• "God invented war so Americans could learn geography" -- Mark Twain.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Nukular Keystone

Finally, after three weeks of antics worthy of the Keystone Kops, the Japanese company which owns the Fukushima nuclear plant has admitted that it will need to permanently shut down three of the reactors. "Permanently shut down" means burying the whole irradiating pile under a massive pile of sand, concrete and -- who knows -- maybe even a huge lead dome. Bye, bye investment.

The denouement was completely forseeable and indicates, once again, why nuclear power simply cannot be entrusted to private enterprise.

As we Chipsters noted the day after the tsunami, the situation at Fukushima had the unmistakable aura of the Titanic. The casual, reassured under-reporting was itself a symptom that spoke volumes. Where have we hear this sort of talk before? we wondered. "Oh, there's talk of an iceberg, ma'am."

The ostensibly trivial mishaps and breakdowns likewise spoke volumes. It is always the small things that cause the big bangs. It is obvious in a way, once one thinks about it. A chain breaks on account of the weakest link; and, in most systems of one sort or another, the weakest "link" is very often the smallest. In Fukushima's case, electrical cables to critical cooling pumps.

In the ensuing weeks, we have watched as the "news" reports unfolded like some very macabre origami. With stunning consistency, every daily report was exactly one day behind the actual reality. With the critical acumen of lemmings the world press followed suit ending each successively reported disaster with an assurance (to be superseded the following day) that no harmful radiation was expected... beyond the immediate confines... within 10 km.... in Tokio's drinking water... Yesterday, the press was finally reduced to blatant euphemisms: there had been a "containment breach" at the reactor. What the hell is a "containment breach" ? Try: gaping hole.

Needless to say, anti-nuclear activists are using the disaster to push their agenda. But it seems to us that this is the wrong lesson to learn. What is an electro-gadget nation like Japan to do? Burn coal? The fact is that, for the foreseeable future, there is little alternative to nuclear energy that does not itself bear heavy adverse consequences. If we are to maintain our current demographics and consumer-oriented society (and this not to say that we should) then recourse to nuclear energy is unavoidable.

If we must use nuclear energy, then the issue becomes how best to use it. What the Fukushima disaster shows is what we stated at the very beginning: the management of nuclear "incidents" simply cannot be left to private corporations or even individual governments. The reasons is simply that both corporations and whatever government is in power at the time have strong incentives to cut corners and to cover up negligence or malfeasance. Even assuming that corporations and local governments were to act with unimpeachable civic responsibility, the fact of a natural disaster usually means that the ability to respond is hampered. The funny thing about earthquakes is that they have this habit of cracking up roads, knocking down powerlines, breaking sewer mains and stuff like that. What Fukushima showed us was a nation reeling from a disaster and a company, rife with malfeasance and incompetence, in charge of a containing (as if) a nuclear crisis.

Nuclear energy, as we said, simply cannot be left to such loose and unrealiable managements systems. Every nuclear plant in the world must be brought under international supervision and control adhering to strict international standards that are totally unembarrassed by either profit incentives or political gain.

This means that when a plant like Chenobryl or Fukushima starts going south, the buck passes immediately to the International Response Team (IRT) -- period. They fly in with their inspection team and with all necessary and up-to-date equipment and take absolute charge -- period. The prime directive: contain any breach, at any cost. If the IRT is able to fly in and hook up generators and pumps that can stabilize the situation, all fine and well. If, on the other hand, the IRT determines on day four that the plant has to be buried under a mountain of sand, then so be it.

In our view, current demographics and consumption are simply unsustainable and human kind will have to rethink the scope and role of its existence within Creation. But absent such a reassessment, the use of nuclear energy is unavoidable. What is avoidable are disasters due to avarice and venality. Every nuclear plant on earth needs to be constructed and safeguarded by a completely disinterested body with plenary powers in emergency situations. Keystone follies should be left to the movies.


Sunday, March 20, 2011


Knut, the world-beloved star bear of the Berlin Zoo, died suddenly yesterday, at age four. Observers stated that as Knut was coming out from the rear of his den he suddenly keeled over into the moat.

Knut's saga was a story of human compassion and scientific stupidty. The Zoo Authorities have ordered an autopsy but for those with eyes to see the cause is already known.

It is time to end the barbaric practice of animal concentration camps. Creating wild-life preserves where animals can be sheltered from our deplorable ecological devastations is one thing. Treating animals as objects in cages for our amusement and curiousity is inexcuseable. Stupid beyond belief is forcing an animal to behave as we think he ought to "naturally" behave after we have changed the terms of existence.

Knut was a majestic bear-boy whose adaptive existence gave him and us delight. As for the expertly-stupid zoo keeping that killed him, at least he suffers no more.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Meltdowns and California Dreaming

For those had read Walter Lord’s famous account of the Titanic’s last night, the first news out of Japan after the tsunami hit the Fukushima Daaiichi nuclear plant was anything but reassuring. The reports had all the quiet, near-indifference that characterized the crew’s casual assurances to the luxury liner’s passengers -- “There’s talk of an iceberg ma’am.

