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March 13, 2011


"he makes an interesting point, that government needs to plan for all sorts of worst case scenarios, not only natural disasters and wars, but also financial crises. How a government does this under the relentless demand to be smaller is something I wonder about."

Isn't a relentless demand to control structural costs the only way to plan for all those things?

The Bush era failure to recognize the costs of war, and pay for them exacerbated the impact of the natural disasters(Katrina, BP) and the financial crisis. All the while making no effort to limit the increase in structural costs to maintain a balance of accounts that could absorb those unknowns.

Leaving us feuding over whose ox gets gored to retrench and get our fiscal house in order, with Japans debt as a constant example of why we have to do it now, for better or worse.

At the beginning of the wars we could have repealed the tax cuts, to pay for the war and security measures. True leadership could have justified that as the responsible fiscal step. We could have maintained sound fiscal accounts, had room to absorb more in a crisis and been much more aggressive now.

But I am rambling, thanks for the insight.

one note though:

Bureaucrats held decision-making authority but accountability for their decisions was not rigorous and transparent. Regulations were issued through the use of ambiguous, unwritten administrative guidance that allowed them to retain regulatory discretion and authority withoutthe use of a formal system of rules. The experience of Tokyo’s authorities was that reason or compensation could ultimately sway the public to “understand” the government’s position. Professionalism and expertise overrode the need for transparency, citizen discussion, and local concerns.

This sounds very much like our governments position on healthcare reform.

CCDG, thanks for commenting. Controlling structural costs is certainly important, but when you have things like Bobby Jindal's ridiculing volcano monitoring, I'd suggest there is some baby going out with that bathwater.

I'd also point out that Japan's healthcare, which costs less person than any of the other OECD countries, and has the oldest population (so should be more costly) yet still has the highest life expectancy, employs a number of strategies that were proposed in the healthcare debate that were roundly rejected by the usual suspects.


I did say the idea was sound, not easy. :)

One thing worth adding in the comparison between the Japanese and American political situations is that at least some of Japan's old guard politicians, as mandarin as they have become, have vivid childhood memories of deprivation and undernourishment not only during the war years, but even after; the country's recovery did not explode overnight, and hardship marked the young experiences of many currently older people.

Our mandarins have, with almost no exception, none of these experiences; and the American incomprehension over why the Japanese government has not repealed Article 9 of the 1947 constitution renouncing war as an instrument of state power can be explained as such a disconnect, between the pivotal experiences of one generation of formative politicians in one country versus another.

The only further thing I would add that while it seems that it takes time for the Japanese public to be roused to action, once it is, it acts. The level of cooperation among people and the sense that they are all in this together is astounding - perhaps also, in the collective psyche, a legacy of the hardship of war and the need for people to pull together. This isn't done perfectly, of course; but that it is being done to the extent that it is is still remarkable.

That's a great point, sekaijin. It reminds me of Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo, who is pretty far right, claimed he and other children were strafed by US aircraft during WWII. Historical memory being what it is, a number of people questioned the account, but it couldn't be determined one way or another what the truth of the account was (though a number of people noted that Ishihara, before becoming a politician, was an award winning novelist) Ishihara is stridently outspoken, and other politicians have not really talked about their views of the war (one of the perennial problems for Japanese foreign policy is how the country apologizes and acknowledges what happened in WWII) but how these politicians negotiate Japanese post war identity (which sounds bizarre, being 65 years since the end of the war, but in the other thread, we've got a food fight about what the US Civil War means) is going to be one of the things to watch in the coming years.

The level of cooperation among people and the sense that they are all in this together is astounding - perhaps also, in the collective psyche, a legacy of the hardship of war and the need for people to pull together. This isn't done perfectly, of course; but that it is being done to the extent that it is is still remarkable.

Maybe a topic for another time: this brings to mind a lot of questions I have, and musings I've done, about "collective psyche" in relation to the difference between a country where the population is relatively homogeneous -- Japan and China, for instance -- and a country like the United States.

I spent five weeks in China last year visiting my son, who is in his third year of teaching English in northern Shaanxi province. I taught his conversational English classes with him for a week (this was after I had been in China for almost a month). He gets to freelance in teaching these classes, so we structured our teaching together around the following, which was the top headline of what my visit, and my interactions with Chinese people, made me think about.

In China, the overwhelming majority of the people are of the same ethnicity, and even the minority peoples (if I understand correctly) have been there forever. Yes, there are regional differences in food and other customs. But pretty much everyone in China has come from a line of ancestors that were in China. I’m not sure what I think matters more (if either one): the homogeneity, or the long occupation of that area of the world by the same people, with a concomitant sense (referred to in practically ever conversation I had) that they have 5000 years of shared history and cultural continuity behind them.

This is in huge contrast to the United States, where people have come from all over the planet to try to co-exist in one polity, and they’re still coming. (I spend a lot of time in and near Harvard Square, where you can hear 20 languages in a morning if you listen carefullyt.) (I am not forgetting the Native Americans. The fact that they were here first doesn't contradict the point I'm making about the heterogeneity of genetic/ethnic background and customs of the present-day US.)

I guess I shouldn’t prolong this, it’s not the topic of the thread. But I am postulating that the “collective psyche” in Japan or China is a very different kind of thing from the “collective psyche” (if any) in the United States. I’m not suggesting that one is “better” than the other, but it seems hardly possible that they’re not very different. I was about to write (kind of sardonically) that I would just like to see the day when Americans thought and acted like we “are all in this together.” Then I decided that I probably don’t want anyone to have to live through any eventuality that could bring us to that moment.

(I don’t think the aftermath of 9/11 counts. I have mentioned my cynicism about what “United We Stand” represents on this blog before and been mildly taken to task for it, but I am still cynical. The reaction to and aftermath of 9/11 very quickly showed that we are not all in this together. If we were, there wouldn’t have been an Iraq war, or Guantanamo, or.....)


By the way -- our conversational English classes that week weren't full of this kind of dry high-level speculative abstraction. I started by drawing part of my son's family tree, with people from Italy, Russia, and England that we're sure of, the immigrants stretching from the 1600s to my Italian grandparents in the early 1900s.

This was a trigger to get the students talking about what they knew about their own family histories. Given China's last hundred years, there were some tough stories to listen to.

I guess I shouldn’t prolong this, it’s not the topic of the thread.

Nah, trying to get at a collective psyche, what it is and if it is, is at the heart of this in a lot of ways.

A bit of live blogging. I've got NHK and CNN on, and Sanjay Gupta is saying there is another tsunami warning that is being announced, and opining on how this shows how a sense of fear and panic has taken hold. At the same time, NHK reports that the Self Defence early warning system is reporting a 5 meter tsunami may be approaching and telling people to get to higher ground. While I don't expect people who are dropped into a situation like this to be fluent in the local language, but it might behoove them to spend a little less time reporting about feelings and impressions and more reporting about the how things actually work.

Thanks LJ. I would add, to what you've added in turn above, that as I live here, while I am not Japanese, I too am in the heart of things here.

My wife and I have just come from a shopping trip for essentials. There are long lines right now with store staff shepherding people in and out. While there is a sense of urgency in the air, there are no shouting matches, no shoving, no displays of alpha male poncing for who should be in line ahead of anyone else. So I can say that in at least my part of Tokyo, there is no visible panic as far as I can see. Of course, I'm where I am and it's not representative of the whole country, but this is my on-the-ground reportage as I see it.

CNN doesn't really stand for Cable News Network, so it shouldn't be initialed as such. It really should be CUN - for "Catastrophe Update Network."

"I'm sure that what has happened will be cited by folks for nuclear power (pointing to the fail-safes that worked) and those against (pointing out the fact that this was basically the last line of defense)."

Well, yeah, and put me in the former category: Forty year old reactor, category 9 earthquake, tsunami, and the resulting devastation and loss of life will be... Less than that caused by NORMAL operation of equivalent coal power plants. God, imagine if there had been a flyash pit for that tsunami to spread over the landscape! It would have been an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

I have no particular hope of this being reacted to in a rational manner, but if it were, the result would actually be more nuclear power plants being built.

