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Brief update

I am up to my elbows in "The Apocalypse Codex", trying to get the first draft finished. (Only a couple of months late. Ho hum.) Blogging may consequently be a bit low key for the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, if you want one reasonably unimpeachable source of reliable news about that's going on at Fukushima Daiichi in the middle of a crazy media feeding frenzy, I'd recommend the IAEA Update on the Japan Earthquake web page. The IAEA is the International Atomic Energy Agency, an international monitoring organization — they don't run the plant but they do inspect and certify nuclear facilities, and this is their continuously updated report on situation, minus editorializing and newsroom attempts to drum up readership (because that's not their job).

25 Comments

1:

Thanks Charlie,

Not sure what I'll do without that tinge of hysteria in my news feed though.

That said, I still have this niggling suspicion that what's going on right now in Japan really does represent the best case scenario for nuclear power plant vs. large earthquake. Actually, it's probably the best-case scenario for first world vs. major disaster.

Nuclear power plants are designed to operate for decades, so the simple probability is that a plant is probably going to experience a disaster when it's old or outdated. This is especially true when, as is so common in the US, the plant has to work beyond its design life, and it incorporates design upgrades and fixes that add unpredictable complexities to dealing with disasters, from pipes and valves in the wrong places to pumps that fail the wrong way at the wrong time.

I'm not with those who think we should build away from earthquake faults. We can't. There's a reason why Mediterranean civilization developed around active faults and volcanic zones. The advantages (fertile soil, neat minerals near the surface, even more springs along earthquake faults) always outweigh the risks, except for those black swan days when they don't.

2:

I've been using the IAEA site as my primary information source about the reactor shutdown effort for several days now. I assume that the information there is highly reliable (which so far it seems to be), but is delayed by up to 12 to 24 hours because it goes from the engineers at Fukushima to the managers at TEPCO, then to the bureaucrats at the Japanese nuclear regulatory agency, and finally to officials at IAEA, who write updates to be put on their website. On the other hand, most of the information that's put out faster in news sources isn't very reliable. The New York Times has been more reliable than most, but they're faced with the same problem as all other news sources: they don't get much information, none in real-time. The reliability of any given news source depends on how much they are willing to make up to fill in that void; sadly, many of them are quite willing to say anything at all as long as it's sensational.

And so-called "experts" seem to be willing to say all kinds of things when a mike is shoved in front of them. One widely-quoted source said that a meltdown at Fukushima would be like "Chernobyl on steroids". This is clearly sensation-mongering; the Chernobyl disaster occurred in a reactor that was running full-tilt boogie as a result of a failure of the scram system; the resulting explosion was caused by a pulse of fission reaction that was many times more powerful than the operating power. All of the Fukushima reactors have been shut down, and the real danger now appears to be the spent fuel rods in the holding pools. They certainly could release radioactivity in a chemical or steam explosion if all the water in them evaporates, but it would be a relatively slow reaction. Chernobyl blew a large part of the mass of the reactor into the air, then burned, emitting radioactivity for days. That can't happen at Fukushima because the fuel can't get that hot that quickly and there isn't a large mass of flammable material.

3:

MIT's Nuclear Engineering Department is running a site that's both informative and has measured, intelligent analysis of latest updates, together with less of a time lag than the IAEA site.


http://mitnse.com/

4:

@heteromeles Isn't Fukushima Daini the best case? It's 9 miles down the road, and is in safe, stable condition. In other words, the pumps are keeping the moderator below boiling point.

5:

The only problem with the IAEA is that they're biased towards nuclear energy. _And_ highly political.

But it's probably still the best source we plebes have.

6:

I've seen one piece of hopeful news in the newspapers today -- that TEPCO are close to repairing a power cable that will bring enough grid juice back into Fukuyama Daiichi to power the primary pumps again (instead of the diesel powered emergency backups which don't seem to be up to the job). If that happens, they should be able to refill the cooling ponds and get the reactor cooling systems back on stream, and hopefully everything will come back under control.

7:

The IAEA are (a) not beholden to TEPCO or indeed to any particular nation's plant operators, and (b) they aren't a news organization with a vested interest in generating advertising click-throughs.

