), because its cheaper to access water for cooling if you can use a desal plant. Thats all. They probably just ignored the minor inconvenience of the risks of quakes and tsunamis because in the 2, 5, or 10 years preceding the approval process they may not have had a quake.

    Its not that the risks cannot be costed by the nuclear industry. Its not that the risks are not known by the nuclear industry. that pro nuclear commercial interests and advocates deny, obscure, refuse to cost and actively minimise the real risks of nuclear use in the pursuit of commercial interests. It is that if there is a cheaper solution to access to an input such as water for cooling, they will go for it, despite the risks. If the industry correctly costed the risks the entire industry wouldnt be viable and they are well aware of it.

  24. rog
    March 13th, 2011 at 10:41 | #24

    One of the inherent risks with nuclear power is that without backup power to run safety systems an incident can occur. In this case the backup power was damaged by the earthquake/tsunami.

    Like the Wivenhoe Dam a simple concept can be complex in operation and subject to unknowns.

  25. Ken Lovell
    March 13th, 2011 at 11:17 | #25

    Alice @23 you have misread my argument. Human civilisation IS a complex adaptive system, it does not ‘use’ them. Complex adaptive systems have a dynamic of their own that defies attempts to control it, much to the chagrin of corporate leaders and politicians.

    My adaptive system comments were about the way IT will allow us to cope with scarcer conventional energy resources and had nothing to do with nuclear power generation.

  26. Fran Barlow
    March 13th, 2011 at 11:43 | #26

    @Ken Lovell

    It’s obviously much too early to be declaring how history will evaluate this episode’s impact on discussions of the contribution of nuclear power. We need to allow enough time to argue on the basis of data that is salient, adequate and beyond serious contest. In my own household, this has already caused some angst, because hubby is a lot less convinced on the prospective net benefits of nuclear power than I am. We’ve had to rule the topic out of order until we both agree that something meeting the above criteria has emerged, or three months, whichever comes first.

    It’s certainly possible though, that three months from now, we will conclude that notwithstanding an earth quake event unparalleled in Japan’s history and an ensuing 10m tsunami, deaths and contamination beyond the plant perimeter occasioned by the failure of this plant will be zero. If so, we will be able to conclude that even a 40-year-old plant was robust enough to achieve the fail-safe standard under the most severe of tests. We could not have hoped for such a standard from a coal or gas plant. In either case, people would have died and in the case of coal, actinide-laden flyash would have been washed over a wide area.

    Japan has very few alternative options for servicing such a large population and in the end, it is rational to make the best of the resources at hand, accepting the overheads and risks that go with that. We humans are the product of every generation of humans that has ever existed making (or trying to make) that choice. There simply is no scope for going about arranging human provision other than by this standard. If people think the overheads of nuclear power are unacceptable, let them show that something else is preferable in risk/reward terms in supporting human well-being. People dying or having their lives or their quality of life truncated by some other set of arrangements is not preferable because we don’t read much about it in the media.

  27. Freelander
    March 13th, 2011 at 12:07 | #27

    Yes. Clearly the jury is still out on nuclear power. Out, and on walkabout.

  28. Ikonoclast
    March 13th, 2011 at 12:08 | #28

    When it comes to power sources I would advocate;

    1. Let all power generation and/or power harvesting methods compete economically without subsidies of any kind.

    2. Require all power generation and/or power harvesting methods to meet the full costs of all public liability and insurance.

    3. Legislate safety standards and costs for creating negative externalities (pollution etc.) to a very exacting standard and require power generators to meet all these requirments and costs.

    Let the market then sort out the winners and losers on the above basis.

    Of course, the difficulty is getting all sorts of vested interests to agree politically to such a genuinely level playing field.

    My personal belief is that under such a system nuclear power would fail to be economic. Nuclear fission power is any case non-renewable. Only renewables have any long term future.

  29. Alice
    March 13th, 2011 at 12:08 | #29

    With what is playing out now in Japan – frankly I refuse to participate further in any discussion on nuclear use here on a matter of principle and I absolutely do not subscribe to the barrow pushed by blatant pro nuclear advocates such as the above that its cleaner than coal.

