Thursday, 17 March 2011

Lessons of Fukushima

Nobody is to blame for an earthquake. Or for a tsunami either.

The events which swept over Japan last week have awakened horror and sympathy worldwide. In our digitalised, 24/7 media-mad world, we saw continuous pictures of shaking buildings, of the wave breaking over the north eastern cost of Japan, sweeping all before it and drawing back in a dirty cluttered sludge of wreckage, flotsam, oil and blood. We have seen survivors looking silently aghast at the detritus which remained, tearful reunions with loved ones found and the emptiness of eyes realising that many other loved ones would not be found.

And, as the days went on, we have seen more and more pictures of four concrete cubes in Fukushima and watched in powerless despair as clouds of smoke rose from them. For those of us who live in central Europe the memories of April 1986 return, the explosion at Chernobyl; hundreds of square miles in the Ukraine made uninhabitable by fall-out, the pictures of brave Soviet rescue workers dying of radiation sickness and of children born with horrible deformities, the fear as weaker radioactive clouds swept over us, the warnings not to eat mushrooms or game.

Nobody is to blame for an earthquake. Or for a tsunami either. But people have to take responsibility for some of the consequences which have followed them.

There are many understandable reasons why Japan chose to base a large proportion of its power requirements on nuclear energy. The country is densely populated, with a technologically highly-developed society – a society which needs a lot of electrical power. It has practically no energy resources like oil, gas or coal of its own and, as an island nation, importing electricity from other countries is very difficult, apart from he fact that Japan’s neighbours (with the possible exception of South Korea) are not in a position to export power anyway. If anyone could be trusted to build safe nuclear power plants, then the Japanese. They are the only nation which, up to now, has had to experience the awful power contained in the atom in a war situation, and the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have burned themselves deep into the Japanese psyche. They have a deserved reputation for technological efficiency and thoroughness, for planning and quality control.

The Japanese like technology and hi-tech stuff. They’re worldwide pioneers in the area of robotics and even the inventors of the technological pet, the tamagochi. From the late 19th Century onwards, when they consciously decided to follow the western industrial-technological way, they have proved to be very good at it, in many senses the pupil outshining his master. They are the real inventors of quality control, for example, disciples of the view that a continuous devotion to detail and planning can make physical processes controllable. Strange, perhaps, that such a philosophy should be espoused by a nation in which the basic foundation most cultures would use as an image for reality, the solidity of the earth itself, so often calls itself into question. Or perhaps it is the deep conditionality of physical reality which the continual possibility of a quaking earth (and the consequent destroying sea-waves) signifies, which calls forth such a reaction; no matter what nature throws at us, no matter what obstacles there are, we will survive and prosper, we will tame this earth and subdue it.

It is an attitude which demands that one takes risks, because the possibility that everything one has built up and achieved can be shaken down without warning, drowned in an instant, is behind everything. This is the basic reality of life, you accept it and then go on with discipline, dedication and hard work anyway, planning as well as you can to minimise negative consequences, working as hard as you can to increase the odds in your favour while knowing at the same time that it may go wrong. What else can you do? This, I believe, is part of the mindset behind the push for empire and domination in the Asian-Pacific area in the first half of the last century which led, finally, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and total defeat. And it is the same mindset which gave the Japanese the strength to rebuild their country after that defeat; to follow a different way and this time do it right.

But it still involved taking risks, because risks are unavoidable. You need power and you have to import the means to generate it, which leaves you vulnerable. So nuclear power becomes attractive. In the increasing awareness of global warming, carbon footprints and possible greenhouse effects growing in the past decades, it becomes an even more attractive option. The risks remain because they are unavoidable; because nuclear power plants need continuous cooling you have to build them close to large amounts of water, either on major rivers (of which Japan doesn’t have many), or on the coast. You engineer things as well as you can and hope that nature will not raise the stakes higher than you can bet.

And then last week nature did. Fukushima was planned to withstand the consequences of an earthquake measuring 8.2 on the Richter scale, the quake which came measured 9.0.

So now the world holds its breath and watches as the Japanese frantically struggle to get runaway complex, immensely powerful physical processes back under control. As I write this the results are still open; radiation levels are high, the reactors and fuel rods are still overheating, the catastrophic possibility of melt-down, uncontrollable chain-reactions, explosions and massive radioactive emissions is still very high. There are no handbooks for this situation; all that can be done is to continue trying to do everything imaginable until the end-game is finally played out. The best-case scenario leaves a dangerous radioactive mess in the ruins of Fukushima which will continue to poison its immediate vicinity and, most likely, the ocean before the coast, a mess which will take years to clean up or reliably contain. The worst-case scenario sees immense amounts of fall-out being carried southwards by the winds towards the greater Tokyo area with a population of over 35 million and the rest of the densely populated southern regions of the country, perhaps even moving westwards to contaminate Korea, Russia and China. The consequences then are, for me, unimaginable – this goes way beyond Godzilla.

Whatever happens, the world needs to look again at nuclear energy, the use of fission to drive gigantic steam engines. Murphy’s Law remains universal and all our engineering comes down, in the end, to tolerance levels. I am by no means technophobic, but I don’t think that the concept of acceptable risk levels is compatible with nuclear power plants. If we want an image for nuclear power then Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice comes to mind. We conjure the spirits in nature to serve us only to learn, as the apprentice did, that they will no longer obey us. Goethe’s protagonist cries despairingly, “Die ich rief, die Geister werd ich nun nicht los [I cannot rid myself of the spirits I have called]!” In the poem, the master magician turns up in the nick of time, like a Deus ex machina, to banish them. We don’t have a master to send the fissioned demon back to his atomic nucleus and if he escapes our control then he can rampage unchecked, with frightful consequences.