Oh, and (c) you know where their bias lies, going in, so you can evaluate what they're saying relatively easily.

It's like going to a police station blotter for your crime reports -- of course you're not going to see pro-burglar reports or accounts of police brutality, but on the other hand, if you're trying to get a handle on how many drunk-drivers were arrested yesterday, it's the best source.

8:

Your are quite correct with that.

9:

&rw wrote: 'The only problem with the IAEA is that they're biased towards nuclear energy. _And_ highly political.'

ARMS CONTROL WONK is a multi-person blog site that is knowledgable -- sometimes including the comments threads -- and is pulling no punches on its analysis/speculation, while possessing no particular pro-nuclear energy bias.

http://armscontrolwonk.com/

10:

It may be a trifle premature to be thinking about this, considering that Japan is very far from being over the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, but I just recalled a thread here in December in which Charlie asked "So how vulnerable to disruption is our modern globalized networked economy? Really?" Guess what? We get to answer that question big time over the next few months.

11:

slighty off topic: have any of you heard of 'earthquake storms' ? there was a doc program a while ago about it, clusters of earthquakes occuring along a fault, each triggered by the previuos one.
the region they were on about was the turkey fault- but this new zealand- japan- chile- ?
is san francisco next?

12:

The Japanese Atomic Industry Forum site http://www.jaif.or.jp/english/ gives a good regular factual update - no commentary though.

13:

I reckon I can believe the possibility of an "earthquake storm" in a district such as Turkey, or Japan itself. We had a second earthquake in Japan, a few hundred miles away. It might be "Hollywood disaster" even then. But I don't see it as plausible on a scale of a few thousand miles.


14:
The advantages [of living in earthquake zones] (fertile soil, neat minerals near the surface, even more springs along earthquake faults) always outweigh the risks

Consider, for example, such total living environment failures as Great Britain, or New England, or Brazil, or southern India.... (Or indeed pretty much the whole of Africa; where did we come from again?)

I suspect that a major part of the reason why so much of the human race lives in earthquake zones is that the majority of the planet's earthquake-free land is either too cold (Antarctica, Siberia, Canada) or too hot and dry (most of Africa and Australia) to support high population densities.

15:

And it has a cute furry animal at the top of the page.

16:

> I suspect that a major part of the reason why so much of the human race lives in earthquake zones is that the majority of the planet's earthquake-free land is either too cold (Antarctica, Siberia, Canada) or too hot and dry (most of Africa and Australia) to support high population densities.

Or too American, which is a pretty underpopulated continent, both in the Northern and Southern parts, for historical reasons.

17:

I've heard the concept, but it involved a number of quakes setting each other off along a major fault, or series of closely (on whole planetary terms, say within 100 miles of each other) related faults.

I don't think 3 majors this geographically removed from each other on the "ring of fire" in this timescale is anything more than co-incidence.

18:

Ummm, most hominid evolution took place in the Great Rift Valley, probably the most active end up around the Darfur depression. That's one of the most active geological areas on the planet, because east Africa is splitting off the rest of the continent.

Israel and the eastern Mediterranean is at another end of the same rift system. While iron (as mined in Britain) doesn't particularly benefit from seismic activity, things like copper, gold, silver, and lead certainly do.

Speaking as a Californian, the "problem" with transverse fault-lines is that they tend to block aquifers, meaning that springs tend to crop up along fault lines, and lakes tend to form in fault-carved valleys. Thus these areas are often the first ones to be settled. With mines nearby and lots of topographic diversity from the hilly landscape to support specialized farming, it makes for a nice place to live.

As for Britain and the eastern US, the humorous part is that, while that climate is eminently livable, oddly enough, people keep emigrating, and we're having trouble keeping industry going there too. Certainly you don't need seismic activity to have iron and coal, but these aren't sustainable resources.

Brazil...we'll see how long that lasts, and at what level (and note how much of that country's fertility comes from the Amazon river draining sediment from the geologically active Andes). Ditto with Australia. These are areas that have really developed in the last 100-200 years, and they're already running into major problems.

India is an interesting case, because while bits of it are old, the north is quite new and geologically active, where the Indian subcontinent is still ramming into the Himalayas. The biggest Indian rivers run out of those mountains and (correct me if I'm wrong), most people on the subcontinent live near these rivers.