    Ken – id also like to moderate one of your statements above to be more realistic.

    You claim
    “human beings are quite prepared to tolerate a level of death and environmental damage as a cost of contemporary living.”

    Id suggest “some human beings are quite prepared to tolerate an unacceptable level of death and environmental damage as a cost of contemporary business”.

    Is this why Germans are massing on the streets right now in anti nuclear demonstrations because Merkel has decided to extend the lives of nuclear plants by another twelve years past their decommission dates for the sake of budget considerations?

    Some people make unwise and unsustainable and destructive decisions Ken, that the majority do not in fact want.

  30. Alice
    March 13th, 2011 at 12:09 | #30

    By the above I mean Fran Barlow.

  31. March 13th, 2011 at 12:32 | #31

    If anything, I would have thought that the nuclear accidents in Japan would increase interest in reactors of passive safety design.

    I used to have hopes of the pebble bed reactor that South Africa was pursuing for some years for this reason, only to see the money run out (as I recall) due to an over ambitious design target. But the Chinese have also been working on pebble bed too.

    The Wikipedia entry on passive safety certainly indicates there are other possible designs around: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive_nuclear_safety

    I think it just makes common sense to make this a priority in new nuclear reactor design.

  32. March 13th, 2011 at 12:41 | #32

    Ken Lovell @ #21 said:

    Nevertheless there are no grounds for predicting the end of nuclear power generation. It may well be that the Japanese disaster serves to prove how well-engineered the plants were in the face of such a massive shock.

    Whats remarkable about the Japanese earth quake is how few casualties and little destruction there is, given the colossal magnitude (9,1) of the quake. This is about the same scale as the Boxing day Tsunami, which killed 200,000 people, so the Japs suffered say about three orders of magnitude fewer casualties.

    Obviously they have improved their engineering standards after previous seismic catastrophes. The remarkable thing is not that the nuclear plant was damaged in an explosion but that it did not meltdown completely. This earthquake is the most rigorous stress test imaginable and so far the nuke plants have passed pretty well – no reported casualties and trifling amounts of radiation released. By way of comparison there are massive fires breaking out from burst gas mains, but no one questions the gas industry.

    It gives me confidence that we can at least adapt well to global warming, providing we maintain the same sort of national cohesion, respect for authority and technical ingenuity that the Japanese people so admirably exhibit. I notice no reports of looting or riots.

    The Japs are a remarkable bunch, they are handy with tools and endure hardship with remarkable aplomb and stoicism, all pulling together for the sake of the team. Japan – a splendid example of how the symbiosis between instrumental tools and institutional rules.

  33. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    March 13th, 2011 at 13:56 | #33

    Nothing I have seen so far changes my advocacy for nuclear power.

    This was an 8.9 earthquake followed by a simply massive tidal wave. The more modern nuclear power station closer to the epicentre than the trouble one seems to have shut down automatically and has been without any major incident. Impressive. Of course this is what you would want it to do.

    The troubled reactor was built in 1971 and was due to be decommissioned this year. Whilst the explosion that destroyed the outer building is troubling the inner containment building seems to have done what it was designed to do.

    Mean while an oil refinery has exploded killing 100 people and it hardly rates a mention.

    Aussie nuclear advocate Barry Brook was on TV talking about the issue this morning:-

    http://video.au.msn.com/watch/video/explosion-fear/xqk4in1

  34. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    March 13th, 2011 at 14:19 | #34

    The more modern nuclear plant which was without any notable nuclear incident and which is situated closer to the epicentre is detailed here:-

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onagawa_Nuclear_Power_Plant

  35. Freelander
    March 13th, 2011 at 14:45 | #35

    What awful luck, due to be decommissioned next year, rather than last year, hit by a Tsunami rather than a plane, not identical to another reactor that managed to survive this particular event. How could you expect fail-safe designers to design to cover all those possibilities? It is just unreasonable to expect fail-safes not to occasionally fail, or fail-safe designers not to occasionally get it wrong. Apparently, the Onagawa reactor conforms fully to ISO 14001. If it does ever fail, the next one will conform fully to ISO 14002.

