Nuclear heroes

The Fukushima 50 are the fifty workers who are trying desperately to prevent a nuclear meltdown in the four reactors damaged by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  They have had to go into the plants, subjecting themselves to massive radiation.  They reportedly expect the radiation to kill them.  But they keep going in.

Workers at the disaster-stricken Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan say they expect to die from radiation sickness as a result of their efforts to bring the reactors under control, the mother of one of the men tells Fox News.

The so-called Fukushima 50, the team of brave plant workers struggling to prevent a meltdown to four reactors critically damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, are being repeatedly exposed to dangerously high radioactive levels as they attempt to bring vital cooling systems back online.

Speaking tearfully through an interpreter by phone, the mother of a 32-year-old worker said: “My son and his colleagues have discussed it at length and they have committed themselves to die if necessary to save the nation.

“He told me they have accepted they will all probably die from radiation sickness in the short term or cancer in the long-term.”

The woman spoke to Fox News on the condition of anonymity because, she said, plant workers had been asked by management not to communicate with the media or share details with family members in order to minimize public panic.

She could not confirm if her son or other workers were already suffering from radiation sickness. But she added: “They have concluded between themselves that it is inevitable some of them may die within weeks or months. They know it is impossible for them not to have been exposed to lethal doses of radiation.”

via Japan’s Nuclear Rescuers: ‘Inevitable Some of Them May Die Within Weeks’ – FoxNews.com.

This, my friends, is self-sacrifice in vocation.

The world has become fragile

Steven Pearlstein reflects on our recent disasters, all of which took us by surprise and none of which we were prepared for:

In just the past decade, we’ve had the attacks of Sept. 11, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, Hurricane Katrina, the global financial crisis, a global flu pandemic, the earthquake in Haiti, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and devastating floods in Australia and New Zealand. Now, Japan has been hit with a triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

What all of these have in common is that they are all low-probability, high-impact events — the “long-tail” phenomenon, to use the jargon of risk modelers, referring to the far ends of the traditional bell curve of probabilities, or “black swans,” to use the metaphor popularized by former Wall Street trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Such calamitous events have been a regular part of the human experience since Noah and the flood, some of them natural, others manmade. In spite of that, however, we continue to underestimate their frequency and severity.

To a degree, that is a good thing. If we were to focus too much of our attention on all the really, really bad things that could befall us, we’d never get out of bed in the morning.

But the same psychological trait that allows us to go about our daily business also creates blind spots. Although we observe that calamities happen, we assume that they won’t happen to us, or they won’t happen again. And if it has been a long time since the calamity, we are apt to take false comfort that we have beaten the odds. . . .

Part of the problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know. The other part is that small miscalculations of probabilities can have large effects on outcomes when dealing with long periods of time. Think of the sailor who sets off on a voyage a few degrees off course. A few miles out, the error is small, but by the time he crosses the ocean, he may find himself hundreds of miles from the intended destination.

Our reward structures don’t encourage spending the time or the money to deal with low-probability disasters. The chief executive of Citigroup acknowledged as much when he told a reporter in 2007 that he would lose his job if he gave up profit and market share to shield his bank from the obviously excessive risk-taking that everyone knew was going on. And you can only imagine the outcry from the industry and those Gulf Coast politicians if government regulators back in 2009 had ordered oil companies to spend millions of dollars to have enough boats and booms at the ready to deal with a BP-sized oil spill from deepwater drilling.

Indeed, it seems that when we conclude that the chance of something really bad happening is very small, we wind up taking actions that either increase the probability of the disaster or the damage that it will cause. Once the rocket scientists on Wall Street, for example, concluded that it was virtually impossible for investors in so-called “mezzanine” tranches of mortgage-backed securities to lose money, it set off a chain of events that made the prediction untrue. The heavy demand for the securities led to dramatically lower lending standards and a sharp increase in housing prices, creating a bubble so large that when it burst, it caused heavy losses for those same mezzanine investors. The declaration that a particular investment was riskless became a self-negating prophecy.

Similarly, when the government builds a levee, it may reduce the frequency of damaging floods but may also encourage even more people to build homes and businesses behind the barrier. When the Big One finally arrives, the total damage will be even greater than if no levee had been built.