So as I said, people tend to cluster in earthquake zones. We've made valiant attempts to get away from this the last few hundred years, but since we're in a non-sustainable civilization, it's an open question how long we'll be able to stay away.

Better to learn to live with quakes, I think.

19:

Speaking about reliable news I just went to what was my favourite print weekly from France Le Nouvel Observateur and in its headlines it has an article on how the current Japaneses disaster is shedding a new light on their current emergency measures. It quotes both the head of the gov agency and the head of the union of French nuclear workers. They say they've gone through a million different catastrophe scenarios in the past but none considered situations like Fukushima. For instance they never assumed that three reactors, or an entire station could be out at the same time.

It's the "together hand in hand the union and the government will have to work at this" stance.

I found it amusing that lower down they had a piece about Cohn-Bendit's reaction to the Japaneses crisis and its implications, from the Green point of view. Ah, Paris 1968, Cohn-Bendit, you never quite leave us no matter what.

They have a thorough coverage of the crisis. Tons of other articles which I only skimmed through. Much more so than the other French sources I checked.

This is why I've always liked Le Nouvel Observateur. They're less chauvinistic, less France-obsessed than the other Parisian sources.

20:

JvP: Your last attempt to comment on this thread has been moderated because it contains certain allegations against an individual that could land me in a world of hurt if said individual (a) became aware of such allegations in a public forum and (b) decided to sue the forum owner (me) for libel in an English court (under the current not-yet-amended libel law).

DON'T DO THAT AGAIN.

Do I make myself clear?

(For the peanut gallery: he referred to a senior academic as "a psychopath" and blamed them for damaging his career -- statements which are certainly actionable. Not to mention being totally off-topic ...)

21:

My geologist friends tells me that there is no statistical correlation between quakes on the west side of the ring of fire and the east side. There's also no increase in magnitude or frequency of quakes going on; we've simply been unlucky that recent large quakes/tsunamis have hit heavily populated areas (which becomes more likely as population grows).

22:

And also certainly false.

23:

Yes, Christchurch 2011 doesn't even count as 'major' in terms of energy involved, for instance.

24:

Yes, sir.

I prefer to remain the target of said person, I was wrong to put you at risk.

UK law differs from USA on that. Stupid of me to forget.

Won't happen again.

25:

People may keep emigrating from the UK and north-eastern US, but they keep immigrating to them as well, possibly because there are lots of jobs and opportunities to make money there. They're not exactly low-density populations. I can't speak for US regions, but UK population continues to trend steadily upwards faster than life-expectancy increases despite breeding at less than replacement rate. They're not exactly economically trivial regions, either.

Commenting that people in South America and (most of) India live near rivers that drain sediment from earthquake zones supports my point, not yours: those people are getting many of the benefits of earthquake zones without having to deal with any of the problems. Brazil has lots of problems, yes, but those are mostly to do with climate issues, overpopulation, and nasty habits like slash-and-burn ranching and government. Australia has some real issues with low fertility soil, yes, but modern agriculture is capable of working round that if there's a good reason to do so - the real killer is that it's a 3000x2000 mile rectangle with bugger-all rainfall away from the coast. If there isn't any water, it doesn't matter how good your soil is. Note that several major tectonically active regions - you mention the Andes and the Himalayas - are actually very poor for precisely this reason. The soil is beautifully rich in everything that you can get from a volcano - and flows off down those rivers you also mentioned because there isn't anything to hold it together in the mountains and stop it blowing away. It doesn't even wash away because there frequently isn't enough rain for that. (Or the 'rain' all comes as snow, and then melts in a huge flood at 0C, long before you could start trying to grow anything.) There's no organic matter in the soil, because there isn't any soil, because it doesn't stay long enough to grow anything; repeat ad infinitum.

Modern civilisation is indeed unsustainable in a lot of ways, but no-one has ever tried to increase the population density of the Himalayas or the Andes (earthquake zones) to levels that the Ganges basin has had for the last several thousand years....

Some earthquake zones are well-suited to human occupation; others, not so much. Earthquakes are only part of the problem.

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