• "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acumen of lemmings the world press followed suit ending each successively reported disaster with an assurance (to be superseded the following day) that no harmful radiation was expected...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.