Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Of Cabbages, and Kings

I was remarking to a friend the other day about the way that events tend to happen and louse-up the best laid plans. I was thinking, at the time, of the numerous occurrences that changed Bushco's great Asian adventures into General MacCrystal's 'bleeding ulcer'. And how the same things keep happening to stop Afghanistan from becoming the out and out success that some prognosticators say they're already seeing. I'm surprised that North Americans are still willing to invest their grandkids future on the chance that, one of these times, the Afghan dice will start coming up 7's or 11's. But this ain't exactly like just tossing dice. With a dawdling to non-existant economic recovery - unless you're counting the massive sales of paper that did so much for stock portfolios prior to the last crash, and some other crises lingering on the near horizon - I'm surprised the 'cut the losses' crowd hasn't been more vocal. Or, could it be, that those losses are now so massive that they're in the 'too large to....' category?

Japan has been having its problems too, economically and, lately, politically - there doesn't seem to be any one strong method being put forward to advance the place. But those problems pale to some insignificance when one considers the events that have occurred  there in the last four days. "Catastrophe" comparable to WW2 -  it's being called and World War 2 was not gentle on Japan. But, thank goodness, such  massive damage seems to be fairly localized. What may not be as local, and certainly more long lasting, are the potential effects of a catastrophe all on its own at one of the Japanese nuclear generators. The Earthquake did minor damage to the installation, as did the ensuing Tsunami - even though the atomic station is built right on the coast. The damage the tsunami did do howver seems to have been mortal - it knocked out the main diesel generators. Without these, the pumping system that cools the reactors couldn't be operated properly. The earthquake may have damaged the reactors themselves too, for it triggered their automatic shut-down processes. That shut-down was incomplete when the tsunami struck and stopped it completely. The cores started heating, sea water was deployed as an emergency coolant. First one, then a second reactor, then three and their containing buildings suffered  violent explosions. This was written off to a build-up of hydrogen in the building which, I guess wasn't being vented - but the explosion was markedly violent enough - being 'felt' some 25 KM away -  that a gas build-up in a light building was probably not the only cause. As we write, Japan could be on its way to giving Chernobyl a run for the money. The lids are off three reactors in which the core has been exposed, it's not cooling any more and a fourth is now 'on fire'.

One of the safety features of atomic power generation, about which I think we've all been led up the garden path, is that, once the reaction process has been started, it can be shut down a) rapidly and b) safely. What we're seeing in Japan is that, under a worst case scenario, the best prescription might be that old saw about 'bending over and kissing your ass good-bye'. Shutting down an atomic reaction in 'an emergency' takes weeks, if not longer, and it has to be carefully staged and executed, two things the 'need' for immediate safety  might very well preclude.

Another consideration I think is important, is that building such inherently dangerous and delicate systems on a seismic fault line might not be a full application of conventional wisdom. Add to that, the wisdom of building one at sea level beside the sea, or beside any large water body that could be affected by a seismic event enough to generate a 'tsunami', or even just a large wave, without some robust precautions to minimize the effect of water damage. Neither of those are evident in the Japanese situation.

If there is a good thing coming out of this it is that, at least, the Japanese seem to have worked effectively to minimize the deleterious effects on near-by residents. Evacuations seemed to timely and efficient, considering the other problematic situations abounding. Unless, of course, as seems to be the developing case, there has been some of that 'face-saving' going on and this 'minor difficulty' is turning into something potentially worse than either of the natural events that gave rise to it. The atomic 'crisis' has not yet reached a climax.

Almost as a 'microcosm' in comparison, it seems,  is the other 'little' tragedy of the week, going on in Libya. It would appear that Gaddafi has regained his composure, and is now set to 'take back' what the 'rebels' grabbed. For all their encouragement, and/or bluster, nobody seems willing to get more involved as Gaddafi cleans things up. We'll have to see what happens this week, as NATO, the EU, the Arab League, the African Union, and America's 'resolve' seems to melt away like a highwayful of AAA pick-up trucks. It could be that destroying the rebels ammunition dump was the smartest move yet. It certainly seems to have been a game changer. Thank goodness they don't have any atomic plants, like the Iranians or Israelites, sitting smack dab on top of a potential Japanese experience.

It's good that we don't know about some things. FAP!

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