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Jonathan Wolfman

Jonathan Wolfman
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Maryland, Northwest of The District,
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January 26
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MARCH 17, 2011 6:57AM

Odd What Japan Now Conjures In Me

Rate: 18 Flag

     Oddly, the deeply compromised Japanese nuclear plants put me in mind of a far, far less dire structural failure I lived through in 1970. So strange how our emotions work in us. I suppose they tend to analogize from our experience even when comparisons aren't apt at all. Nonetheless, inapt memories are just what especially horrific situations that befall others can sometimes work in us.

     Just before my second year at Penn I'd foolishly moved from an ages-old, long-beloved, comparatively spartan Quad into a new, sparkling hi-rise dorm. I'd bought the hype. Just after Mr. Hendrix died that mid-September and Ms. Joplin sixteen days later, my new, sage, lottery-determined suite-mates declared over dinner that those twin deaths presaged our own and others', and soon, and that the clear and only way to ward it off would be to "listen to the Dead, man". And so they, more than 'high on cocaine', played Casey Jones in such an  endless loop that I couldn't listen to the band for perhaps five years after graduation. But they were nearly right...man. 

     Our new concrete and glass tower didn't feel too wobbly until one night that November when, at about three of a Sunday morning, those pesky prevailing westerlies rushed east across southern Pennsylvania and easily sucked out the floor-to ceiling windows on the dorm's top floor. They crashed down from the commons rooms to Walnut Street below, where we walked every day. The only reason people on the ground didn't die, of course, was the time the gusts decided to do their fierce work. The winds, I heard later, wouldn't have done that to a proper building. Again perhaps inaptly, Japan now has me thinking of that jolting wake-up. We are, in ways, at times emotionally limited to comparisons from experience. And so, as you are, I'm thinking a lot again about how buildings are built, especially ones housing nuclear poisons.

     I've been of two minds as to nuclear energy since the March, '79 Three Mile Island breach about a hundred miles west of Philadelphia, my hometown. On one hand, the memory of the Near East oil embargo was young. On the other, we all knew that the winds move across Pennsylvania west to east. My students, I recall clearly, were deeply affected. As you know, TMI avoided a full core melt-down. Japan may not. I have questions and qualms, as you do, about the 104 plants in the United States. We know that half of them are thirty-or-more-years-old. I am not, as I'm guessing you're not, interested in continuing to rely on one or another kind of despot for oil. And like you, I know that even were all our offshore and land-based wells magically to start gushing today, that wouldn't answer. There's just far too much energy consumption here and far too little oil. I also know that despite the President's push for alternatives, there are far too many whose fortunes lie in energy-politics gridlock.

     For now, then, I ask you for only the beginnings of answers. I can think of only one, now, and it's partial, at best. I'll phrase it as a question. Why on earth would we, if we, as we surely will, decide to continue on with these plants, keep online the two we do have on California fault lines?  I'm skeptical, at best, of that wisdom. Raise a hand if you've had this thought this week. As for me, I'll surely have the recurring uncomfortable dream tonight, however  radically lighter my memory is from the reality in Japan. I'll be crashing down to Walnut Street amid enormous shards of glass. Memory just does some very odd work.

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What do you think as to this form of energy?

What, if anything, does this horror in Japan re-waken in you?
Proud and honored to be the first to comment.

Philadelphia has been a third home to me, and I know whereof the place You mention. I, also, went often to downtown, PA, for (steak sandwiches and) the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

NJ/NY is my first home, the City by the Bay the second (where minor ripples from the earthquake, here, have been reported.

As for here, rolling blackouts, have proven to be ineffective, so TOTAL blackouts are contemplated.

As for the radiation, knowledgeable experts say, we are only in the first inning.

Last night, there were "aftershocks" of 5.2, 5.7, and 7.1

Food prices have spiked, and the shelves are, already, bare.


-R-
PS - that should be cheese steak sandwiches.
although i am in vegas now, i do know the san onofre nuclear plant is in or near san diego. we have yucca mountain here. i know that is not a nuclear plant, but who knows what would happen if we had an 8.9 quake here or in california. i was in the northridge quake which was pretty strong, but nowhere near as strong as what hit japan. i find the whole thing very scary, and i wish we could get rid of these nuclear plants and find another form of energy which is a lot safer while also being green. i don't think i am over-reacting to what happened in japan. it could happen here. there are many parts of the country that are long overdue for a major quake. i hope it's not arrogance on the part of our government that says our plants are safe. i don't think any plant is totally safe.
Look at:
http://www.counterpunch.org/stclair03162011.html

It's about time the country woke up to the quality of current leadership that is leading it into the various ways of national destruction, from the disintegration of basic social services and Constitutional rights to the shifting of the mass of national wealth to those least interested in the quality of life of the average citizen and most eager to secure as much for themselves.