I suspect a coal vs. nuclear comparison would come out in nuclear's favor, but it's a stretch to say the current situation is a net plus for nuclear. It might be if catastrophe is averted, but it's a nail-biter right now. One thing it showed is that seismologists can underestimate the size of an earthquake one needs to design for. That was pointed out in one article in the NYT today--in a separate article it said that the Diablo Canyon plant in California was designed for earthquakes, but only quakes up to 7.5, on the ground that the nearby fault should not be capable of anything above a 6.5 From what I've read on wikipedia historically earthquakes in California have been up to 7.9 in size. (It's a log scale- each full point on it represents a factor of 31.6 increase in energy, and a factor of ten in amplitude. Which is something I don't understand--what sort of wave has energy that goes up with the three halves power? But anyway, that means there's a significant difference between 7.5 and 7.9)

Does anyone know what the current estimates are for the number of deaths caused each year in the US by coal? I remember reading a long time ago in a pro-nuke book that air pollution from coal kills tens of thousands per year just in the US. But I don't know if that figure would still be true (or if it was true then).

This has been amazing to watch (though I can't take more than ~5 minutes of CNN at a time). Sad amazing, obviously.

As for the nuclear question... I've always worried more about nuclear waste than about meltdown risk (we're all products of our experiences, and my work involves claims for environmental pollution cleanup costs). I imagine that post-disaster reviews will identify ways to improve/upgrade reactors in the future so the combo of ridiculously powerful earthquake + tsunami != risk of meltdown. Overall, my opinion on nuke power won't change much.

Here's a post titled Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation with a reprint of "a summary on the situation prepared by Dr Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT, in Boston. He is a PhD Scientist, whose father has extensive experience in Germany’s nuclear industry."

It sounds technically correct to me, given my limited knowledge of nuclear power plants, but I'd like to hear from anyone who sees problems with it. There are a few overly dismissive sounding phrases here and there, and an overall air of strong advocacy for nuclear power, but I think it's an informative read.

I would recommend reading this:


for a far less sanguine look at what is going on. I haven't been posting here but I have been rather furiously on Facebook since about midday Friday saying that the scale and potential consequences of this event were being grossly underestimated by the Japanese authorities and TEPCO, and that the print media, at least, was taking a very overly-optimistic line. (I don't really watch TV, I am guessing that the coverage there was more ... exciteable.)

Anyway, this is already very very bad and still has a significant chance to become Chernobyl-level bad. In fact, the likelihood of an extreme negative outcome has only increased over the weekend.

I have some extended meta-commentary on the way this kind of event is covered and the way information is presented by the authorities that I might make into a front-page post, I'll see... but for instance, whenever you hear something like "It is possible that a partial meltdown might have occurred or might occur", you should assume that what is meant is "A partial meltdown has definitely occurred". Whenever you hear, "Current radiation release levels are very low", you should assume that what is meant is "Radiation levels a few hours ago were very high and may become very high again... so let's talk about what happened in the last five minutes."

TEPCO has a reputation for covering up accidents, minimizing their impact in public statements, and rejecting outside help, all of which seem well-deserved and fully in operation right now. For instance, the absolutely ridiculous attempt to say that the first explosion affected only the turbine hall - which violated both the physics/chemistry of the situation and the plainly obvious fact that it was the top of the reactor building that blew off.

But that link, hsh, is one that has been passed around a lot by people who should really be reading with more skepticism.

For instance, it says "There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity. By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation."

That is absolutely untrue. There has already been detectable contamination of people by radioactive Cesium and Iodine particles, which are certainly not things you will encounter in a glass of beer or walking on granite. Because of that, we know that the fuel rods in at least one reactor or spent fuel in a cooling pond have been compromised, because that's where radioactive Cesium and Iodine come from. And because that has definitely happened, there will be more releases and more contamination. Minimizing the changes of that is almost criminal.

There is a real tendency to patronize and to assume that anyone who is concerned knows nothing about nuclear physics and is just some kind of ignorant hysteric. But I do know a fair bit about nuclear physics, especially regarding environmental nuclear contamination and the biological effects of radiation, and I also understand pretty well how nuclear power plants work, and I read people who are bona fide experts in all of those areas, and as a result I am seriously concerned about what is going on. It is not an experts vs. uninformed hysterics thing. It appears to be a "personally invested in the nuclear industry and the safety of same" versus "not".

There is a very significant chance that at least one reactor will melt down completely and breach the containment structure. I really, really, really hope it doesn't happen, but it is absolutely possible and frankly looking increasingly likely. There is no reason to panic, but there absolutely is reason to be worried, especially worried for the people in Japan who might be exposed.

lj, I hope you're doing okay. I don't know what else to say... good luck out there.

JanieM, I suspect that many people suspect that race played a pretty big part in the miserable response to Katrina - especially the particular attitudes about race that appear to be common in the south. I was absolutely dismayed when I read about the number of people left behind by evacuation efforts because the official plan assumed self-evacuation by car, because it was, essentially, written by and for middle-class white people.

I think those attitudes are a little different elsewhere, but given the way white/Asian San Franciscans talk about Oakland - as if it was Somalia, basically - I don't know exactly how far that goes.

From TPM:

"The Times also quotes a senior nuclear industry executive as saying that "full-scale panic" has set in among Japanese power industry managers. "They're in total disarray, they don't know what to do," the source told the Times."

About what is happening in Fukushima, I find myself thinking of two points. One is that TEPCO and the Japanese oversight industry has a problem with transparency and so you might want to take their assurances with several grains of salt. On the other hand, the Western media has leapt on this with abandon and seems to be overstating things consistently in order to maintain viewership. I'm doing CNN (I can't find the other news channels on my brother's cable) and I'm particularly appalled by Jim(?) Walsh, who is listed as being from MIT, and who seems to increase his volume by 10 decibels and repeats himself to make sure that we know how bad things are. Wolf Blitzer has discovered his stones and has sternly invoked that things 'don't pass his smell test'. I'm also watching NHK, which is more conservative, but also quite worried. So, while I am relatively sure that the Japanese sources will err on the side of conservative safety, the western media is going to use this to drive ratings. So when you write
There is no reason to panic, but there absolutely is reason to be worried, especially worried for the people in Japan who might be exposed.
I think that is the right balance to take.

I also don't want to patronize anyone who is reading about this and trying to understand this. But seeing people anoint themselves as experts because they've trolled through wikipedia is one of the most distasteful things for me. (not saying you are, but I think we have all seen those folks pop up) There is a big question about how neutral is the view of nuclear experts and given that to be a nuclear expert, you have to actually work in the nuclear power industry, I can see a big problem. Still, if I read one more thing about nuclear plant design from someone who decided that this crisis supports his or her pet theory about nuclear energy, posting rules fail me.

Oh, I'll happily admit to being a Wikipedia trawler and repeat-offender Instant Expert, but in this case I have also read a lot about Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Windscale, and various other nuclear disasters over the years, having been interested in this area for a very long time. And I have a fair grasp of the physics & engineering involved, at least better than any of the confused reporters writing about this over the weekend.

And what I will say is that plenty of people who are actually nuclear physicists and reactor designers and medical experts in radiation exposure are also concerned.

I will also say that you don't need to be a full-on expert to look at what was being said on Friday, Saturday, Sunday about the scope of the problem and say "This is much worse than the way it is being described, it is not under control, and it is likely to get much worse". BS is BS and you don't have to be a nuclear physicist to say that when all the cooling systems for a plant have failed, the building it's in has exploded, and the last resort is pumping in seawater and boric acid, anyone who is saying that a major radiation release or significant accident is unlikely to occur is full of it.

But yeah, maybe some of the "calm down" people are responding to hysterical TV coverage. Like I say, I haven't watched any except a few minutes of Rachel Maddow on Friday.

