Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Japan Syndrome

Years ago, I went with my mother to see a movie called "The China Syndrome."

The movie — which starred Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas — was about the perils of nuclear power. The title came from the popular misconception that, if someone in America drilled through the earth, he/she would come out in China. The movie's premise was that, if a nuclear reactor melted down, its core would do something similar.

It was a frightening premise that was made even more frightening by an actual nuclear accident at Three–Mile Island in Pennsylvania not long after the movie made its theatrical premiere.

That event gave the movie a lot of unexpected publicity, resulting in higher–than–expected ticket sales and a lot of anxiety on the part of the public.

We know more about nuclear power now than we did when that movie came out — but not, perhaps, as much as we may have thought — or, perhaps, would like to have thought.

In my adult lifetime, Americans have always seemed eager to embrace the simple solution to a complex problem, and many seem to be taking that approach to the nuclear situation in Japan.

"How bad could it get?" asks Josh Dzieza at The Daily Beast. And that's a fair question to ask — flippant though it may seem.

Barry Brook writes at Brave New Climate about the "misinformation and hyperbole flying around the internet and media" and asserts that "[t]he plant is safe now and will stay safe."

Well, time will tell.

Maybe it is the same mindset that always seems to assure Americans that higher gas prices are only temporary. In the past, yes, gas prices have declined after enormous spikes — but rarely, if ever, to the levels that existed before.

I'm not inclined to think that gas prices will fall to anything resembling what they were just a couple of months ago — especially now because the most vocal proponents of that particular pie–in–the–sky theory (that gas prices will decline almost exclusively on the basis of consumer behavior) also have been advocates of nuclear energy as the solution to the cost of heating and cooling our homes.

Those are the same people who scoffed at President Carter when "The China Syndrome" was at the theaters — because he warned that America's dependence on foreign oil was setting this nation up for disaster.

The recent events in Japan are sure to be mentioned now whenever someone promotes nuclear energy in this country. The issues that have been raised are far too complex to be addressed by a simple solution.

The truth is that, for all that 21st century humans know about nuclear power, there is still much they do not know — even in Japan, which, if anything, has been overly cautious about safety in just about every aspect of its existence when compared to virtually any other place on earth.

That is why you could watch video footage of the area nearest to the ground zero of the earthquake — and see large buildings that were still standing, even though a 9.0–magnitude earthquake struck the area 2½ days ago, and powerful aftershocks continue to strike.

Japan is no stranger to earthquakes. As a result, it has done a remarkable job of preparing its buildings for the possibility that one will strike, but this is the strongest ever to hit that country — and only the third earthquake globally to register 9.0 or higher in the last 50 years. One was the 9.2 earthquake that struck Prince William Sound in Alaska 47 years ago this month, and the other was the 9.1 that struck Indonesia the day after Christmas in 2004.

And this earthquake, along with the tsunamis it has produced, has been causing a number of unforeseen problems. Japan, as I say, always appears to prepare for the worst–case scenario — but its engineers didn't actually anticipate the worst case, only a worse case.

And that could have tragic consequences.

When you are dealing with something like nuclear energy, you must think way outside the box. I don't fault Japanese officials for not preparing for the size earthquake that almost never happens, but the fact remains that attempts to restart the cooling system at one of the damaged reactors have failed.

Safety standards have to be revisited — and, until we know more than we do about nuclear power, we have to treat it with the respect it deserves and prepare ourselves for a disaster that is much greater than anything we've seen — or may be likely to see.

1 comment:

Douglas Ward said...

We watched the China Syndrome movie just a couple of weeks ago. DirecTV was showing it one one of the hi-def movie channels. It seems that each time that movie is shown, a nuclear disaster follows.