  36. sam
    March 13th, 2011 at 15:14 | #36

    You tell em TerjeP. At a time like this, we should focus on reactors which haven’t recently melted down. We shouldn’t make ourselves depressed thinking of the minority that are. Also, think of all the people in Africa who aren’t dying of AIDS, women who don’t have post-natal fistulas, the species which aren’t threatened with imminent extinction, etc. etc.

  37. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    March 13th, 2011 at 15:22 | #37

    Freelander – go rail against the oil refinery which has killed 100+ people. Or the towns that washed away because they didn’t have a wall to protect against a Tsunami. So much death and destruction and your worried about a nuclear reactor that is still contained. It’s a level four incident. Lower than three mile island. A blip on the radar relative to the distruction that abounds.

    Any ways I’m in breach of John Quiggins rules. I’ve discussed nuclear. I’m past my single comment on the same thread in the same day. If you want to discuss further I’ll be available at the Barry Brook blog:-

    http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/03/12/japan-nuclear-earthquake/

  38. Luke
    March 13th, 2011 at 15:51 | #38

    Let’s just all take a deep breath and wait for the response. This could be a massive demonstration of how safe nuclear energy really is…

  39. Ben
    March 13th, 2011 at 15:59 | #39

    @Freelander
    I think that’s a good point. You cannot assume that the fail-safe designers can cover all possibilities. Once you accept that there is a non-zero probability of system failure (and, regardless of design, there will always be a non-zero probability), you can then decide if you can tolerate the consequences of such a failure. My personal opinion is “no”.

  40. Ikonoclast
    March 13th, 2011 at 16:00 | #40

    Where’s the nuclear sandit when you need it? Or is it a pebble bed now?

  41. Ben
    March 13th, 2011 at 16:12 | #41

    I didn’t realise that I could be off-topic with my recent post (according to TerjeP). Apologies, if so.

  42. John Bennetts
    March 13th, 2011 at 16:41 | #42

    @Ian Milliss
    I would hope for a somewhat more balanced analysis than some I have read since the quake. Regardless of the source of supply, I imagine that most power stations will be useless and dangerous; perhaps have caused injury or death. Coal and hydro come to mind: the coal stations I have worked on would have no chance of survival. Large dams and hydro, ditto. Humankind really needs to get smarter when making demands of its environment and get used to thinking smaller in terms of population, energy use and so forth.

    That said, the long range costs, across the board, do not seem to me to be as horrid as some think. Cradle to grave studies of, say, Type IV nuclear versus current coal fired, versus solar thermal (three of which I have worked on) and solar PV might, just might, bring consistency of analysis and less emotion.

    Sorry, but as an engineer, I try to operate on analysis, not passion. I would very much like to see a broad and deep analysis, funded and carried out not from proponents, but from
    disinterested professionals in the many disciplines. I predict some surprises for all sides, and a few current policies reconsidered.

    Re the quake, let’s wait, tend the wounded and help those with losses before we start knocking each others’ heads off.

  43. Alice
    March 13th, 2011 at 16:43 | #43

    You dangerous and silly people that continue to push nuclear use, saying we use this disaster in Japan as a chance to improve our technologies and advance, need your own sandpit preferably somewhere else. Nuclear reactors built on a fault line / earthquake zone? (and the same goes for California) No body needs a phd to figure out its a bad, evil and greedy move and someone made money out of it.What takes a little longer is the number of disasters, environmental and on a human tradgedy scale the use of nuclear is chalking up ( in its toxicity to humans, in its infiltrative capabilities, in its monumental life time, in the dangerous idiots who want to persist with it).

    No air. Give them no air and ask them go rattle their nasty rattles somewhere else.