My immediate point of comparison is with the Deepwater Horizon incident. There, as here, there were many confident assertions about the technological safeguards that would prevent a catastrophic release of pollutants. There was great confidence in the ability of existing emergency systems to cope with it. And there was no plan C (or maybe D, or E, or F) for what happened when Murphy's Law struck.

And on personal opinions - I feel reasonably confident even at this stage saying that this incident is strong evidence in the case against building more reactors. Having to evacuated 200,000 people in the aftermath of an existing natural disaster is very, very bad, even if no further radiation ends up being released. If we're in a car whose tires just blew out and we're careening towards a precipice, but you think maybe you can get the car under control before we all die, it's probably not a good time to make the case that your anti-tire-inflation maintenance policy is working out fine. You take the point.

I am not trying to score points off of this, I am just dismayed to see that the things the anti-nuclear-power crowd have warned about for decades have come to pass. People who were concerned about a worst-case outcome here were accused of "hoping for another Chernobyl" in some other discussion I was involved in. That really, really, really pisses me off. We have been trying to head off another Chernobyl for a very long time, while the advocates of nuclear power and apologists for plant operators have increased the chances of experiencing one. But now we're the ones at fault? As you say - posting rules fail me. And I realize that this may be exactly the kind of thing that causes posting rules to fail you - but I hope I'm also getting something across about where I'm coming from and why people like me are so upset and frustrated and angry about this whole thing.

I haven't a clue, which is why I rely on experts in Japan running around in their hardhats wondering what to do next.

I suspect they are looking at each other right about now and googling Wikipedia.

My inner wikipedia tells me that we'll never know how dangerous nuclear plants can be because we've permitted governments to mandate so many safeguards, thereby protecting the public from experiencing the full force of a nuclear meltdown.

Same with coal, although the Republican Party (wait a second, aren't there a few Democrats in West Virginia and Wyoming?) is making progress in letting the full detrimental effects of that form of energy through to the public lungs by defunding the EPA.

If we would just let free market signals, with no public safeguards, tell us which form of energy kills the most people, we could choose the best and least harmful.

Just count the bodies.

Of course, it may be that the form of energy that kills the most people is also the cheapest, which would appeal to the penny-wise American dead person.

I think building nukes on or near a fault line, or in a tsunami zone, is a consensus nonstarter going forward, but no nukes at all? That's a lot of windmills. A lot.

While this disaster--a huge understatement--may not be the death knell of nukes per se, it is the death knell of any argument that design, location, construction, etc. should not be regulated.

Like I said, Jacob, I wasn't thinking of you. It is more the style of argument rather than the content, with vaguely digested links that are offered up to support points. As I said, nuclear power is not simply a technical issue, it is a political issue, and failing to understand the political landscape in the country before opining pisses me off to no end. This is true for not just nuclear power, but healthcare, gun control, tiddlywinks. This LGM post mirrors my thoughts.

Here’s what I do know as someone who studies human security risks: I have not seen any documentation of injuries or casualties due to radiation, or any credible source claiming that there is a significant risk of widespread, life-threatening doses of radiation in the future even in a worst case scenario situation.

However, tens of thousands are already dead, injured, or at risk as a result of the non-Fukushima-related aspects of the March 11 quake and tsunami. These include direct injuries from and deaths from the event, but in the next few days we are likely to see additional massive casualties from air and water-borne disease, malnutrition and sepsis. All of these problems, and medical relief efforts, will be compounded by the power shortage created by the shut-down of the reactors: in other words, the biggest health risk for actual people is not the presence of the nuclear reactors but the absence of the energy they were providing.

This is not to claim that nuclear power is safe, that we should keep building reactors. I can understand being upset if you were accused of hoping for another Chernobyl and I hope that this wouldn't be tolerated here. However, wandering into new conversations and getting frustrated with people who have never made that argument is not a way to bring your point across. I'm not saying you are doing that now, but I presume you are going to be engaging people on this, and I really have to say 'I told you so', no matter how true it may be, is not a winning strategy.

That said, I hope you'll post about the Fukushima situation as I would be eager to read anything you think is relevant.

Thanks. I appreciate your advice, sincerely, and your local knowledge.

I think understanding local culture is important, and I have zero experience and not much real knowledge about Japanese culture or politics as they would relate to this. I'm very interested in what more you can say about it. It is hard for me to comprehend what seems like public acceptance of the lack of information coming out of TEPCO (no doubt impeded further by translation barriers) and what seem like blandishments from the Japanese government, even as the situation has gotten steadily worse.

I mean, it took until today for the Japanese authorities to ask for help from the US NRC. Can you say anything about that? Is it pride, or self-delusion about the scope of the accident, or what?

Here's a post titled Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation with a reprint of "a summary on the situation prepared by Dr Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT, in Boston. He is a PhD Scientist, whose father has extensive experience in Germany’s nuclear industry."

First, MIT is in Cambridge, not Boston. Secondly, I don't think it is fair to call him a "research scientist". To quote a comment from LGM:

Is there any reason to describe Dr. Oehmen as an “MIT scientist”? This phrase has been going around the Internet since he put his post up; looking at his CV, he has an undergraduate engineering degree, an MBA, and a Ph.D. dissertation on supply chain management. His publications are all things like “Total Cost of Ownership and Supply Chain Risk Management focusing on China”. There’s nothing I can see that’s particularly wrongheaded about his comments (although I think he’s being reflexively optimistic, and I don’t care for his suggested further reading being entirely pro-nuclear energy sites; I say the latter as someone who is basically pro-nuclear energy), but he has no background that I can see in either physics or nuclear engineering, and the description of a guy who is basically a business professor as a scientist seems like a wholly unearned stab at argument from authority.

The Oehmen link has been going around among friends of mine who consider themselves informed skeptics. It is quite irritating (this may be the understatement of the year).

Even better than the MIT scientist bit is "whose father has extensive experience in Germany’s nuclear industry." (emphasis added)

If the best you can do for argument from authority is "My dad knows a lot about this stuff," that is pretty embarrassing. That might make a decent argument from authority in grade school, but after that it isn't even a good argument from authority, much less a good argument.

Can you say anything about that? Is it pride, or self-delusion about the scope of the accident, or what?

I'm not sure. Again, I don't particularly trust TEPCO, and it would be hard to admit the situation is not under control. Also, I can see how opening up to aid could require turning over control that they weren't able to do. And in this comment, I point out some of the problems with the nuclear work force in Japan. Still, the fact that they evacuated suggests they have learned something from previous problems both in Japan and abroad. I don't know about the frequency of press conferences and I've only caught snippets of the press conferences. There is also the problem of press kisha club, which serves to keep important stories out of the news. However, the reporting has become so breathless on CNN, and they isolate single sentences from the press conferences, it is really hard to figure out where the basic truth is. That's the best I can do at the moment, unfortunately.

I just got these twitter account recommended to me for other reasons, TimeOutTokyo# and I see this

PM Kan admits that he saw the explosion on TV, but nobody informed him officially for an hour. He tells TEPC: Pull yourselves together (NHK)

Other information that might be of interest

Thanks for the feedback, all. (I didn't realize that link had so much torque.)

While I might be the one closest to the ground here at this moment, which isn't saying much as I'm in relative safety here in Tokyo, I can say that I back up LJ's views on Tepco.

They are extremely duplicitous, which is normal for them, thanks as well to decade after decade of enabling by LDP governments. I have no doubt that they have, within their upper crust, at least a few amakudari and the kind of complacency and self-centeredness that sets in with a mandarin executive is palpable all the more now.

One piece of news that isn't getting reported at all on CNN, and only slipped out last night on NHK, is the deal with the rolling blackouts. The fact is, they aren't blackouts at all. They were bannered as such, and even many people here assumed that they were because of the announcements Tepco were making on NHK and their own website (I'm flying on the keyboard here and have had no chance to embed links, sorry).

But it turns out that Tepco have admitted that they no way to store any of the power in large quantities, and that it simply has to be used as is - just conservatively, within the time frames that had been reported as blackouts. Otherwise, it's wasted.