The atomic energy system is especially vulnerable to the desire for wealth at the sacrifice of the safety of the country. Although the operation of the energy facilities themselves theoretically are pollution free there are very frequently leakages of dangerous radioactive materials at plants that should be retired at their original retirement dates but corruption and outright lying as to their safety has persuaded the energy control bureaucracy to ignore the dangers. Radioactivity is not anything to play coy games with. As the current Japanese situation clearly illustrates even danger at one plant can cause horrific catastrophe for millions of people and this is not a danger a nation should tolerate. There are many things that Obama has brought about that deserve clear analysis and proper criticism but the consequences of his advocacy of entrusting the safety of the country to a group whose main interest is profit and not safety and whose engineers have proven themselves time and again to not up to properly standards is reckless in the extreme.
Watching Three Mile Island as a young woman was enough to make me decide I never wanted it. I've also been complaining about the storage of all the spent fuel, I'm assuming it's evenly spread throughout the US, even in places there aren't reactors. I don't know how much of it is stored or if it's monitored on a schedule those who live near it might like. How would people know, perhaps a decade later when a large percentage of the population had a certain type of cancer.

It's going to be a drag when people start finding out this stuff is leaking near where they live but such is life. Others are more willing to have horrible things happen to them and live in decimated areas. I'm a whiner, I want no radiation poisoning or cancer.
I do not like it it scares me and the fact they have put it on fault lines boggles my mind.
Rated with hugs
I think we have enough crude to last a few decades. The problem is in extracting crude and refining it. Politics and lobbyists from all sides of the aisle continue to argue that we don't have enough oil and this is false.

The problem with energy consumption is in production costs and distribution. When we have blackouts, it's supposedly due to overages caused by massive consumptions to certain grid areas. If that's true, then why aren't we updating our grids to support this?

Meltdowns occur when backup generators fail to work properly.
Speculation is why our prices are skyrocketing. Any time our world farts, does this cause chaos? Yes. Any time our stock markets fart. does this cause chaos? Yes.

It's not shocking that prices of consumables are rising rapidly. Media hype helps maintain the steady rise via propaganda.
I hope Mark is OK.

There are a few separate issues here. From what I understand of the nuclear plant problems in Japan, part of the problem is from the quakes and part of the problem is from the tsunami, which took out their ability to power the pumps in the cooling system. Building a plant on a fault line here is certainly stupid but the consequences of a quake might be a little less dire than we've seen if they're inland.

Overall, there's the corruption issue and the technical issue. Corruption can flat-out sink us on an issue like this - if we tolerate being sold down the river for greed, which is to say if the government permits lax standards because people are lied to and/or paid off, this sort of thing can kill us as surely as playing politics with dike construction in Louisiana killed so many when Katrina hit. Of course, corruption is sinking the US in so many ways at once that I wouldn't know where to begin.

The technical issue is that most current energy alternatives are inadequate. Coal involves local environmental damage, global warming, and enough health issues that it's done substantially more harm to the US than nuclear has so far. Hydro is limited to certain locations and turns out to endanger fish because it interrupts rivers for purposes like spawning, plus the dams alter the land around rivers. Wind is intermittent, large, and noisy, and there are places that won't tolerate wind farms for those reasons. Solar isn't cost-effective yet. Oil has a lot of the disadvantages of coal plus the additional one of enriching dictatorships when we buy it. Natural gas is better but less portable and it's still a fossil fuel, so global warming is still an issue. Nuclear has the disadvantage of potentially causing the most damage but has the advantage of a track record in the US involving less damage than fossil fuels so far.

What's the solution? Truthfully? Win elections, by large enough margins to really affect policy. That's getting harder, because the deck is progressively being stacked more and more against us.
I have been, and will continue to be, adamantly opposed to nuclear power plants. It makes no sense why we would consider the continuation of this energy source when we have one right overhead that is 100% pure, clean energy: the sun. No toxic waste to dump from that, but we still don't want to utilize it to its fullest potential.
We have the technology, but not the will power. And, no, I don't that will change because of Japan. It didn't change because of Chernobyl, it won't because of Fukushima. I read this morning that the fall out is expected to reach Southern California by this weekend. This also affects the supply of ocean life that we eat as the fall out will dissipate over the Pacific.
Raz I haven't read abt the effects on SoCal. Where'd you read that?
kosh thanks for your comprehensive response
Thanks for Your concern, Kosh.

The State department is airlifting americans out of the country in the mainland.

Oh, to be in the mainland, NOW.
Linda boggles my mind, too.
L'heure nor do I. Thank you.
I have read all the comments. The thing is once again greed, big business. Who in their right mind would put a functioning nuclear plant near a fault line, yet they exist. What should be done is a close look at all kinds of energy and energy creating apparatus, and a think tank work to determine which should be pursued and which discontinued.http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2011-03-16/nuclear-power-plants-ranking-americas-most-vulnerable/ This piece of writing is appropriate to help you understand what areas are most vulnerable and why in the US. It is clear to me after reading this, that like Germany, we should be closely looking at what we can shut down, how soon, where we might be able to keep open with improvements, etc. Nothing created by man is static. We have to have the ability to recognize the beginning, middle and end of ideas and why we must change and evolve. I was in Indianapolis last weekend, on the way home on I-65 we drove through miles of energy windmills clustered and scattered in the countryside apparently along a natural wind corridor. Farming appeared to be taking place around them. Ugly? Not sure. Perhaps prettier than a nuclear meltdown. We have some fairly bright people in this country and more in the rest of the world, we need to be engaging with each other to solve world problems, not create them. We need to stop being close friends with dictators whom some here now want to emulate for big oil, we need to think, not just outside of the box, but in it, the one we have created for ourselves.