Over the ensuing days, the world was treated to a succession of gradually escalating assurances each one wrapped around troubling weasel words: “no significant levels or radiation” and “no immediate threat to....” There’s talk of a meltdown but it is not cause for alarm at this time.

The Titanic sank because the iceberg's gash extended a piddling two feet into Compartment Five. The gash occurred because, just at that level from the waterline, the ship’s builders had switched to lighter rivets than the heavier ones used on the keel. The gash was critical because the back bulkhead to Compartment Five did not rise as high as the first four bulkheads. This meant that, once the compartment filled up, the in-rushing water would spill over into the next compartment, and the next, and the one after that. All of which was tragic proof of the adage that for want of a nail, the battle was lost.

The Titanic’s builders had done nothing unreasonable. It was highly unlikely a collision would rip so long a gash. It was hardly likely that stronger rivets would be needed in the hull at that level. And yet a two-foot gash into Compartment Five meant that, over time, the pumps would not be able to pump water out faster than it was rushing in.

The builders of the Fukushima plant did not think it was likely that a tsunami would swamp over the coastline, above the sea-wall that protected the generators used to pump water into the reactor. This was not an unreasonable evaluation. Even so, there is no way to “turn off” glowing hot, irradiating rods. Without water to cool them down, they simply get hotter and hotter causing explosions and the eventual rupture of the layers of containment structures around them. As a result of an otherwise reasonable decision, the Japanese government is now in the unenviable position of water bombing what can only be assumed to be broken and breached containers. For those who have electric water-boilers, this is like turning on the coil while you tablespoon water in. Who knows, they might pull it off.

But the Titanic’s story has another message for us as well. All throughout the ship’s frantic last hours, the S.S. California lay asleep in the waters a mere 10 nautical miles away. There wasn’t much to do at night in the mid-Atlantic and so the ship’s radio-shack had shut down just minutes before the Titanic struck the berg. As for the curious white flares, perhaps they were having a party. It was a luxury liner after all and, besides, the California’s captain did not like his sleep disturbed.

What really happened on that fateful night was that social mechanisms had not kept pace with technological developments. People were still thinking in terms of little boats “out at sea” when in fact the sea had become part of an inter-urban mass transport system.

The Titanic was not some 16th century caravelle. It represented a vast integration of functions, from the myriads of materials and trades that went into its construction to the vast array of services and goods that were entailed in its operation. The Titanic was not just a “boat” but a city at sea.

Marvelous as that might be, that meant that its citizens - all near three thousand of them -- were at risk without a backup support system commensurate with the nature of the enterprise. The same coordinated support and emergency systems that existed for a land-city were also necessary for a sea-city.

This was the lesson learned and, after the Titanic sank, such systems were put in place. Radio shacks stay open 24/7. There are enough life boats for all. Most importantly, responsibility for response is global. No one in their right mind today thinks that because a ship may be of Panamanian or Liberian registry, it is up to Panama or Liberia to mount rescue operations while the rest of the world looks on curiously.

And yet that has been exactly the character of the response to the Fukushima catastrophe. The world has simply sat back and watched Japan try to handle the emergency on the theory that this is a Japanese issue concerning a Japanese plant.

What this laissez faire attitude overlooks is that Japan itself is hampered by a quake that has disabled its infrastructure. It also over looks the fact there is no such thing as Japanese radiation. A nuclear plant anywhere in the world is everywhere in the world. When technology reaches a certain level, social and political responses for managing and dealing with that technology must reach a corresponding level. It is absurd to espouse a technology which has global consequences while adhering to 18th century notions of sovereignty and responsibility. Even more criminally insane is to leave the issue and the outcome to the private company that owns the plant.

Seeing as a meltdown in Japan can forseeably affect health in Russia or the West Coast of the United States or Australia, there ought to have existed coordinated emergency response teams ready to intervene by default with necessary equipment and expertise. To sit around “monitoring” the situation while awaiting a formal request for assistance before deciding how best to respond is simply California Dreamin’.

©2011, Woodchip Gazette


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Simple Solution to the Libyan Crisis

As oil prices rise, Western politicians are wringing their hands over whether to impose a "no-fly" zone over Libya or, even worse, to "peace-keep" the damn place. Needless to say, uncertainity is to speculation what moisture is to mold, and the rot at Wall Street threatens to undermine the world economy's fragile recovery from Wall Street scams.

Of course, there is no real uncertainty. No one in Libya is going to blow up the country's one and only golden goose. The conflict will be over in a matter of weeks and, assuming there is any actual problem in pumping now, the pumps will be up and pumping again then. The only thing that can insure that oil production will be destroyed would be another American-led, Iraqi "liberation".

But assuming, just for the hell of it, that the West needs to do something to "stop Khadaffi" now, the solution is very simple: offer every Libyan jet fighter one million dollars if he lands his plane in Cyprus. If there is any doubt as to the sufficiency of such an offer, the pot could be sweetened with a bonus of 72 live virgins, easily procurable from the white slave trade being run out of Tel Aviv.

Why no one in the ministries of the West has come up with such a simple exepdient (we are referring to the million dollar reward) makes one wonder if there is any brain power in the corridors of power. Or do they want the price of oil to continue to rise on the tides of uncertainty?