  44. March 13th, 2011 at 16:44 | #44

    From discussions with engineers and physicists I gather that the structure of the nuclear plant survived the earth quake and tsunami alright, but that the back-up pumps failed due to water damage. Obviously priority one now is to prevent the core from melting down which is why they are pumping in sea water and letting off irradiated steam.

    I would bet on the Japs bringing the problem under control but I gather the reactor or at least the damaged tower is now a write-off. Sea water would corrode the pipes disabling the cooling system.

  45. rog
    March 13th, 2011 at 17:06 | #45

    Doesn’t matter how strong the plant is the weakest link is that it needs continuous and uninterrupted power to operate the safety systems.

  46. March 13th, 2011 at 17:17 | #46

    I will bet that the Japs somehow manage to prevent a full melt-down by restoring power or getting back-up pumps working. But its not a sure bet.

    A big problem is finding enough workers to rotate through the repair site, given that gamma radiation is going to be high. Protective suits prevent ingestion/inhalation of gross irradiated particles but cannot inhibit gamma radiation. The workers can only have a short period of on-site before they use up their safe exposure allowance.

    So they need to get on top of the problem real quick or somehow get robots onto the job. Otherwise some workers are going to have to volunteer for kamikaze missions, as the Russian workers did at Chenobyl.

  47. Freelander
    March 13th, 2011 at 17:37 | #47

    @Jack Strocchi

    Good. It’s all resolved now. Nothing wrong with the nuclear plant. Everything worked as designed. It was the back up pump that failed.

  48. Hal9000
    March 13th, 2011 at 18:04 | #48

    I think the proponents of nuclear power aren’t quite getting the point here. It’s not a technical argument about the systems, it’s the reality of popular terror about radiation. It’s no good talking about the risks. People are terrified of being irradiated. The Japanese authorities are being economical with the truth in order to forestall panic, because they know that’s what will happen if they are frank. It’s that terror that will abort any nuclear future plans. No amount of sophistry will talk it away. Just think: they’ve just suffered an appalling natural catastrophe, but all the talk is about the nuclear power plants.

  49. March 13th, 2011 at 18:06 | #49

    The big fear now is the possibility of further quakes. From my limited knowledge of seismology I understand that quakes come in clusters and we are obviously experiencing a series this year (New Zealand, Brazil, Japan, ?).

    Particularly given the size of this quake (9 +?) this implies a massive shift in the Pacific tectonic plate. The other end of this plate finishes up in California.

    California is long overdue a Big One. There is a big full moon coming to California on the 19 MAR, the tidal movement of water is known to effect tectonic plate shifts.

    So if I was in California now I would be thinking of taking a holiday inland. Charlie Sheen may have gotten out of Malibu at just the right time.

  50. March 13th, 2011 at 18:13 | #50

    Freelander @ #47 said:

    It’s all resolved now. Nothing wrong with the nuclear plant. Everything worked as designed. It was the back up pump that failed.

    So far the main structure has survived the initial impact of earth quake and tsunami. Being a glass half full kind of guy I am inclined to take some solace from this.

    Can you identify to me how many people have been killed or injured by the various accidents, malfunctions and explosions at the nuclear reactor.

    [stony silence for about 900 years]

    I didn’t think so. Before writing off an industry for poor safety record it might be a good idea to wait until the safety breaches actually you know harm some one.

    Until then save the gloating for your fever-swamped imagination.

  51. rog
    March 13th, 2011 at 18:20 | #51

    Using the glass half full analogy implies a 50:50 risk, which isn’t quite good enough.

  52. March 13th, 2011 at 18:28 | #52

    rog @ #1 said:

    Using the glass half full analogy implies a 50:50 risk, which isn’t quite good enough.

    Pressing this glass half full analogy into service in the risk management field does not work very well, at least in the heavy-handed way the way you do it. To make it fit properly one would have to wait until the pouring is done ie the safety mechanisms and emergency repairs are exhausted. Obviously they are not done yet.

    So far only a bit of milk has spilt over the side. We shall have to see how much more milk is spilled before we start crying over it.