So in fact, there aren't any blackouts at all in the sense anyone understands what blackouts to mean; they're simply requests to designated areas within certain time blocks to be as conservative as possible on their use of power.

Their failure to communicate that effectively demonstrates their complacency; they're not used to public scrutiny, and it's pretty clear they're largely unprepared for a catastrophe of national proportions.

Having said that, the slowdowns of train and subway services in the Tokyo area are happening, but are independent of Tepco's actions.

My bias is against nuclear power for the waste disposal issue, and for the private sector-governmental duplicity in hiding the true nature of danger from the public when things go wrong.

Nuf sed.

Frak. I really, *really* hope things are better when I wake up -- but I have the horrible feeling they won't be. And I haven't heard from my cousin about his wife's family, though I don't think they live in the area.

Even if the situation doesn't get as bad as Chernobyl, the consequences could be even worse, because Japan is so very densely populated.

"My bias is against nuclear power for the waste disposal issue, "

It's funny, because that's the source of my bias against coal: Coal plants have a terrible record in dealing with http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/1997/fs163-97/FS-163-97.html>radioactive waste.

Seriously, coal plants operating properly put out more radiation than nuclear plants. It's just better diluted by all that CO2. According to the no-threshold, linear models so beloved of anti-nuke activists, that shouldn't make any difference at all...

I suppose I shouldn't find this all funny, but 10,000 dead, flaming tsunamis, burning oil refineries and power plants, and people are obsessing about a little radiation. It's literally the case that those plants being offline is going to kill more people than the radiation leaks.

Is the question of what the coal industry does with its radioactive waste supposed to be in some way relevant to the question of what the nuclear industry does with its radioactive waste? Because it seems at first glance the answer is "No," and is more meant to distract and to feed someone's out-of-proportion sense of self-importance and smugness, but . . . eh, I can't think of an end to that sentence.

Near as I can tell, the problems they're having with the Fukushima plant are largely because they designed for the earthquake but not for the tsunami.

In the event that a catastropic failure occurs in Fukushima, it will look completely different than Chernobyl. I'm not sure that difference will matter much to the surrounding populace, though. This morning on NPR there was some speculation that the latest set of problems came not from any of the reactor containment vessels but from spent rods cooling in ponds. I'm not sure what kind of hazard that represents; as pyrophoric as uranium is, I don't know that hot metal exposed to air would burn in any kind of sustained way. That kind of result would be very, very bad.

Meltdown would be the next kind of catastrophe. A contained meltdown would be bad but wouldn't present the kind of widespread hazard that the uncontained sort would. IMO, NB: IANANE.

Chernobyl was a problem for several reasons that don't apply to Fukushima: no reactor containment vessel, positive control required to damp, (IIRC) some kind of positive feedback mechanism intrinsic to the design, and a highly flammable monderator. If Fukushima does experience catastrophic failure that leads to the release of large amounts of radioactive material, it will do so in a much different way than Chernobyl did.

Brett, I lean towards the notion that coal is worse than nuclear, but yes, you are being insensitive. Here's a piece in the NYT about a study done by Brookhaven on a worst case scenario with the spent rods--


You'll note those figures of 100 immediate deaths and 138,000 long term deaths (presumably from cancer). I don't know what comparable figures would be for the Japan situation, but it gives you a sense of what could be at stake.

Really, Brett, I was worried about people opposed to nuclear power being smug. Thanks for showing me that being smug is not based on the side of the argument you are on.

I just saw the Prime Minister Kan's news conference and been reading various message boards. I think it is fortunate he is there, as I mentioned, he broke the mold during the HIV tainted blood crisis, so his listing of the current situation and warnings is probably straightforward and represents the best knowledge that he has. Unfortunately, we mentioned TEPCO above and the Financial Times article details the problems with that relationship. So, as a cynical Westerner, I wonder if he knows everything.

That's a personal cynical Westerner view, and I always despair about my ability to understand what's going on in other people's minds, so I give the observations with those caveats, but, on a lot of the message boards, there is some complaints that Kan went to the site earlier, which some claim interfered with TEPCO attempts. This context, of people deferring to authority (in this case TEPCO) and questioning when someone outside the hierarchy enters in (even though arguably, the PM should be 'above' TEPCO) shows how conservatism is a deeply held reflex. Kan has a incredibly tough tightrope to walk, in that he has to address this crisis strongly, but also has to calm panicky markets.

I'm not trying to take the pro nuclear side here, but I have to go back home thru Narita in 2 weeks, so I'm looking for things that are going to help me get thru this, not worst case scenarios that are going to keep me from going. With that in mind, this article is important, if only to me.

This, regarding stigmatization of victims of radiological accidents, from lj's WaPo link, jumped out at me:

Such stigmatization can interfere with victims receiving care and recovering from the event, said Becker, who studied the psychological and social impact of a much less severe nuclear accident in 1999 in Tokaimura, Japan. In that case, people in other parts of Japan refused to buy products from that region, and travelers were turned away from hotels and asked not to use public baths and swimming pools. Similar discrimination occurred after a 1987 radiation exposure event in Goiania, Brazil.

I can at least understand not wanting to buy products, especially foodstuffs, from a region where a radiological release occurred, even if that fear is irrational and unscientific. But turning people away from hotels and prohibiting them from using public baths and pools? That's something I wouldn't have expected. That's off-the-charts irrational, I think.

I guess in some abstract sense, there's no difference between the two situations. But the idea that a human being could be so contaminated some time after an exposure to radiation just blows my mind. (Did they think people from Tokaimura we covered in plutonium or cesium or whatever, spreading it wherever they went, leaving sources of radiation behind? Or that the people themselves had become radioactive?)

Trivial political-aesthetics question: was the blue boiler-suit that Kan wore in that press conference sort of the equivalent of George W. Bush with a hard-hat and bullhorn after 9/11?

(Incidentally I thought the latter was an entirely appropriate & rousing piece of political theater and if the motivation for Kan was the same, and it doesn't come across as ham-fisted to his audience, I think it's appropriate there. Theater matters.)

As for whether the number of people hurt by the reactor accident will be more or less than those hurt by other accidents, it's far too early to say. When the reactors are cold, we can make an assessment.

What we do know is that it would have been nice not to have the evacuation and fear of radiation release piled on top of the earthquake and tsunami damage. I'm not trying to make an argument about the merits of nuclear power, I'm just saying, it would have been better not to have to do that, and that is true regardless of what the actual injuries turn out to be.

lj, if it's any reassurance, the fact that this has been more openly discussed and that they are now talking about addressing certain doomsday-type scenarios like a fire in the spent fuel ponds has made me a bit less pessimistic than I was yesterday or over the weekend.

TEPCO wants to run this operation but clearly is not up to the job. If they are now asking for help, that is a big step forward. What actually needs to happen is at least in theory a manageable engineering operation - they need some big water pumps, generators, fire engines, helicopters to dump water, and so on. TEPCO tried and failed to get that to happen, but that doesn't mean that, for instance, the SDF or the US Navy may not be able to get it done, or Japanese nuclear engineers who haven't been involved so far.

Thanks Jacob. I'm not sure, I think that the evaculation was something essential to underscore the seriousness of the situation. It is also much more 'manageable' in the Japanese context than it would be in a US context. Japanese government is often accused of being too conservative in dealing with risk, so when the pendulum swings, it doesn't stop at the midpoint. That they are doing this could indicate that the pendulum is moving, which I think is a good thing. This is just based on having observed the Japanese psyche, and I may be totally wrong about it. I'd really be interested to hear sekaijin's take on this.

I'd also note something that I haven't seen noted, though I'm reading thru so much stuff and trying to take in so much information that I could have just missed it, which is that the reactors have apparently been shut down, unlike in Chernobyl, so hopefully, they are dealing with a situation that is on the tail end. Still, the heat involved might make this small comfort, but that may be all we can get.

"and I am in awe of how much hilzoy was able to write as the disaster was unfolding."