We’re also discovering that the impact of disasters is magnified by globalization. The troubles in northern Japan, for example, are beginning to ripple through global supply chains, creating bottlenecks and shortages in dozens of industries. The way globalization increases economic efficiency is by leveraging the advantages of scale and specialization. Yet the bigger and more concentrated production becomes, the more vulnerable it becomes to disruption.

Many scholars now think that the very complexity of modern life — including our transportation and communication systems, our economy and our social interactions — is directly implicated in the severity of catastrophes. In more complex systems, even small changes or perturbations can have disproportionate and unpredictable effects. The things that make our systems more efficient also make them more effective in spreading the impact of a catastrophe.

via Lessons from the long tail of improbable disaster – The Washington Post.

Disaster and national debt

Japan’s and ours. . .

As Japan begins the complex and costly job of rebuilding the areas of the country that were destroyed, the task will be made more difficult by the government’s vast debt.

Japan has the highest level of debt relative to the size of its economy of any major industrial nation — 234 percent of gross domestic product this year, the International Monetary Fund estimates, compared with 99 percent for the United States. With the cost of rebuilding devastated areas expected to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, that debt level is likely to grow in the years ahead.

There are lessons for the United States. Even when borrowing rates are low, as they are for the United States and Japan, running high budget deficits can leave a country with less flexibility to respond to a disaster or an economic setback.

“When you have as much debt as the Japanese have, you’re vulnerable to this kind of shock and can’t do much about it,” said Carmen Reinhart, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics whose research shows that financial crises frequently lead to high debt burdens, which in turn cause other problems.

Borrowing money to rebuild after a disaster is a productive use of debt, most economists say. It is likely to have a high economic payoff and is a one-time expense. But because of its already high debt levels, the Japanese government may be forced instead to raise taxes or cut other spending to pay for the reconstruction, further damaging Japan’s weak economy.

A third option for funding reconstruction would be for the Japanese government to sell off some of its foreign assets, such as U.S. Treasury bonds. In theory, Japan maintains those reserves so it is prepared for an economic emergency, which surely this is.

via Nikkei recovers 5.7%; U.S. stock futures fluctuate over nuclear crisis – The Washington Post.

The Cranach Nuclear Watch

As Japan and the rest of the world worry over what will happen to the earthquake and tsunami damaged nuclear power plants, you should know that here at the Cranach blog we are getting some expert commentary.  MarkB used to work with nuclear power plants, and Carl Vehse–whom you might know merely on this blog as a conservative flamethrower–is by vocation a nuclear chemist.

I appreciate their ongoing explanations of the information that is coming out.

See what they say here and here.

More on Japan’s earthquake

Officials estimate that at least 10,000 may be dead–with thousands more still missing–due to the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan.  Meanwhile, more nuclear power plants are in danger of meltdown.

See 10K dead in Japan amid fears of nuclear meltdowns – Yahoo! News.

Japan has been a world leader in the design of earthquake-resistant structures.  Read this confident–but now ironic–account of all that Japan does to ensure safety during an earthquake.

But this goes to show that all of the ingenious engineering does little if the earthquake is powerful enough.

Go here to help.

What does this mean for California, midwesterners along the New Madris fault, and other potential earthquake zones in the U.S.A.?

Earthquake, tsunami devastate Japan

An earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale hit northern Japan, causing massive damage.  Then came the tsunami, which sent a 30-foot wall of water three miles inland, killing untold numbers.  The tsunami also traveled at 500 m.p.h.–as fast as a airplane–hitting Hawaii and America’s west coast.  Marinas and boats were damaged, but, as of this moment, I have heard no reports of American deaths.

Now fires have broken out in Japan, and–what really has people worried–nuclear power plants are releasing radiation and at least two are in danger of meltdown.

Lord, have mercy!

UPDATE:  25-year-old Joey Young from Crescent, California, was taking pictures of the incoming tsunami when he was swept out to sea and drowned.  Another California man with a history of heart problems was found dead on his boat.

Japan earthquake, tsunami said to kill hundreds; little impact on Hawaii, other islands.

 


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X