  53. Freelander
    March 13th, 2011 at 18:36 | #53

    @Jack Strocchi

    There are some industries that where it is wiser not to give them the opportunity to develop a poor safety record. One really bad outcome in the nuclear industry is capable of ruining a very long record of incident free operation.

  54. Fran Barlow
    March 13th, 2011 at 18:55 | #54

    @Hal9000

    It’s not a technical argument about the systems, it’s the reality of popular terror about radiation. It’s no good talking about the risks. People are terrified of being irradiated. The Japanese authorities are being economical with the truth in order to forestall panic, because they know that’s what will happen if they are frank. It’s that terror that will abort any nuclear future plans. No amount of sophistry will talk it away. Just think: they’ve just suffered an appalling natural catastrophe, but all the talk is about the nuclear power plants.

    Indeed.

    The reporting of this incident exactly follows Galtung & Ruge all those years ago. The damage directly inflicted by the earthquake and tsunami are seen as a natural process, and therefore a tragedy, the mere threat from the Fukushima plants is seen as most salient, because it’s not only negative, but can be presented as the result of actions by humans.

    Never mind that so far the score is:

    Earthquake/Tsunami

    Deaths: (approx.) 900; injuries (unreported)

    Fukushima 1 & 2

    Deaths: 0; injuries 4 (shared with earthquake/tsunami); 9 persons showing some evidence of elevated exposure to radiation (shared with earthquake/tsunami)

    Matters may change of course, but the net contribution to the incident at the Fukushima plant is likely to be tiny by comparison with the wider disaster. It would be ridiculous if public policy effectively elevated the mere fear of harm above the actual, much larger and more ubiquitous but unspectacular harm caused by the alternatives to nuclear power.

    Of course, as we know from the tussle over CO2 mitigation policy, FUD is a powerful tool. Say “Great Big New Tax” and “we’ll all be ‘rooned” for long enough and you can generate massive rightwing populist cultural angst. So too reckless sloganeering over this issue to a public that finds nuclear power at best to be hard to understand can also work very effectively. That doesn’t make it good policy though.

    As someone who resents FUD on CO2 mitigation, don’t you regard having it as an ally on the nuclear issue with at least some disdain? Playing to or relying upon unreasoning fears may be good in the short term, but it is corrosive of good public policy and of inclusive governance, both of which I imagine you would want to endorse.

  55. Hal9000
    March 13th, 2011 at 18:57 | #55

    Jack, let’s all hope you’re right about the success of containment mechanisms. But you’re dead wrong about the outcome of this event for nuclear power. The cost of a nuclear power plant has just gone through the roof as additional failsafe procedures will now be mandatory. Get used to this new reality.

  56. iain
    March 13th, 2011 at 19:02 | #56

    @Fran Barlow

    Keeping “score” is pretty tasteless.

    But, having to evacuate 210,000 people, is probably not very helpful when (at the same time) trying to rescue people currently in dire need from a natural disaster.

  57. Hal9000
    March 13th, 2011 at 19:07 | #57

    Fran, I agree that accurate information should be available, and I also agree that it’s conducive to good public policy. I do however dispute your general contention that the risks from nuclear would mitigate public opposition if only the discussion were better informed. The aversion to nuclear is based in the reality of nuclear materials being odourless tasteless devastating poisons. Many lies have been told by nuclear spruikers, which gravely diminishes the credibility of any statements made now, however actually founded in fact. I know you are honest about your advocacy of nuclear, however it’s not going to be palatable and that’s really the end of the story in terms of its usefulness as an AGW mitigation technology, since the investments need to be made over the next dozen or so years.

  58. Ken Lovell
    March 13th, 2011 at 19:17 | #58

    @ 48: ‘The Japanese authorities are being economical with the truth in order to forestall panic, because they know that’s what will happen if they are frank.’

    The evidence for this defamatory assertion consists of what, exactly? Perhaps by sheer luck we have an on-the-spot reporter inside the power station, with access to all the relevant data? Oh wait, the source could not be identified because s/he was not authorised to speak about such a sensitive issue, correct?