It's entirely self-centered of me, and I know I'm not worth a hundredth of a Hilzoy, and it wasn't here, and you probably read none of it but given that I devoted months to obsessively posting hundreds of posts about Katrina, ongoing, aftermath, and analysis, and I count a couple of hundred ofposts on Katrina, remember obsessively staying awake night and day for up to 50 or so hours at a stretch, doing I've-lost-count of how many posts (100? 200? I can't tell you because right now, at least, the Blogger database is barfing at telling me how many -- though I see at least 191 posts with the word "Katrina" though the overwhelming majority didn't bother using that word, so it's probably more on the order of mumblyhundred posts, most of which were VERY VERY VERY LONG POSTS, please forgive me for at least mentioning this, and not, instead, dump in links to some, say, several hundred posts on Katrina that I wrote, given that it was a topic I did address quite obsessively, posting something on the order of 100,000 words on, which I can't help but be reminded of, when I read the above phrase, knowing, of course, that I am not Hilzoy, you weren't reading me, etc.

But it did take a huge chunk of my life for months to write those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of detailed posts on all the events and issues I did.

Start here and head upwards for the next couple of months. Not that anyone would want to.

Here, here, and, well, a few samples:

ASSHOLE. Try being poor sometime. The director of... 9/2/05
THE DISPLACEMENT. This large: The largest displace... 9/2/05
THE TOURISTS. Stuck. NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- First t... 9/2/05
THE WORLD RESPONDS. So: British Prime Minister Ton... 9/2/05
SATELLITE PICTURES AND MAPS. Kathryn Cramer has b... 1 comment 9/2/05
MONTAGE. Here: Chaos and gunfire hampered efforts ... 1 comment 9/2/05
THURSDAY, 3:10 p.m. CNN: Joining us now over at th... 9/2/05
THE OPPORTUNIST ANGLE. At the end of a serious st... 1 comment 9/1/05
DONATING FOR KATRINA VICTIMS. It's not clear to m... 9/1/05
IT'S GOING LORD OF THE FLIES. Here: Chaos gripped... 2 comments 9/1/05
IF YOU'RE MISSING A LOVED ONE, you're highly unlik... 8/31/05
KATRINA AID. A developments wiki. Info on dona... 8/30/05
KATRINA DAMAGE TO SHUTTLE PROGRAM. Another kind o... 4 comments 8/30/05
WELL, NOW I FEEL LIKE A SCHMUCK for having been so... 8/30/05
WHY IS THE RED CROSS NOT IN NEW ORLEANS? Because o... 1 comment 9/3/05
BLOGGING THE ASTRODOME: a blog here. Dome City, P... 9/3/05
TROOPS FIND LOST DIGNITY, NOT LOOTERS as the Natio... 1 comment 9/3/05
BOTTLENECKED AT THE AIRPORT is a story both major ... 9/3/05
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES passed by the levees. The of... 9/3/05
CANADIANS MOBILIZE and are coming. Canada will se... 9/2/05
GOD'S MERCY. Always, the wackos. (AgapePress) - T... 9/2/05
MEANWHILE, THE WAR. While not so many people are ... 9/2/05
ABOUT THOSE LOOTERS, AND MORE. This from ABC: It ... 9/2/05
OUTRAGE tonight: There was anger: David Vitter, Lo... 9/2/05
TOO BAD THEY DIDN'T USE these on, say, Saturday. ... 1 comment 9/2/05
NOLA COLLEGE STUDENTS officially being cut break. ... 9/2/05
REPORTERS STRIKE BACK Jack Shafer notes various ca... 9/2/05
SCENES. Here: As Mr. Chertoff tried to reassure vi... 9/2/05
BILLY THE FUEL BOY helps out. Today, we landed at ... 9/2/05
CONVOYS ARRIVE. The Times: - Four days after Katr... 9/2/05
FATS DOMINO update: BATON ROUGE -- New Orleans mu... 9/2/05
CHARITY HOSPITAL EVACUATION has resumed. Friday, S... 9/2/05
YOU CAN BE A RED CROSS VOLUNTEER. All over people... 1 comment 9/2/05
HOUSTON OPENS RELIANT CENTER, convention center al... 9/2/05
THIS IS THE SCARY LIE TO WATCH OUT FOR, always: A... 4 comments 9/18/05
"FOLLOW THE TRUCKS" is good advice for journalists... 9/16/05
LEAKED KATRINA DOCUMENTS can be found here, if you... 9/15/05 IMPORTANT KATRINA FOLLOW-UP! Although transcripts...
Hust a tiny sample of what went on and on for a couple of hundred more obsessive posts on Katrina, the racial aspects, the events, the politics, national, local, state, the logistics, the police and military end, the media coverage, the... a lot of angles.

It did get some notice at the time, but out of 8954 posts on Amygdala, well, everything gets a bit lost, and I couldn't help tripping over your phrase there, since Hilzoy certainly did do some wonderful posts on Katrina. It's a crying shame that no one on ObWi by 2005 was competent to put a category in the sidebar to list them all, so we could all easily reread them, and neither did people after Moe quit similarly use keywords anymore, etc.

But one can start following Hilzoy's here:

August 30, 2005
Katrina: Disaster
by hilzoy

I didn't watch the news today until 10pm, and so didn't know how much worse things had gotten (though I can now see that I would have if I had checked Gary's comments instead of writing a new post. And no, Gary, this is not the first time...) Yesterday I was relieved that New Orleans had dodged a bullet; today I see that the bullet just turned itself right around and came back. And the devastation from Mississippi and Alabama is awful.

No one seems to have any idea how New Orleans will cope. Well over ten thousand people in the Super Dome with no electricity, no AC, and no working sewage system. Looters running through the street. And, last I heard, another levee about to give way.

Here's the url for the Red Cross. They need our help.

And go upwards and through the archives from there. I count at least 26 posts, such as, say, Brown: Worse And Worse...
by hilzoy

I have to write this quickly: I just checked Amygdala, and Gary hasn't posted on this yet!!! I can scarcely believe it: if I type very quickly, I might possibly get it up first. But you should visit his site anyways.

I swear I didn't go looking for that, or remember it specifically. I do just remember the general trend, since when one writes several hundred posts obsessively for months, it tends to stick in memory. And I haven't forgotten the posts here, or long comment threads, either.

I'm not doing Japan. I'll leave that to you.

Arrgh, gotta go, am late.

I didn't mean to slight you by somehow suggesting that you didn't write about Katrina. I think it would go without saying that you would write extensively on any topic that was so tied to American politics and the American polity as the Katrina tragedy was. While I can't say what I read of yours during Katrina, I'm sure I read things from you, so your stated assumptions that I didn't are mistaken. In fact, during Katrina, I was in the same situation that I find myself now, outside of the country where the tragedy is taking place, thinking of my family and friends and wondering what is going on.

And I'm sure you had important insights, but as I noted, I was looking thru those old posts here just before the tsunami to discuss the origins of Taking it outside, and spent quite a bit of time looking at exactly what hilzoy had written and the depth of analysis that she brought, as well as Charles' complaints about hilzoy's bias in what she was writing. I wasn't making a survey of all the writing on Katrina and didn't mean to imply I was. I'm sorry if you felt slighted, that was not my intention.

lj - didn't mean to say that the evacuation was unnecessary, in fact I think it might still prove to have been too conservative. On re-reading I see I was unclear.

The point - not specifically addressed to you, lj - was that whatever the actual injuries from the reactor problems, the fact that they happened necessitated the evacuation, and that is something pretty much unique to nuclear facilities. The difficulties of such an evacuation and the stress and fear that radiation releases engender are real costs even if they are not injuries, and all I mean to say is that they need to be accounted for when looking at the costs of nuclear power.

An oft-repeated line - premature, hopefully true, but premature - has been that more people will die from the lack of power from the plant shutdowns than from radiation effects.

