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

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