    A lot of anti-nuclear power **** is the left’s equivalent of global warming delusionism. Distortions piled upon selective reporting, and when all else fails just make stuff up.

  59. Freelander
    March 13th, 2011 at 19:26 | #59

    The bad event in the nuclear industry is a rare event. Statistics demonstrating everything is fine are meaningless. All it takes is an event like terrorists diverting plutonium and blowing up a city with a nuclear bomb, or even, only blowing up a nuclear facility with conventional explosives, for the safety record to dramatically change. There are fail-safes against these possibilities too, but I wouldn’t try taking out insurance for full cover on them. If someone did sell you the insurance the paper would probably be as valueless as CDSs proved to be when the bad thing happened.

  60. Alice
    March 13th, 2011 at 20:25 | #60

    You know – we had a situation a while back where the Prof asked people to put their politics aside out of respect for our own people who were suffering in the QLD floods. Id like to see the same thing happen now out of respect for the japanese that are suffering from not one but three disasters and I find the score tallying pretty tasteless as well.

  61. Fran Barlow
    March 13th, 2011 at 20:57 | #61

    @Alice

    I find the score tallying pretty tasteless as well.

    So your position is that “respect for the Japanese that are suffering” entails the right to misrepresent the various aspects of the unfolding disaster so as to buttress your own view of nuclear power without challenge from those who believe we ought to have an evidence-based discussion?

  62. Alice
    March 13th, 2011 at 21:23 | #62

    Fran,
    The reality is a quarter of a million people are being evacuated in Japan, and they cant get out because of the other disasters caused by the earthquake and the tsunami and where do they go to? There are thousands already in nuclear shelters with diminished access to food and water – your death tally scores at #4 simply to point score on this occasion Fran for your beloved unquestioning verbally acrobatic pro nuclear advocacy which you have demonstrated at length here and elsewhere in the blogosphere is not only tasteless.

    It is odious.

    Your death tally comment is also a blatant lie because so far 160 people are thought to have been exposed to radiation and they are still testing people. The number of deaths emerges years later in higher cancer rates and the reality is you have no idea how many people have been exposed or are injured or will die.

  63. quokka
    March 13th, 2011 at 22:20 | #63

    @Alice

    Sorry, but Fran’s comment about death tally is not a blatant lie. We do not know what radiation dose those 160 people may or may not have been exposed to. If it is less than a small multiple of annual natural background exposure, the likelihood of serious adverse health effects is very small. Postulating a radiation disaster without any real evidence is a bit out of order considering the terrible and indisputable suffering from the quake.

    @Hal9000
    “nuclear materials being odourless tasteless devastating poisons” – Yes, in sufficient quantities. However radiation is incredibly easy to detect. You can buy a dosimeter for less than a hundred dollars on eBay that will do the trick. The chances of contamination going undetected which your comment would seem be getting at, are just about non-existent.

  64. Ernestine Gross
    March 13th, 2011 at 22:32 | #64

    @Fran Barlow

    @26, page 1 you wrote:

    “In my own household, this has already caused some angst, because hubby is a lot less convinced on the prospective net benefits of nuclear power than I am. We’ve had to rule the topic out of order until we both agree that something meeting the above criteria has emerged, or three months, whichever comes first.”

    I am asking for the same relief from your apparent angst about your advocacy of nuclear power being a failure as you have granted your “hubby” (previously partner, previously hubby).

    There is also JQ’s rule that your favourite advocacy topic belongs to the sandpit until further notice.

    There is a difference, IMO, between people posting on the risk of serious nuclear pollution adding to the calamity of the earthquake(s) and tsunami in Japan on the one hand and an individual or interest group promoting their preferences.

  65. quokka
    March 13th, 2011 at 22:51 | #65

    Probably the best account of what has happened and what is happening at the Japanese nuclear power plants: Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation

  66. Fran Barlow
    March 13th, 2011 at 23:50 | #66

    @Ernestine Gross

    There is a difference, IMO, between people posting on the risk of serious nuclear pollution adding to the calamity of the earthquake(s) and tsunami in Japan on the one hand and an individual or interest group promoting their preferences.

