The Electrifying Lesson of Japan

What happens to modern societies when the power goes off.

The pictures and stories coming out of Japan following the twin disasters of record-setting earthquake and historic tsunami are indescribably horrifying.  As it happens, several of Scragged's writers have personal connections to that beleaguered country; we can only be grateful that, thus far, our friends over there have been unharmed.

Of course, the crisis is a long way from over; it's far too early to be dogmatic about what lessons should be learned.  There seem to be two already apparent - neither of which is really new, but being hammered home as never before.

Putting the ME in Media

The first, and less important, is the absolute self-centeredness of our news media - and by this, alas, we do not exempt the news organs generally considered right-wing.

Ever since the first newspaper was invented, journalists have held a laserlike focus on murder and mayhem.  "If it bleeds, it leads" - or, as a James Bond villain once said, "There's no news like bad news!"

There's bad news for people you've never met, and then there's bad news right here at home.  It's often been noted how a local burglary will get more airtime than a million starving Africans, but the Japan disaster has presented a historically stark contrast.

Of course our TV screens are covered with scenes of destruction half the time as the Japanese people take stock of the 70,000 buildings and at least 10,000 lives wiped from the face of the earth.  The other half of the time, though, our commentariat is obsessing over nuclear reactor problems that have killed nobody.  Despite the scientific fact that under no conceivable scenario could even the worst Japanese nuclear disaster do any harm to the United States 12,000 miles away, foolish know-nothings have sparked a run on radioactivity-absorbing potassium iodide pills in California that would be far better sent to Japan by the fastest means possible.

The fact is that comparisons with Chernobyl are totally and completely bogus.  Other than the fact that both involve radiation, there's simply no comparison.  Where Chernobyl had no containment vessel, just a building, the Japanese reactors have at least three, none of which are known to have been breached even yet.  Read what you won't see explained on the news:

The reactor is inside three concentric safety vessels: first, the “boiler” itself; second, a massive steel bottle; and third, an even larger and more massive reinforced steel, concrete, and graphite outer containment vessel. In case of a meltdown, the whole reactor should be contained within the steel secondary containment vessel, but if it’s not, the molten reactor core drops to the graphite floor of the third vessel, where it spreads out across the floor. This causes the reactor to stop, and it can cool naturally. Eventually the pieces can be cleaned up.

Even in the worst-case scenario, if the Japanese stopped pumping and just let the reactor alone, there would be no Chernobyl death-cloud much less a "China Syndrome" of toxic waste burning its way through the earth: the reactor "meltdown" would stay safely inside the third vessel which was expressly designed for the purpose of containing a meltdown all by itself.  The floor is made of graphite, which stops nuclear reactions; it's the same stuff nuclear control rods are made from.  All that's needed for that failsafe to work is gravity, there is no human intervention required.

Obviously that's not ideal; the Japanese would rather the nuclear material stay in the boiler if possible or the steel bottle, if only because it makes cleanup easier.  But in no case would there be land poisoned for centuries, or even anybody harmed.

What of the radioactivity already released, which led the Japanese government to evacuate people for 10 miles around?  Let's put it in perspective: all bananas are slightly radioactive because they naturally contain a small amount of radioactive potassium-40.  At the very worst, right in the midst of the reactor building where nobody except heavily-protected workers is or ever would be, the radioactivity reached a level of a few hundred bananas - which every grocery store has in stock and nobody panics.

To sum up:

This is not a "nuclear accident". It is damage from an earthquake and tsunami. The reported sweeping away of four entire trains, including a bullet train which apparently disappeared without a trace, was not labeled “the third worst train accident ever".

The obsolete, antiquated Japanese nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi on the verge of retirement experienced not one but two of the worst separate natural disasters in history, less than an hour apart, and have not killed anybody.  What a testimony to the awesome power of Japanese nuclear engineering and to safe GE designs!  The current most likely risk isn't even from the reactors at all, it's from used radioactive fuel rods that weren't well stored and which could, in theory, catch fire - nothing whatsoever to do with the reactors themselves or their design.  Yes, the reactors are done for; so, thanks to Mother Nature's fury, are entire cities - what else would you expect?