That may be true - I hope it turns out to be true - but I suspect that it isn't such a great talking point for nuclear power advocates. I would want to see whether fossil fuel & renewable plants need to be shut down at similar levels of earthquake shock, and if so, for how long. Because another aspect of nuclear plants is that they are "delicate", in the sense that any kind of significant external shock necessitates shutdown and an incredibly thorough inspection, whereas a fossil fuel plant or a renewable plant - because of the lack of catastrophic consequences in the event of failure - can be left running or brought up after a less thorough inspection.

Well, there are specific reasons for Japan going to nuclear and it is something I should have written about, but kind of got lost. I mentioned about food independence, which is why Japanese are still doing land reclamation projects when they can easily import rice (though all rice is not the same, and when the Japanese had to import rice about 20 years ago during a crisis, it was uneaten and eventually shipped to North Korea for famine aid), and I mentioned energy independence. Japan gets virtually all of its oil from the Persian gulf and so the government has struggled to diversify. Japan imports more coal (almost 20% of the world total) and was the third highest producer of energy from nuclear. There are large government initiatives in energy conservation (it is not simply because of japanese ingenuity that first mass-produced hybrid was produced there) and it is completely logical why nuclear power was considered important. In hindsight, it would have been much better to have made a huge push towards renewables, but given that there has been no country that has been able to make such a push, and we are talking about a country with a political and cultural conservative nature that is deeply held, I'm not sure how one could think that Japan could have taken the steps to put it in a place to avoid such monumental, perhaps once in a millenium catastrophe.

One of the what-ifs is that the Fukushima plant was scheduled to be taken off line this year, and was granted a 10 year extension. Certainly, that decision will be scrutinized but one wonders if they had been taken off line.

I'm not sure how one could think that Japan could have taken the steps to put it in a place to avoid such monumental, perhaps once in a millenium catastrophe.

I think it is perfectly reasonable for Japan to have nuclear power plants. But we should make a distinction between older reactor designs that require continuous pumping in order to remain safe and newer designs that respond to a loss of coolant by automatically shutting down. The fact that Boiling Water reactors like the reactors at Fukushima keep on chugging despite loss of coolant is a design flaw. More modern reactor designs are structured so that the reaction can't proceed when there's insufficient coolant. Those reactors respond to coolant losses by naturally stopping the reaction without operator intervention.

The bottom line is that if these plants were using more modern reactors, I don't think we'd be nearly as worried. On the other hand, the same nuclear establishment that says that also said that there was no safety problem at all with using BWRs in an earthquake/tsunami-prone region, so perhaps they should lose credibility.


More modern reactor designs are structured so that the reaction can't proceed when there's insufficient coolant. Those reactors respond to coolant losses by naturally stopping the reaction without operator intervention.

This doesn't match what I've read, and heard -- today on NPR, for instance. At Fukushima the *reaction* was in fact stopped immediately, as soon as the earthquake began. The problem (as I understand it) isn't that the reaction continued, it's residual heat. It takes *years* for the rods to cool down, which is why the spent fuel rods are a problem.

Doctor Science, yes, that's the report. And, as you can discern from the reporting on the spent fuel pools, even spent fuel rods have to be cooled with circulated water because they remain hot enough to boil water, and then will be damaged if the water boils away.

There are some promising new designs but the best ones (in my view) haven't been proven yet. In 2005 Scientific American ran an article on fast neutron liquid sodium cooled reactors that include safety features that look good, and fully consume the fissionable material. This is in contrast to current designs, which produce "nuclear waste" that throws away 95% of the fuel.

However, you wind up with a plutonium fuel cycle, although the reprocessing can be sited on the same location as the reactors.

Personally, I don't trust private organizations to run nuclear reactors. They should be run by the military. Particularly in the case of a plutonium fuel cycle.

Turb might be thinking of pebble bed reactors. link

The idea is that when the reaction stops the geometry is such that the heat generated from radioactivity won't be enough to cause a meltdown. You don't need to have water pumped in.

There are apparently problems with the idea, but you can skim the article rather than read my inadequate summary.

Here's a link to that SciAm article (republished in 2009).

Dr Science is right; I was totally wrong. I don't know what I was thinking when I wrote that.

The newer designs even of the ordinary light-water reactors do have better safety features, but none of them (to my knowledge) are passively safe, that is, indefinitely safe without power, water, or human intervention.

The claims that the untested new designs like pebble-bed reactors are truly "fail-safe" are, like the reactors, untested. We can hope, but it's quite difficult to have something that A) puts out megawatts of power for decades but also B) is so benign and safe that you can just forget about it until the end of time.

Jacob, to be sure, I agree. However, all sources of energy for a technical civilization are hazardous. There are plenty of problems with coal, including global warming.

I think we will need fission plants, but as I wrote above, I have little faith in private entities to operate them.

Here's a post titled Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation with a reprint of "a summary on the situation prepared by Dr Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT, in Boston. He is a PhD Scientist, whose father has extensive experience in Germany’s nuclear industry."

It sounds technically correct to me, given my limited knowledge of nuclear power plants, but I'd like to hear from anyone who sees problems with it.

Reality sees problems with it.

I'm coming to this late and am replying to LJ's reply to Jacob some replies above about my take on things vis-a-vis Japanese risk management: basically, it tends to be of a different character than what most Westerners might conceive of risk management as being.

In the following, I want to make it clear that there's no stereotyping going on - this is real, I know Japanese who don't like it, but it's a reality.

So here 'tis: while people here are of course aware of earthquake drills and such, and talk about them, there's a much different, somewhat unreal sense in the organs that have to coordinate and manage responses to disasters such as these.

What my understanding of this is: there's preparedness, but also an overweening lot of hope that for as long as it's wished really hard that things won't go off the rails, we're okay. So there's preparation and awareness with a sense, almost, of deniability of possibility overlaying it, much more so than what you would see, I think, in the U.S.

Complicating this further is an almost, at-times even to average Japanese, bizarre sense that people in charge don't really accept responsibility until they can't avoid it. Case in point: I'm doing this off the top of my head, so I don't have links or citations: in 2003 or thereabouts, there was a case of a patient in a hospital in Yokohama who died as the result of a mistaken operation - operated on for something he didn't have a problem with. The hospital director, when interviewed, after mutterings of "looking into the matter," etc., was quoted as saying "I will accept responsibility at the proper time." Even other Japanese were dumbstruck by this statement.

The zenith - or apotheosis, depending on your perspective - of this approach to responsibility when something happens can be seen in the televised apologies by top executives routinely shown on the news, which consists of a ritualized statement and a bow, usually by the president, and almost always flanked by his vice-presidents/ lieutenants/flunkeys.

Another case in point is the blood-taint scandal of the 90s LJ mentioned some time earlier - after denying to the teeth that anything was really wrong and that records even existed, when Kan got on the scene, he demanded, and got, shiploads of records about it.

Of course, this actually doesn't carry with it a legal acceptance of responsibility - it's a signal that something bad has not been avoided, and the organ is now going to do something about it.

So Tepco's behavior is consistent with this pattern. Plan for things, but hope so hard they don't happen to the point that they believe they've willed the possibility out of existence, but when they do, futz a lot until something has to be done.

I'm so predicting the TV apology for this that I've imagined it out of existence already.

That's precisely true and Nick Kristoff was on Pier Morgan just recently and said something like 'Japanese officials fill me with a sense of horror but Japanese people amaze and awe me with their ability to gaman' Gaman is something like being able to perservere. I now wonder if that ability to accept crushing burdens and still not have society crack is something that enables the kind of behavior that sekaijin raises above.

Or maybe their ability to accept crushing burdens allows people in power to take terrible risks, knowing that if their gambles don't pay off, the people will, uncomplainingly, die.

That's pretty much how it has played out in the past.

I tend to think this, over time, has been more the case, so Duff is also right on this score. Thanks to the geroncratic management in most established Japanese firms, very few take them to task on this, as doing so questions those seen to have the greatest moral authority to be in positions of power - i.e., old dudes - and short of outright murder, presidents, CEOs and others of their ilk often face relatively little penalty over their firms' wrongdoings.

