15 March 2011

The disaster that preserves

The people of Japan can't catch a break.  In just a week they have had:

- A magnitude 9.0 earthquake off-shore of their North Eastern coast

- A set of tsunami events ranging in the 10' to 30' range over the North Eastern coast

- Land subsidence that has changed the coastline by having the sea level drop, due to plate adjustment from the quake

- Multiple nuclear plants facing problems with containment of their reactor systems due to the above

- The re-awakening of a volcano that had picked up from its slumber in JAN-FEB 2011 and then went quiet for a couple of weeks

- The removal of some towns and cities by the quake, subsidence and tsunami events

- An infrastructure system badly damaged in the way of physical plant in roads, bridges, waterways, electricity transmission, water purification and sewage disposal


The hype and hyperventilating has been over the nuclear power facilities, not the loss of people, towns, livelihoods and the destroyed infrastructure.  The areas that might be effected by a loss of coolant and meltdown of a reactor have been evacuated, where the earth and sea has not already done that for the Japanese people.  The irradiation of land without people on it is bad, yes, but can be recoverable via bio-remediation and gives the perfect opportunity to put in some park land once any hot spots have been dealt with IF and only IF a meltdown happens.  And do note that this is not a modern, inherently safe Generation IV set of nuclear power plants but some early Gen III designs that were slowly being taken off-line and the quake and subsequent events have pushed that along.

Given that these are older plants designed to withstand a 7.9 quake and that they are old in design, what did it take to get them to this point?

- A magnitude 9.0 quake, far nastier than anything they were designed for, yet they stood up to that

- Land subsidence of up to 15', which no one can design for

- A tsunami in the 30' range that killed the back-up diesel system necessary to run the coolant systems during shutdown

- The battery system barely able to keep things running on the coolant side for a few hours slowly giving out

- The destruction of transport infrastructure that made getting back-up generators in for the coolant system nearly impossible for at least 12 hours.

- The containment system working, as designed, to allow the longest possible time to cool down cores during emergency shutdown during disasters


Now name the places in the US that would have those sorts of problems AND have a 30+ year old reactor.

You are required to find a subduction plate fault that is within 3 miles of the coastline, and doesn't have any emergency generators on higher ground.  Oh, and it must be of a Gen III or earlier design.  I'll give a Wikipedia list a quick once-over, as it is unlikely to miss any large power plants.

Diablo Canyon is on the coast, but not near a subduction zone fault.

San Onofre is on a strike-slip fault that doesn't generate tsunamis, or at least none of the size of a subduction zone fault.

Rancho Seco is decommissioned and not meeting the distance criteria nor the fault type criteria.

Vallecitos is a research reactor and does not meet the fault type or distance criteria, although landslides might be a problem there.

Trojan Ranier is shut down and partially demolished, not meeting the immediate distance criteria.

Humboldt Bay may be near the proper fault type and have distance criteria met, but it is shutdown to the point the fuel has been removed.

Aerotest Operations, Inc. in San Ramon is not near the proper fault type and the distance to shoreline is unknown, but is a research reactor of the TRIGA type.

Reed College in Portland, OR has a TRIGA type research reactor and may otherwise meet the criteria of both fault type and distance to water with tsunami potential.


Out of the list of power reactors and research reactors I'm coming up with one research reactor at Reed College that could get a subduction zone quake, tsunami and subsidence associated with it.  It is in a college and is a far, far different design type than anything seen for major power production, like the Japanese plants.  While it, like the Japanese plants, would not experience the full 9.0 of the Cascadia Fault, it would get the time allotment (expected to be 5 minutes) and then the possibility of some land subsidence (although unlikely that far inland) and the effects of a tsunami funneled up the Portland river.

All the rest of those reactors, and those in CA I didn't list, could experience part or all of a strike-slip magnitude 9 fault for 1.5 minutes, maximum during The Big One.  They would not suffer the tsunami event, however, and all power back-ups should ride through even a 9.0 quake with proper situation of them.

The only other event that could get to nuclear power plants would be in the Midwest, with the New Madrid Fault Zone and the East Coast with the Cumbre Vieja event.  I go over that in my Top 5 disasters post from a few years ago... believe me, nuclear reactors are the least of our worries with those.

So the worries in the US?  So close to nil as to be unreasonable.

