Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lemming Tracks: 2011: Japan's Worst Earthquake? Yes and No

Many of what the news has been calling "aftershocks" in Japan would, before the March 11, 2011, earthquake, have made international news as serious earthquakes. In the Lemming's opinion opinion, of course.

Japan's 2011 Earthquake: "Worst?"

The March 11 quake was the most powerful in Japan's recorded history, in terms of how much energy was released. Whether or not it's the "worst" depends, in the Lemming's opinion, on point of view.
From a geological/tectonic viewpoint: The earthquake was the most powerful in recorded history: Magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale. (USGS) "Worst?" The Lemming isn't sure that "best" or "worst" are terms that apply to earthquakes - when considered as phenomena to be studied.
As far as the monetary costs are concerned, yes: this was the worst earthquake on record in Japan. Right now, it looks like it's going to cost Japan around $310,000,000,000. (FoxNews.com) Indirect effects, like folks in China, America, and elsewhere being afraid of spinach; folks from Japan cutting back on Hawaiian vacations; that sort of thing? The Lemming doesn't know, but suspects that it will be non-trivial.
What about loss of life? That, in the Lemming's opinion, may be the most important measure of "how bad" the March 11 tremor and tsunami was. Folks in Japan are still finding bodies, and the final count may be upwards of 18,000 dead. That's tragic. But it could have been worse. A lot worse.

The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake was only about 7.9 on the Richter scale. (March 11, 2011) Much less powerful than the 2011 event. But it killed about 140,000 people. If the Lemming's doing the math right, 18,000/140,000 is about 12.8%.

Assuming that the 18,000 estimated death toll is roughly accurate, and using human lives as the criteria, that makes the Great Kanto Earthquake seven or eight times "worse" than what's happening today. It's still bad - really bad - but yes, it could have been worse.

2011 isn't 1923

What happened? The Lemming thinks that what we're hearing about Japan's efforts to be ready for the next 'big one' paid off. Not perfectly: but 18,000 dead, bad as it is, isn't 140,000 dead.

Why the bigger price tag? Good question, and there isn't enough in what the Lemming's read to answer that. Inflation, maybe. Or maybe the cost is a reflection of Japan's prosperity: Japan had more expensive stuff to be broken.

Japan: Prepared, But Not Enough

This is not, in the Lemming's opinion, a good time to be working for Tokyo Electric. Not for anyone in the company who's connected with the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Folks working at the plant have been risking their health and lives. The company's brass hats may not be in physical peril - but they've got a whole lot of explaining to do.

Even allowing for Monday morning quarterbacking, it looks like executives decided to deal with unpleasant realities by ignoring them:

"...An AP investigation found that Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials had dismissed scientific evidence and geological history that indicated that a massive earthquake - and subsequent tsunami - was far more likely than they believed...."

That, and missed inspections, may have made the quarterly spreadsheets look better: but when brass hats and bean counters go up against realty, reality wins.

Fukushima: It Could Be Worse

Even with at least one of the Fukushima reactors starting to melt, the situation could be worse. Journalists use Chernobyl and THREE MILE ISLAND!!! as reference points. The Lemming's discussed that before. (March 16, 2011)

Fukushima may edge out Chernobyl as the world's worst disaster involving a nuclear power plant, but the Lemming thinks the Soviet Union's record will stand. For a while, at least. Why? Two reasons, in the Lemming's opinion:
  • 2011 isn't 1986
  • Japan isn't the Soviet Union
Possibly-inadequate design and backup cooling systems that didn't last long enough notwithstanding - Japan's mildly-melting reactors have containment vessels, which are still (somewhat) functional.

A bad situation? Yes: but folks have learned quite a bit since 1986. Including what not to do with nuclear reactors.

Dangerous Technology? There's No Other Kind

The Lemming's made the point before: There's no such thing as a 'safe' technology. Flint knappers can get crushed or cut fingers, horse-drawn vehicles leave manure that's at least as hard to deal with a smog, and nuclear power plants melt on rare occasions.