Supposedly, their loss of face is the penalty; but many of them wind up landing on their feet in consultancy, seats on boards in other companies, etc.

While I'm on this forum, one thing that has struck me in the sense of Japanese risk management I've observed that the Americans here at ObWi might grasp more readily is the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War.

The formula there is a striking parallel to what's been playing out with Tepco's actions. Plan and throw authority around, present oneself as authority writ large in itself while secretly hoping really hard things don't go south - yet also present oneself, at all times, in such a way as if problems can be willed into thin air simply by enough authoritarian swagger.

The main difference being that America is not a face culture, so there is no loss of face as in the Japanese context, which is why the Tepco president and his immediate minions will apologize on camera while the second George Bush gets to retire to his ranch, Dick Cheney buys his house, and Don Rumsfeld gets to write a book about it all.

It may be a leap to some to compare an established Japanese utility with a presidential administration, except that Bush & Co. strove to run their gig exactly as a company that didn't have to take public accountability into consideration. That the one created chaos while the other had chaos visited on it still seems, at the end of the day, to be incidental to the attitude and actions taken.

A little off topic, but I couldn't resist.

Sorry - "willed away, into thin air" is what I meant, lest I originally wrote seem ambiguous.


Back in the 90s, or maybe even earlier, there was a major airplane crash in Japan -- a JAL (or maybe ANA) 747 went down. Within a few days, the airline president appeared on TV to apologize AND to resign. This was remarked upon in the US media as an example of the acceptance of PERSONAL responsibility by an executive -- something almost unheard of in America, but supposedly emblematic of the Japanese business culture which was at that time eating America's lunch. Was that a one-off? Have things changed in Japan since then?


I think, given the gravity of the situation with the immediate loss of so many lives, he couldn't avoid it. It was too severe for him just to get away with the apology, though it may have been him falling on his sword to avert even greater legal trouble for the airline as it was.

Not to be so cynical - but I'm not certain that even the fallout (pardon the pun) of this would be enough to get the Tepco top brass unseated, unless it becomes another Chernobyl. That would do it - but I somehow still think, as highly skeptical as I am of the nuclear industry, that it's not a 100% inevitability that it'll come to that, and that's not me being so Pollyanna.

We won't know exactly what happened for a while, but it already looks like there were grave mistakes made in responding to this at TEPCO and in releasing adequate information.

I get what you're saying about the kind of brittle "try hard-give up" response. It's not unheard of here, the proud & heroic effort followed by catastrophic failure, followed by the realization that actually failure isn't the end - someone still needs to fix it.

It's a human reaction as much as anything. Governments and regulators need to be better at recognizing when it's happening and intervening earlier.

I am not very optimistic right now, but I sincerely, deeply hope that they get things under control soon.

Reality sees problems with it.

Don't hold back, Duff. I'd be very interested in reading your critique of the technical details of the piece I linked.

I found that piece while trying to find out the specifics of the (supposed) hydrogen explosion that blew the top off one of the reactor buildings. It came up when googling something like "hydrogen blast Japanese nuclear plant" (whatever it was I came up with).

After reading through it and seeing the general overview of plant design presented, it seemed useful, again - given my limited knowledge of nuclear-plant design (of which I have some), if taken with a grain of salt regarding some of the opinions presented. (That's why I mentioned "overly dismissive sounding phrases" and "an overall air of strong advocacy for nuclear power.")

I could understand wise-ass responses if I had presented this thing as the definitive guide to nuclear power, or if I put it out as though I were educating all the rubes here at ObWi. But I didn't, so I don't.

Really, I don't even see the "argument from authority." I have no problem with people clarifying the guy's credentials, but the technical details presented aren't argument; they're matters of fact, whether correct or otherwise. If I had written the same piece simply as a guy who goes by "hairshirthedonist" on ObWi, what argument from authority would there be? How would credentials bear on the correctness of the technicalities of nuclear power presented?

The technical aspects are right or they're not.

I value this blog because there are so many intelligent, knowledgable and trustworthy posters and commenters. When I find something I'm not sure about, even if it sounds right to me, this is very often a good place to check it out.

That's all I was trying to do. (And I don't really care if some guy in Australia thinks MIT's in Boston, or if it was superfluous and goofy to write that Dr. What's His Face's dad was a nuclear expert. It's partly my fault for quoting the intro, but still...)


Before we get to the technical problems in that "Josef Oehman " piece, there are *serious* problems with the source: The Strange Case of Josef Oehman (google">http://geniusnow.com/2011/03/15/the-strange-case-of-josef-oehmen/&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a&source=www.google.com">google cache version -- bandwidth is exceded on the original). Basically, this appears to be a Siemens astroturf release, in which no experienced nuclear engineers have been actually involved.

On the objective, technical side, the post -- which has now been redirected and edited, says:

The containment structure ... is designed, built and tested for one single purpose: To contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown.
But as this before-the-failure story reported:
In 1986, a top official at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission raised concerns about the GE containment system’s design.

“I don’t have the same warm feeling about GE containment that I do about the larger dry containments,’’ said Harold Denton, director of NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation during an industry conference, according to a report at the time by the publication, Inside N.R.C. “There has been a lot of work done on those containments, but Mark I containments . . . you’ll find something like a 90 percent probability of that containment failing.’’

And indeed, as I write containment appears to be failing in at least one of the reactors.

This is aside from the problems with the spent fuel rods, which this report does not even mention.

The technical aspects are right or they're not.

I find this statement appealing but ultimately harmful and incorrect. There's a deep art to deceiving a technology-ignorant audience and it rarely requires saying technically incorrect things. Usually it is more a matter of omitting some facts, cherry picking others, focusing on irrelevant issues and shading probabilistic assessments up or down as needed. I've often encountered technical analysis that contain only "true" statements but remain deeply deceptive.

LGM's Charli Carpenter posted that a link to Oehmen's letter and later gave an update to its provenance. Short version, it was a private letter sent to friends and family, some of whom may be residing in Japan. It was posted on the website and later, parts of it were taken off. As someone observes, understanding that provenance explains why he may not have been inclined to lean to optimistic. And if y'all would permit a rant from me, it's the failure to take things slowly, try to understand where the person is coming from and why, is what makes the internet such a shitty place sometimes. This is not something limited to one side of the argument, it is a style of argumentation that seems prevalent. One reason I like ObWi so much is that the tendency is not so evident, but since it has something to do with human nature, it flares up here from time to time.

I'm leaving to take my father out, but I see the news of the Emperor's speech. Just a short take that I hope to elaborate later, one doesn't know whether he is responding to the actual crisis and information from the plant, or whether he is responding to the public sentiment of desperation. This is not to say that everything is hunky-dory, but, like almost everything in Japan, the tatemae, which is something like the surface opinion and the public face, may be completely different from the honne or the true feelings. Being half a world away makes it difficult to gauge, but even if I were there, I would have difficulties determining what is honne and what is tatemae. It is a huge huge thing that he has addressed the nation, but what it means is difficult to say.

I'll try and post a thread for people to discuss the nuclear crisis this evening.

Thanks, Doc Sci. My intent in my last comment was not to defend the piece or dismiss valid criticism of it. In fact, my intent in linking it in the first place was to read valid criticism of it. And I think there were enough specifics in the piece that one could criticize it based on the specifics, rather than the sort of criticism one is left with when presented with something like "I'm an expert. Everything's fine. You should believe me, based on my expertise."

I just don't see where "Reality sees problems with it" is helpful, and I found it dismissive and insulting to me personally, rightly or wrongly.

sorry, that should read
" he may not have been inclined to lean FROM optimistic"

my comments were written before Doc Science and Turb's post. I'm not trying to discourage discussion.

Turb, I don't really disagree, and my statement on technical correctness was insufficiently nuanced.

Usually it is more a matter of omitting some facts, cherry picking others, focusing on irrelevant issues and shading probabilistic assessments up or down as needed.

