Tsunamis on YouTube, Real-Time Nuclear Catastrophe: The Surreal Japan Disaster

What surreal times in Japan: the stunning speed of a natural disaster, juxtaposed with bizarre and unknowable pace of a nuclear catastrophe. The earthquake lasted minutes, the tsunami arrived minutes later. The nuclear crisis unfolds day by excruciating day, soon to be week by week, month by month, year by year.  


Human society has long been acquainted with the time scale of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes, and cyclones. Crops are blown away,   buildings fall, lava sweeps away all in its path, the waters swallow the living. Stunned survivors are left to bury their dead and begin anew the age-old search for food, shelter, and warmth.  

The way time moves in a nuclear catastrophe is quite outside of human experience. Not the lightening pace of a natural disaster, but not a snail’s pace either. Nuclear catastrophe proceeds at a pace and scale that has no equivalent in life, whether snail or hummingbird.  

Japanese who lived in coastal towns and were fortunate enough to get to high ground turned and watched the tsunami race into the homes from which they fled. People around the world could even watch the wave on their screens, live” as it happened, and then again and again on YouTube.  

No one, not even the few remaining engineers at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, can see what is happening in the crippled reactors. Their surreal press conferences only report their best guesses as to what might be happening. Even when the plant was operating smoothly, their view of the internal workings of the reactors was mediated through a cascading series of gauges and other devices which have now been hopelessly compromised. The present command chain of engineer to company executive to politician to public can best be described as the blind leading the blind leading the blind leading the blind.  

Perhaps there will be a culminating apocalyptic moment, some sort of huge explosion or melt-down. Perhaps it might have already occurred in the brief between between when I finish this blog and when it is posted on the Web. Or perhaps there will be nothing of the sort, but rather a sort of permanent catastrophe. A fire here, a venting of steam there, spikes of radioactivity followed by declines, as the situation “improves,” “deteriorates,” “stabilizes,” “escalates,” becomes “confusing,” then “contradictory.”  

The unfolding of time in last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig catastrophe was similar. Comparing the pace of the Deepwater Horizon and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, one can begin to grasp a new kind of time for the age of mega industrial catastrophe.  

After the initial explosion on the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, it took days and then weeks to piece together what had actually happened. Engineers made rapid decisions based on very limited understanding of the processes underway. Then came the debates about how to proceed, the repeated failed attempts to cap the well, and the dispersal of massive amount of oil dispersant which some thought more destructive than the oil itself.  

And there is another, strange but increasingly familiar kind of time: the time spent sorting out the long term consequences. The results of the tsunami that hit Japan sit in plain sight for all to see. But to this day, no one really knows how much oil spewed from the ocean floor in the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, where it all went, or what the long term ecological consequences will be. Opinions about the effect on the environment range from the dire to the benign. And our understanding of the long-term consequences of radiation in the environment is even cloudier than our understanding of oil. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred a full quarter century ago, yet today estimates of the total fatalities attributable to the catastrophe range from 4,000 to close to a million. Sorting out the consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe will be equally futile. 

The time it takes to really “know”  the consequences of disasters on this scale stretches out essentially “forever,” the ultimate time scale of the age of mega industrial catastrophe. Sadly, it is a time scale humans have difficulty grasping. The Fukushima Daiichi reactors were built in the 1970s, a decade of widespread protest against nuclear power both in Japan and around the world. Protestors tried to wake up the world to the Central to the time scale of nuclear technology – how many decades and centuries different nuclear materials have to be “secured.” But by 2008 only one nuclear accident with catastrophic consequences had occurred at Chernobyl, and that was explained away by the reference to the declining state of Soviet technology and infrastructure.  

The nuclear industry cited this track record as proof that nukes were “safe” and the protest movements had been wrong. Among the many who believed them was presidential candidate Barack Obama, who made the construction of new nuclear power stations in the US a central point of his energy platform during his campaign. After the most recent mid-term elections, President Obama was quick to point to nuclear power expansion as one area on which the new Republican majority in the House and the administration could work together. In fact, just a few months ago the Obama administration asked Congress for billions of dollars in loan guarantees to back the construction of two new nuclear power plants in Texas, to be built by none other than Tokyo Electric Power Company. That would be the same company that built and managed the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.  

In the time scale of nuclear technology, however, nothing meaningful can be learned from thirty years without catastrophe. Hundreds of years of experience would be required to draw meaningful conclusions about the safety of the technology. But hundreds of years do not fit into human political time. No one in the Japanese nuclear industry contemplated an earthquake of an 8.9 magnitude, but this was not the biggest earthquake of the century. It was the fourth biggest. And a bigger occurred just six years ago off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, triggering a tsunami that killed 226,000 people in 12 countries. Fortunately, there were no nuclear power plants on those coasts. At the time, many commentators talked about how long it would take for the small-scale farmers and fishermen of the region to rebuild. The assumption was that a modern industrialized country like Japan could rebuild much more quickly, yet another mistaken assumption about technology, scale, and time. 

AlterNet / By Bob Ostertag

Posted at March 17, 2011, 2:59am

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