The Lemming will grant that the scale of technological problems has increased over the last million or so years: but we've always lived with some level of risk.

There's an old cartoon, with a grouchy old (cave) man commenting on a crazy new technology: fire. "Just wait," he said, "some day it'll get out of control, and burn the entire village."

He was right: but instead of giving up on fire, the rest of us learned how to control it - and how to put out fires.

From today's news:
"Workers scramble to contain radioactive water at nuclear plant"
CNN World (March 29, 2011)

"Workers at Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant faced a difficult balancing act Tuesday as they struggled to keep reactors cool and prevent radioactive water from leaking into the ocean.

"Water has been a key weapon in the battle to stave off a meltdown at the facility since a March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems. But tons of water have been pumped and sprayed to keep the plant's radioactive fuel from overheating, and the plant is running out of room to store the now-contaminated liquid.

" 'Now the focus is how to ... remove the water and contain it safely,' Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, the government's point man for the crisis, told reporters Tuesday.

"The discovery of contaminated water in a maintenance tunnel that leads to the No. 2 reactor's turbine plant has sparked fresh concerns about the possibility of additional radiation leaking from the plant. Japan's nuclear safety agency said workers were using sandbags and concrete panels to keep the water inside the tunnel, which is located about 55 meters (180 feet) from the Pacific shore.

"Workers are also trying to pump water out of the turbine houses of the No. 1 and No. 3 reactors, according to the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant's owner. Lights were restored in the main control room of the No. 4 reactor, the utility said...."

"...'TEPCO is in an awful dilemma right now,' said Jim Walsh, an international security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 'One the one hand, they want to cool the reactor and keep the reactor cool, so they have to pour water in. If there is a leak in one of the containment vessels, that water keeps leaking out. So they have a problem where the more they try to cool it down, the greater the radiation hazard as that water leaks out from the plant.'

"Japanese officials and international experts have said they believe there's been a partial meltdown at three of the plant's six reactors, and Edano reported Monday that the No. 2 reactor's containment vessel may be leaking...."
"Workers at Japan Nuke Plant 'Lost the Race' to Save Reactor, Expert Says"
FoxNews.com (March 29, 2011)

"Workers at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant appeared to have 'lost the race' to save one of the reactors, a U.S. expert told the Guardian.

"Richard Lahey, who was head of safety research for boiling water reactors at General Electric when the company installed the units at the Japan plant, says the radioactive core in the Unit 2 reactor appears to have melted through the bottom of its containment vessel and on a concrete floor.

" 'The indications we have, from the reactor to radiation readings and the materials they are seeing, suggest that the core has melted through the bottom of the pressure vessel in unit two, and at least some of it is down on the floor of the drywell,' Lahey told the paper.

"Lahey did add there was no danger of a Chernobyl-style catastrophe...."

"...The struggle to contain radiation at the complex has unfolded with near-constant missteps — including two workers drenched Tuesday with radioactive water despite wearing supposedly waterproof suits. The unfolding drama has drawn increasing criticism of the utility that owns the plant as well as scrutiny of Japan's preparedness for nuclear crises.

" 'Our preparedness was not sufficient,' Edano told reporters. 'When the current crisis is over, we must examine the accident closely and thoroughly review' safety standards.

"An AP investigation found that Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials had dismissed scientific evidence and geological history that indicated that a massive earthquake - and subsequent tsunami - was far more likely than they believed.

"That left the complex with nowhere near enough protection against the March 11 tsunami.

"A massive offshore earthquake triggered the tsunami that slammed into Japan's northeast, wiping out towns, killing thousands of people and knocking out power and backup systems at the coastal nuclear power plant.

"More than 11,000 bodies have been recovered, but officials say the final death toll is expected to exceed 18,000. Hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless, their homes and livelihoods destroyed. Damage could amount to $310 billion — the most expensive natural disaster on record...."
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