    That’s so, but in this case I am simply attempting to add suitable qualifying information to the discussion on the risks attending the events at Fukushima following the plant’s perturbation by the earthquake/tsunami. I reserve the right to correct misleading claims where I see them.

  67. Donald Oats
    March 14th, 2011 at 00:06 | #67

    @sam
    OK, I admit I laughed.

    Further to your point, I just wish to point out that NOONE DIED from nuclear power plant accidents for at least TWO MILLION YEARS, an even better safety record than fire!

  68. Donald Oats
    March 14th, 2011 at 01:01 | #68

    @Donald Oats

    Concentrating on the human dimension of the earthquake(s), I personally find it challenging – impossible, really – to completely apprehend it. And the aftermath is no easier. Even so far removed from it geographically speaking, and seeing it through the pinhole of a photojournalist’s lens, the scale of the destruction is vast. Feeling sorry for people caught up in such a fate hardly seems to be an adequate response.

  69. Freelander
    March 14th, 2011 at 05:22 | #69

    TerjeP (say tay-a) :
    The more modern nuclear plant which was without any notable nuclear incident and which is situated closer to the epicentre is detailed here:-
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onagawa_Nuclear_Power_Plant

    http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/second-state-of-emergency-declared-after-radiation-recorded-at-onagawa-plant/story-e6frfku0-1226020808528

    Oops…

  70. Alice
    March 14th, 2011 at 06:17 | #70

    @quokka
    says (of me) “Postulating a radiation disaster without any real evidence is a bit out of order ”
    I find that an absurd comment.

  71. Alice
    March 14th, 2011 at 06:20 | #71

    @Fran Barlow
    says “I am simply attempting to add suitable qualifying information to the discussion”
    You are adding selective information as suits your advocacy ie severely ethics depleted “evidence”.

  72. rog
    March 14th, 2011 at 06:27 | #72

    In a curious twist we now have climate skeptics vs nuclear skeptics with no thanks to the media (ABC news this morning – Japan faces nuclear meltdown; Herald Sun “JAPANESE authorities are battling the threat of multiple reactor meltdowns at four nuclear power plants” and “JAPANESE authorities are battling the threat of multiple reactor meltdowns at four nuclear power plants.”)

    Amongst all the noise scientists have been relegated to the background.

  73. rog
    March 14th, 2011 at 06:28 | #73

    Whoops, should be “US nuclear physicists have warned we might be watching another Chernobyl.”

  74. TerjeP
    March 14th, 2011 at 07:59 | #74

    Freelander – the wikipedia article I linked seems to have been updated since I added the link. I’ll quote the latest from it:-

    On March 13 2011 levels of radiation on site reached 21?Sv/hour, a level at which Tohoku Electric Power Company were mandated to declare state of emergency, and they did so at 12:50, declaring the lowest-level such state. Within 10 minutes the level had dropped to 10?Sv/hour.[2][3][4] The company claimed this was due to radiation from the Fukushima I nuclear accidents and not from the plant itself.[5]

  75. TerjeP
    March 14th, 2011 at 08:02 | #75

    The quote has not worked perfectly. The radiation units include a question mark that should be the “micro” symbol.

  76. Greg
    March 14th, 2011 at 08:14 | #76

    Alice :
    @Fran Barlow
    says “I am simply attempting to add suitable qualifying information to the discussion”
    You are adding selective information as suits your advocacy ie severely ethics depleted “evidence”.

    It might be worth reading what JQ wrote up top (again?), Alice. He did exactly what Fran has done – provided scale and perspective.

    Your claim that Fran’s statement is ethically “odious” is complete nonsense. Ethics deals precisely with “greater harm” questions.

  77. sam
    March 14th, 2011 at 09:16 | #77

    @Donald Oats
    Congratulations Mr Smith, one of your legs won’t have to be amputated today!

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