Again, I agree. But one can directly address these types of things, no? That's what I was looking for - someone who knew more than I did, whom I trusted, to point out those sorts of flaws in the piece as well as simple matters of fact (like, say, the failure temperature of Zircaloy).

Frankly, I'm getting to the point where I just don't give a f**k about Dr. Oehmen's piece anymore.

understanding that provenance explains why he may not have been inclined to lean to optimistic. And if y'all would permit a rant from me, it's the failure to take things slowly, try to understand where the person is coming from and why, is what makes the internet such a shitty place sometimes.

Perhaps there is a fundamental difference of values here. I think the truth is extremely important. And I don't think people are well served by lying to them. In my limited experience, it is often far better to tell people an unpleasant truth and offer support than to tell them lies in order to make them feel better.

I think that piece would have raised a lot fewer hackles (especially at LGM) if it hadn't been presented as the work of an MIT Research Scientist. That framing is straight up deceptive: regardless of whether it was intended to be dishonest, the effect is to deceive people. That's unacceptable behavior and it needs to be called out. Knowing where it comes from doesn't make it more ethical.

Actual engineers have professional obligations to tell the truth when addressing the public in areas of professional expertise. Now, those obligations don't apply to Oehmen because he's too ignorant to have expertise, but that's sort of the point: a business school grad student has no credibility and that's why it was necessary to lie by describing him as an MIT Research Scientist.

I think the real problem here is that we're too unwilling to address lies. In a functioning society, Oehmen would be sanctioned by his university and would face consequences for his academic misconduct but obviously that will never happen.

It takes *years* for the rods to cool down, which is why the spent fuel rods are a problem.

That doesn't sound like residual heat to me. Residual heat is simply a matter of thermal mass and specific heat. And, of course, heat conduction, but that only concerns the rate at which the heat is removed. But uranium conducts heat better than stainless steel, so that shouldn't be a factor.

Years of cooling applies to something that's still heating itself. I'd guess that's what's going on, here: that the "spent" rods contain fission byproducts, which are themselves still generating energy by decaying.

IANAME; IANANE, but this is all fairly straightforward heat & mass work. There's nothing magical about uranium, or spent uranium fuel, that has it overly reluctant to relinquish its heat energy.

Years of cooling applies to something that's still heating itself.

That's my understanding of the need for long-term spent-fuel cooling. There is still low-level fission going on producing heat.

I'd certainly believe that, HSH. That and alpha decay.

Wikipedia agrees with both of us, although that's not dispositive.


...why bother with swimming pools for fuel rods? Simple. Even after they are no longer usable to drive nuclear fission in the reactor vessels, the “spent” fuel rods are still highly radioactive. Part of that radioactive energy is emitted as heat. That’s no surprise: heat from radioactivity is the how the reactor core vessels generate the heat that drives the nuclear plant’s turbines to generate electricity. The fuel rods don’t know whether they are in the core or in the pools: they keep emitting heat and radioactivity until the radioactive material decays into non-radioactive elements. That process can take years, which is why spent fuel rods are still dangerous years after they leave the reactor core.

(lazy, minimum-HTML presentation)

I have no problem with people clarifying the guy's credentials, but the technical details presented aren't argument; they're matters of fact, whether correct or otherwise.

Here's what he said:

Japan is looking at an INES Level 4 Accident: Nuclear accident with local consequences. That is bad for the company that owns the plant, but not for anyone else.


A very small amount of Cesium was released, as well as Iodine. If you were sitting on top of the plants’ chimney when they were venting, you should probably give up smoking to return to your former life expectancy.


Here is the worst-case scenario that was avoided: If the seawater could not have been used for treatment, the operators would have continued to vent the water steam to avoid pressure buildup. The third containment would then have been completely sealed to allow the core meltdown to happen without releasing radioactive material.

And then he gives a list of links to read for further information, which include sites run by organisations that have vested interests in nuclear power.

There are a number of posts that detail the errors in his premises, and that detail his background, but you don't need to read those to determine whether or not you should trust what he has written.

And we could argue whether the man was a liar, an apologist for the industry, a clueless incompetent or something else. But we don't need to argue whether what he wrote can be trusted or believed. Facts on the ground have shown that what he wrote was not true.

His argument has not aged well. I'm guessing that is why it was yanked from the site where it was originally posted.

Slart, why did you mention alpha decay, specifically? (just curious)

lj: Related, perhaps, to the discussion of "gaman" above.

Interesting in more ways than one.


Slart, why did you mention alpha decay, specifically? (just curious)

No particular reason. I don't actually know if spent fuel generates more heat from alpha, beta or gamma decay, in the long term. I'd thought to erase that right after I typed it, because I realized I didn't actually know, and might want to check, and then promptly forgot and hit post anyway.

On checking, it looks like beta and gamma decay probably dominate, as far as fission products are concerned, and that alpha decay is really more typical of heavier elements.

So. Color me red.

No biggie, Slart. You prompted me to get a refresher on the various modes of nuclear decay. Alpha particles don't get very far because of their size and turn into helium atoms upon slowing down enough to pick up free electrons, which is cool to know (or re-learn, assuming I knew that at some point, which I probably did).

What I haven't seen addressed is what the plan is for dealing with this beyond the next day or two.

I kinda doubt the pumps and pipes around the plant are in the kind of shape where restoring grid power would be enough to get them running again, even if that was imminently possible which it doesn't look like it is. The place looks like a warzone, with twisted metal and broken concrete everywhere.

The amount of heat put out by the reactor should continue to decrease but not to zero, but the amount put out by the spent fuel will not.

I guess it's going to involve a lot of robots. Hope someone is figuring that out.

I just figured it out how Fukushima Daiichi accident really happened. I know it feels omnipotent what i just said, but i was really troubled with official description of line of the events that caused this accident:
1. If tsunami flooded the diesel generators, how is that they could not repair it in 24hours?
2. How is that only outer shells exploded, not reactors themselves?
3. How is that there is a sudden trouble with used (not spent, there is 98% reactivity still in them) rod pools when they do not require circulating water to keep them under the control? this means the coolant in pools were lost before trouble began. It says that loss of coolant in them is the single cause of the problem. Reactor 4 did not have rods in reactor at all and accident still happened.

The used nuclear rods are placed in simple pools of watter, open and flat in which cubes of used rods are laying piled together on the flat bottom. There is no stabilizing panels inside to prevent shaking of cubes and water, like gasoline/oil/hazard liquid tankers have to prevent fluid force moment to overturn tankers while moving.
My idea of series of events how it really happened:
It was the shaking of the earthquake that caused spilling of the highly radioactive watter from used rod pools that flooded areas around reactors and diesel generators themselves, and also caused shorts in power lines destroying controlling ability. I simply do not believe that electric power steam generators are earthquake prone and that any damage could not be repaired within 48hours. Unless radioactive watter prevented any work to fix it.
On the other hand, even if that loss of coolant did not happen to affect it dramatically, earthquake caused another very serious damage that no amount of coolant can prevent. Earthquake of 9.0 strength, that moved the whole country 8 feet, surely shocked the pile of used rod cubes against each other and crushed them together on the flat pool bottom. That connected all the uranium pellets in fuel rods that were kept separated in zirconium rods. Suddenly you get masses of uranium pellets together with no restriction on sharing released electrons that makes nuclear reaction. And there is http://www.zerohedge.com/article/nuclear-plant-operator-water-pool-storing-spent-nuclear-fuel-rods-may-be-boiling-ominous-sig>60 tons on average of used fuel rods above each reactor. There is no nuclear explosion, only melting trough heat, because fuel pellets do not have high enough concentration of required isotopes for explosion.
There is a line http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/175295>of coverups by TEPCO from newly released wikileaks.
http://www.thenation.com/article/159234/fukushimas-spent-fuel-rods-pose-grave-danger>Vermont Yankee has a staggering 690 tons of spent fuel rods on site..
I am wondering if TPartiers and right wingers still think that all government regulations are bad, and that we need small government

Radiation dose chart.

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