With luck, the Japanese may still regain a level of control over the situation in Fukushima, the worst possible consequences may be averted and we can all heave a collective sigh of relief while they get down to year-long expensive measures to clean up the mess already caused. Until the next time. For the next time will come, sooner or later. Many of the nuclear plants around the world are not proof against a 9/11-type attack, or portable anti-armour missiles already reported to be in the hands of terrorists in certain parts of the world. Or the demon Murphy will manifest himself once more. Generating electricity with steam-driven turbines powered by nuclear fission is not the answer to our global energy hunger and the problems of carbon dioxide emissions. Even if no further accidents or sabotage were to happen, we still don’t have particularly good solutions regarding what to do with the massively dirty waste they produce. And the world does still have alternative options, involving more efficient use of energy, reduction of unnecessary energy waste and renewable CO2-neutral ways of producing it, like wind and solar power.

And, on a completely different stage, the events in Japan have already produced one nasty victor. While the attention of the world has switched to Japan, Muammar Gaddafi has marshalled his loyal army units, jets and artillery and is in the process of massacring thousands of the citizens of his country who dared to try to rise up for their basic rights. The world has been distracted and it looks as if he will get away with it.

Not a good week for the world.


Pictures retrieved from


  1. Your clearly written truths in a relatively short space are much appreciated this morning. I love knowing a real intellectual. You remembered Goethe while I've been recalling Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. I'm sure you'll agree the message came across just the same but like so many things its relevance has been lost to the current generation. This may be the nuclear disaster that will take down the industry as a whole but what a horrible price to pay.

  2. I'm all about reducing the DEMAND for energy by making more efficient devices, and my project for the spring break is to rid my home of energy "vampires" that is, those plugged in but turned off things that suck energy. This Japanese disaster is what pushed me over the wall to do this easily overlooked home maintenance item. If it ain't broke don't fix it doesn't apply in this case.

  3. I always watch one specific stock, JASO, which is an alternative energy stock. As stocks plummeted this week, that stock gained.

    That it will happen again is a certainty, and a reality that should now be a little more sobering until next month, when the memory will all but have faded into history.

    Nuclear facilities need tons of water to remain cool. I must confess that I really have no idea how they work, but why don't we build them on the ocean floor?

  4. I still have high hopes for nuclear energy, if only because there are so few good alternatives. But what is happening in Japan does hurt my confidence in nuclear power safety. And it is another reminder of how corporations want to minimize the perception of risk to keep cost down.

  5. I have high hopes for nuclear energy also. I really really hope that it will be outlawed and considered the energy equivalent of what chemical warfare is in war.

    Those are very high hopes, as it not likely.

    We do not need all this energy for any other reason than the fact that everyone else needs it. If energy was not so much in demand, it would not be demanded so much. The earth got along just fine without energy as we know it for centuries.

    The "need" for nuclear energy is fictitious. I realize that want it.

  6. Hi Francis,
    I find your blogs are always insightful and thought-provoking.

    But the plant did survive the earthquake. As it was designed to. It was rather the massiveness of the following tsunami that knocked it out. I find that there is some inspiration to be drawn from this fact. After all predicting the effects of an earthquake, the size of which hasn't been seen since 987 AD, isn't an easy task.

    I think their is definitely a lesson to learn with nuclear power, from this disaster, maybe something along the lines of "always expect the unexpected". But I'm not sure it's time to decide that nuclear power is something beyond humanity's power to control.

    Because on the other hand in the Western World, France and Japan both have some of the lowest levels of co2 emissions per capita - in fact France, with a population 3 times the size of a Australia still produces less co2 in absolute terms than Australia.

  7. Another thought provoking article Francis. Sorry for not commenting earlier.

    THe situation in Japan is grim despite its preparations and its affluence. In most other countries the the effects would have been far worse...

    As for nuclear energy I am have mixed feelings. but those are for another time. The situation with the reactors is definitely bad. It doesn't help to have to get through some of the nonsense to get some idea of the real scale of the problem

  8. I have little doubt that Westminster Council will dispatch goons to prevent soup charities from delivering to the half-million or so Japanese homeless.
    None of their nuclear plants are safe and should have been built on the other side and end of the island.

  9. It always takes a tragedy, doesn't it, before we truly take things seriously. So sad. What's even more sad is that while we will turn more sober when we discuss nuclear energy, I don't believe anything will change much in my country. I live downwind from one of the oldes nukes in the U.S. - Vermont Yankee. Decades of public outcry, concern and political action has resulted in nothing being done to at least make it safer.

    Thanks for the remind of those anti-nuke buttons. I once had several, including one in Portuguese.

    Thanks for a great post. I laughed when I read Susan's comment about Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice! :-)

  10. God help Japan. They risk lives for technology. No to nuclear power!

  11. I was away last week, so it's taken me longer than usual to get around to replying to some of the comments here. Sorry, folks!

    susan - When you live in Germany there's nothing very intellectual about quoting Goethe! :-) The "Geister die ich rief" quotation has become an everyday phrase in the language here.

    Colleen and John - Our incredibly wasteful use of energy is a subtext that the developed world just doesn't want to look at. It's all tied up with our very shortsighted myth of happiness = growth.

    Jimmy and Akseli(also Jams) - Fission is an incredibly wasteful, dirty and dangerous way of "cracking" the power in the atom. It leaves no room for the basic paradigm of engineering - always rely on Murphy! We should be doing far more research on fusion ...

    Sphinx - we only seem to learn the hard way, don't we?

    moongoddess - the Japanese are now paying a huge price for their reliance on technology - but what other way could they have gone?


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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