The vicarious worries for the Japanese people?  They are in the midst of multiple disasters and a nuclear meltdown, while worrisome, is not a top priority.  Finding the living and getting them food and water, or evacuating them is a #1 priority... not that you could tell it by US news coverage.  The human body can only go a few days without water... about 3 days... while going without food can be up to a few weeks, depending on activity level.  Getting potable water to survivors who have lost all clean water sources due to the earthquake and tsunami is critical and vital.  Finding the survivors in remote, or newly remote areas, is also critical so up there with Job #1.

What is happening in Japan, however, is that companies and individuals are opening their hearts, homes, and storehouses of goods so that anyone in need of food, water or shelter can get it.  Japan is notable in that it is a monoculture Nation: it only has one culture and that is the Japanese culture.  It is like living in a huge extended family that spans all the islands of Japan.  Families pull together during disasters, help each other out and get each other back on their feet.  Nations can do this, as well, with a resilient and self-reliant cultural basis.  The US springs back from disasters relatively quickly, and people hate to wait to be rescued as that is undependable.  A dependence culture has been pushed from the government side and that shows in places like NOLA where people were unwilling to do for themselves and waited for rescue on rooftops.  It is one thing to do that if you are looking after children or the elderly, it is another thing to do that when you are able-bodied and your children and elderly have someone just a bit better off to look after them. 

In Japan the people there know that the time to mourn the dead is only after they are found, and that caring for the living is a top priority that requires sacrifices: personal and financial, plus time.  Having a unitary culture helps, no end, in this sort of thing, and learning that waiting for rescue is an imposition on others when you can be doing it yourself means that you contribute via self-rescue.  That may not be the 'best' option, but if you have a clear goal and means to get to it, then your contribution is to remove yourself from the rescue equation and allow resources to be concentrated on those who are in worse condition than you are.  It is no disgrace to have put forward your best attempt and fail, it is a disgrace not to have tried at all.  If you wonder why shows teaching you how to survive in the wilderness have gone up in popularity, it is that they show you how simple things can save your life.

From the government side there is a problem in Japan, however.  Their debt is over 200% of GDP and there is very little head room for government to borrow.  The idea that the fiscal system will lock up has caused the National government to print money, thus devaluing the currency, and that is a forerunner of inflation.  I can't say I agree with that, overmuch, and while I understand the worry, the reaction to it seems counter-productive in the long haul.

On the flip side of things, there has been an examination of a 2 year tax moratorium for the disaster struck areas.  I would say that is a move in the right direction and should be extended to a 5 years with no taxes and then easing in taxes over another 5 years so everyone can prepare for the imposition of the economic requirements over a period of a decade.  While this would cut tax revenue for that period, it means that there would be a much, much better chance of a robust recovery. 

To do this the National government would need to cut some services and stop building other infrastructure so as to free up the budget to shrink while rebuilding in the North East starts.  Building codes are one thing, telling everyone where to build and why is another, and the people who go to resettle the region will SEE the high water marks and start thinking about EXACTLY how they want to deal with such events.  Some areas may find that insurers will not insure buildings in those areas that have been swept clean.  It is not the job of government to step in as a final insurer when it is, itself, so deep in debt that it can't afford new debt load.  Building of seawalls and break-walls and other such structures is the venue for government.  Trying to tell people where it is safe to build when they can see it for their own eyes, is something else again.

In general a 5 + 5 would require the large family group that is Japan to tighten its belt, re-assess its needs as a people and Nation and, perhaps, stop offloading some things to government.  Convention centers in small towns with decreasing populations is not a wise outlay of investment, and yet that sort of thing has taken place along with necessary infrastructure spending on the government side of things.  Japan has, basically, not recovered well from the 1990's economic bubble, and done a number of things that have stopped its full recovery.  Now would be the best time to start changing the attitude towards government as it can't do everything.  It can't build harbors, convention centers, town halls, bullet trains, parks, and so on, while wisely spending in all venues plus do all of the social spending that it does.  Something has to give in that and the quake, tsunami, volcano and other disasters may just be the wake-up call on the need to start cutting the bureaucratic State down to a manageable, less intrusive size.

That can start in the North East and a major, multi-year tax holiday will show just what the people of Japan can do if they don't have the massive overhead taking money at every turn during rebuilding.

It is what the people are doing with each other, giving food away, bringing in the tempest tossed to their homes, and generally providing a hand up from disaster, not a hand out to dependency.

There is great wisdom to be learned from the people of Japan, and I truly want them to succeed as a people and Nation so as to preserve their culture and take their fate into their own hands.  The people embody this wisdom.  Perhaps their government can learn from them.

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