Japan Nuclear Disasters — Will anything be learned?

The nuclear reactor problems in Japan are a great concern — especially to the people nearby and downwind. But on a broader base it provides more fuel for the anti-nuclear folk and their hysteria. Nuclear contamination is not new — a few years back there was a map produced that showed the deposition patterns across the US for the fallout from open air bomb testing in Nevada in the 1940’s & 50’s. The tail swept across the US and over where I grew up in CHicago. We are mostly all still here.

Over the centuries we tend to learn how to control the forces of new technology by killing people — not intentionally but by accident. The Gothic cathedrals of Europe collapsed during construction as the builders learned about foundations, construction techniques and the distribution of stresses. The Romans were smart — the designer got to stand under an arch while the construction supports were removed. A bit too Darwinian for my taste but it gave architects a real incentive to build things to last.

If we had the level of press coverage and public hysteria about air travel when the Comet jet liners started mysteriously blowing up in mid-air (terrorist-free) we would probably still be traveling by train and cruise ship. Not that this would necessarily have been a bad thing, you understand.

Nuclear is no different. I have hoped that we would have worked out the secret of fusion by now but clearly the power that operates the stars (and all of us) is still out of reach. With all the babbling about wind and other intermittent power sources aside, nuclear in my judgment is still the only viable technology for providing power to run a developing civilization. But the nuclear genie is dangerous and can kill. We know that and so do the poor people of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl — seems Japan is getting a second reminder. But the real crime is not that our engineering control is imperfect but that we seem massively unwilling to learn from out mistakes and go on. That is not what happened with stone and metal construction, steam power, aviation — literally everything that has made us who and what we are. Perhaps we are getting tired of trying.

Followup: Two days later the news articles seem to be running two to one — stressing about how dangerous nuclear is and whether we should shutdown existing plants in North America.  Seems to be much more interesting than the suffering of the Japanese people and the efforts to come to their aid. Everyone seems to be saying that if a technology is not safe we should not even be trying to use it. A faustian bargain, one commenter said. Safe? Nothing we do is safe.  Personal transportation development focused on steam and electricity because gasoline wasn’t safe. And electricity?

By slowing down development and focusing on the up-front safety issues we maximize our chances that we will learn little from the experience.  And we lose sight of what is important — where the risks come from and what can we do to offset them.  And in this case, what needs to be done now to alleviate the suffering.  Learning from the mistakes of others can come a little later, since most of the world does not sit on a major fault zone.

And let us not also forget that by making it difficult to modify or replace these nuclear plants because we cannot be SURE that what we are doing is absolutely safe we ensure that the older designs continue to be used, thereby maximizing our exposure rather than minimizing it.  The old plants continue in use because there is no good replacement for the power they produce.  If we were sincere about safety we would encourage upgrading and replacement instead of trying to slow it down.  I guess this is another one of those conflicts between fantasy and reality — and as always, reality has it wrong.  But we persist in requiring the developers to guarantee safety for extended periods — not decades but centuries.  This is science fiction merging into religious myth.


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