Monday, 14 March 2011

Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear "Crisis"

The news has been pretty much filled this weekend with news of the natural disaster and aftermath in Japan, and the internets have been pretty filled with stuff as well. In terms of brute force and the earthquake and the magnitude of the event, it's definitely one of the worst natural disasters in living memory, and I think that Japan's status as a MEDC and the fact that their infrastructure is built to withstand earthquakes is the only reason that the death toll is going to stay in the low tens of thousands, instead of the hundreds of thousands seen in the Haiti earthquake last year, and the one in Indonesia in 2004.


The amount of #prayforjapan has pissed me off somewhat. I'm not against people praying for those suffering in the aftermath, but I am against the way people seem to be parading the notion around. How about don't pray for Japan. How about do something actually useful and donate to one of the charities making a difference over there.

Aside from the fact that this sort of event is even labelled by insurance companies as an 'act of god', the whole "I'm praying for Japan" thing is really irritating for me just because it seems like people are boasting that they're doing their bit when they're completely not. If I went to the hospital with kidney failure and was told that the doctors could perform a transplant, but had decided they would pray for me instead, I would not be happy. I would expect that even devout Christians wouldn't be particularly enthralled by the prospect either. Or maybe they should start really showing their faith and asking for prayer as a treatment (because I can't think of any better way to show your faith than to put your life in his hands) - it'd cut down on hospital bills at least. I don't like the implication from some people that Christians are praying and making a big difference while the rest of us are just sitting twiddling our thumbs and not doing anything to solve the issue.

I'll admit that the people who insist we should pray to Japan are significantly better than those in America who claim this is just divine justice for Pearl Harbor (albeit 70 years late and ignoring the two atomic bombs dropped in between, which together killed around a hundred times more people than the Pearl Harbor attack). Still, giving up some of your limitless supply of prayer points, and maybe a whole minute of your time is hardly something to boast about. Really it's only a small step up from the status of 'not giving a shit at all'. I have no gripes with people wanting to do it, but if you seriously care there's definitely a bit more you can do to be genuinely helpful to the survivors.

The other thing that's really annoyed me is all the media furore over the Fukushima nuclear "crisis". There was a fresh explosion this morning and still all the media hype is on the " biggest nuclear crisis since Chernobyl".

I was going to write a huge post about how retarded all this media scaremongering is, and how there's actually nothing to worry about, but then I was linked by muf to what is basically exactly what I would have written, only it's more eloquent, informed and reputable than anything I'd have written. So instead I shall link to it instead:

BIG SHINY LINK TO IMPORTANT ARTICLE

The fact is, there's very little to worry about. The problem with nuclear energy is that people imagine that every nuclear power plant is essentially a nuclear bomb being controlled in a big shed, which isn't the case. Nuclear reactors can't possibly explode in the way a nuclear bomb can (as pointed out in the article, if that was the case then Iran and plenty of other countries would have nuclear arms by now). Chernobyl didn't explode in that manner, and was basically a hydrogen explosion (so your standard sort of combustible explosion) except it was really badly designed and it blew up the main reactor.

Stuff has exploded in the Japanese plant, but crucially the design of it means that nothing important has been damaged in the explosion. So long as the huge steel cocoon holding all the really radioactive stuff is intact, there's nothing to worry about. The literally worst case scenario is that everything inside melts into a huge pile of molten, radioactive garbage, and the plant is rendered completely unusable and will take a few years of difficult cleanup to properly sort out. The chances of anything truly harmful being done to the surrounding area is extremely unlikely - and at the very least anything that does leak will be absolutely tiny compared to the loss of life and environmental damage caused by the huge earthquake and tsunami. It's like worrying about a mosquito bite when you've just broken a limb.

Even the factual and non-speculative sections of the media aren't helping things, because they're not being explained properly. Reports that radiation levels outside the plant were "8 times above normal" and that there's radiation exceeding legal limits are really not particularly helpful, because at no point do they explain how absolutely minuscule these levels are.

I'll admit, I know nothing about the legal radiation levels for nuclear facilities in Japan, but I know what the UK limits are (I worked in a nuclear engineering company for a total of 10 weeks over the last two summers), and they are insanely low. They are low to the point where there have been issues regulating a plant in Scotland because the whole thing is sitting on granite bedrock (which is a pretty good, solid foundation), and the background radiation levels coming from the ground are above the legal limits before you even stick a nuclear plant there. If you live in Aberdeenshire, you're probably getting a higher dose of radiation than you would stood outside the Fukushima plant right now.

According to the media, this whole incident raises the question of whether nuclear power is truly safe. Seriously? Are you fucking kidding me? A country with a huge nuclear power program gets hit by a magnitude 8.9 earthquake and a resultant tsunami, and as of yet there has been no wide-reaching disaster (and in my opinion there won't be). Several nuclear power plants go through what is one of the ten largest earthquakes on record, ever, and come out pretty much entirely unscathed (except for one, which is still doing fine as far as greater security goes), and somehow this raises the possibility that nuclear power is unsafe? Given the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, and the regularity with which oil and gas refineries explode and kill people, and in which oil spills cause huge environmental damage, I'd say nuclear power is faring pretty well. In comparison, the global track record for nuclear power isn't particularly bad. Sure, the after-effects of Chernobyl were massive, but that was utterly ignorant reactor design and operation, and with proper regulation in the Soviet Union it would never have happened, and something on that scale shouldn't happen again.

If, in a week's time, it transpires that no major incident has occurred in Fukushima, and aside from the functionality of the plant there is no lasting damage, then I would take that as a pretty good sign on the safety of nuclear power - that even after the worst attack nature has to offer, things hold up as they should do. There shouldn't be questions of how close we maybe came to disaster, because really it's probably not come that close. In terms of environmental damage and loss of human life, nuclear power is almost certainly cleaner and safer than coal and oil are (especially if you accommodate the effects of CO2 and the like). We're at a point where we need to seriously start shifting into nuclear power generation to start covering the gap for when coal and oil disappear as energy sources (currently renewable forms are nowhere near good enough to make up the deficit) and the relatively low impact of a 8.9 magnitude earthquake should be a sign that we'd be doing the right thing, not a reason to second-guess and worry about the safety. At the very least we're not going to be getting any earthquakes of that size in the UK.

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