Even if the worst-case scenario happens - God forbid - at most a handful of workers will be killed.  What is that among 10,000 killed by the tsunami?  And it would be the first nuclear-plant mass casualties killed in a quarter century - whereas dozens of coalminers die every year.

Yet what do we get parading across our newsdesks but a constant drumbeat of bogus radioactive horror and scaremongering.  And that has the potential to kill far more people, Japanese and American, than the tsunami ever did.

The life the Greens would have you live.

Lifesaving Technology and Murderous Environmentalists

Within an hour after the earthquake, many thousands of people were dead by drowning, crushing, fire, and so on.  There's nothing anybody can do to help them and not a whole lot that could be done in the future considering that this was the worst earthquake ever to hit Japan, a place noted for earthquake disasters, and nobody knows how to deal with a 30-foot wall of water outside of science fiction.

The survivors are far from out of the woods yet, though, and that's because half of the country has lost the main resource required by virtually all our modern aids: electrical power.

When Japan lost a large chunk of its electricity-generating capacity to the one-two punch of earthquake and tsunami, the narrative in parts of one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies was transformed overnight into one of Third World hardship.

Reliable electric power is the difference between the First World and the Third World; Japan offers a cautionary tale of how easily and instantaneously we can fall from one to the other.

Without electricity, no modern heaters work.  Furnaces that run on oil or gas still use electricity to drive fans and igniters.  No power, and you're thrown back to campfires and open fireplaces.

Without electricity, there's no communications.  Even where celltowers weren't destroyed by the disaster, their backup batteries and generators long ago ran out of juice as did everyone's cellphone batteries.

Without electricity, there's not only no clean water, there's no running water.  We've seen photos of modern, educated Japanese washing clothes by hand in a filthy river, no different from the lowliest Indian peasant by the Ganges.

Without electricity, the clean green high-speed rail systems so beloved of our statist leftists stop in their tracks.  At least with diesel power, you can operate the train until you run out of gas and maybe get your passengers out of the disaster area.  CNN's Anderson Cooper, reporting from the scene, memorably painted a word picture of a bullet train sitting on a highway bridge, abandoned and empty, its passengers - who knows?

If today's environmentalists have their way, whole nations will be plunged into this new Dark Age.  We've written about the lawsuits and red tape preventing America from building desperately-needed power plants; in reaction to the Japanese nuclear non-disaster, Germany has shut down seven nuclear plants to "reconsider its nuclear policy."  We have the hysterical American left demanding that we do the same, even though reliably-left William Saletan had to admit his usual friends were grossly overreacting.

Rahm Emanuel famously advised Obama to "never let a crisis go to waste;" his boss took this advice, and used our financial crisis to ram through hardcore socialism totally unrelated to the cause of the problems which has succeeded only in making us even poorer.  Environmentalists and their fellow-travelers are following the same broad road that leads to our destruction.  Will we let them?

Or will we learn the true lesson of Japan's disaster, an earthquake a thousand times more powerful than Haiti's and a tsunami with no comparison, yet with a tiny fraction of the casualties?  That lesson is: modern technology, national wealth, and, yes, modern industrial engineering including nuclear power, saves lives.

For environmentalists, that's precisely its problem.  Down in their cold, black hearts, they're celebrating the carbon dioxide that won't be exhaled by the dead thousands and won't be consumed by shivering refugees huddling in emergency blankets instead of using high-energy power sources.  Barbaric!  But typical of our times.

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Ann Coulter cites research saying that radiation in the very low doses released in Japan thus far, is actually GOOD for you and makes cancer LESS likely.

A new tourist attraction?

March 17, 2011 3:11 PM

Yep, Daily Mail also adds incite:

If anything, more nuke plants, not less.

March 17, 2011 5:03 PM

What you are talking about are mere facts. Facts have had nothing to do with our energy debates for the last 20 years. It's all about politics - what they can tax, what they can control, what they can take away from us.

March 17, 2011 7:31 PM
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