The horror this awakens in me is not my own, but the memory of nuclear disaster all over the world, and how when we have knowledge to create something so powerful, we cannot forget that like a child, it must be watched, fed, taken care of in order to reach its full potential, and that our neglect, like the neglect of our children will have bad consequences for many reasons, in many ways, for many more than just us.

The Mayan prophecy is hoo ha for many. When things like this happen and we don't know what to do to stop it, yet other countries, including our own continue to do it, and keep their fingers crossed, it (the hoo ha) starts to have some legs to stand on. What can we do to change that? Contact the president and tell him what happened in Japan is not isolated. It can happen here and in fact will, if the 'ring of fire' continues to 'ignite'.
When building these things, they are supposed to figure in every scenario. Obviously, they didn't figure on an earthquake and a tsunami and the back up generators and batteries. Should they have? You damn skippy and it's GE fault, they designed them and built them. I saw a "nuclear expert" say the plants in California are built to withstand a 7.4 earthquake. God forbid we have one that is 7.5~
bobbies it seems less wise to me every day
sheila hoo-ha or no, these incidents give credence even to the outlandish, yes.
scanner yes; Gd forbid
Mark stay only well, friend.
Small tsunami waves hit Washington State coast

http://www.trentonian.com/articles/2011/03/11/news/doc4d7a669b8dd17513500201.txt
Small tsunami waves hit Washington State coast

http://www.trentonian.com/articles/2011/03/11/news/doc4d7a669b8dd17513500201.txt
mark ty for the add'l information
It hasnt gone unnoticed by us English that the French have large banks of their nuclear power stations on the coast nearest to the UK mainland either.
I favour wind power based in the sea - we are a windy 3rd world island after all.
I am certainly not a nuclear engineer but I am most curious as to why the spent fuel rods in the Japanese installation are stored in a pool of water located in a building placed on top of the working nuclear reactor. If something goes wrong with the reactor (and it did) the hugely radioactive spent fuel rods which have inflammable zirconium casings will burst into flame when the explosion from the hydrogen created in the reactor explodes and causes the cooling water in the stored fuel rod pool to leak away and expose the rods to the air (which is what happened). What kind of moronic reasoning would put such dangerous material where an accident could cause it to spray radioactive material across a wide swathe of the countryside? If this is the intellectual standard of engineering that General Electric displayed in Japan what other interesting screw-ups are present in the working reactors in the USA designed by GE?
i've read a few of the responses. i think the meltdowns are happening because there is no electricity and no way to cool down the reactors. this is what i have read. as for calif, the radiation is expected to be minimal. one friend said probably no more radiation than we get when we get a tooth x-rayed.

most of the waste is now sitting in yucca mountain. we will be getting no more there. we have more than our fair share now. however, i read that the waste goes by rail and goes thru manhattan and downtown chicago and the heartland, and then i forget where. to me, this is a disaster waiting to happen. is there even a way to get rid of nuclear waste? we were told that whatever is in yucca mountain will be safe for a million years. who now will be alive in a million or even a hundred years to know if this is true? personally, i think it's more bs.

a good quake can do a lot of damage. i really don't know if the tsunami hurt the power there. i lived in calif during the 1994 quake, which was bad, but way smaller than japan. our power went out too. why does japan have so many nuclear plants when they are so prone to these large quakes? i don't understand that.

as for our politics here re making the rich richer, i hate to tell these rich people that if reactors here do what they are doing in japan, their money won't help them a damn bit. you can run, but you can't hide. i don't understand politicians who don't use their brains. scientists can have their own agenda, and it's not always in our best interests. why can't a politician figure out that nuclear plants are dangerous? we have quake faults all over the united states. i'm not sure there is a state without one. why take the chance of a big quake occurring and people dying as a result of radiation in the air and food and water. this is not about democrats v. republicans. this is about humanity and if we care enough about human beings and all things that grow in this country to make sure they are not so polluted, they are no longer safe - humans will get sick and die, and our food and water won't be fit to eat.
jan excellent questions
i've read a few of the responses. i think the meltdowns are happening because there is no electricity and no way to cool down the reactors. this is what i have read. as for calif, the radiation is expected to be minimal. one friend said probably no more radiation than we get when we get a tooth x-rayed.

most of the waste is now sitting in yucca mountain. we will be getting no more there. we have more than our fair share now. however, i read that the waste goes by rail and goes thru manhattan and downtown chicago and the heartland, and then i forget where. to me, this is a disaster waiting to happen. is there even a way to get rid of nuclear waste? we were told that whatever is in yucca mountain will be safe for a million years. who now will be alive in a million or even a hundred years to know if this is true? personally, i think it's more bs.

a good quake can do a lot of damage. i really don't know if the tsunami hurt the power there. i lived in calif during the 1994 quake, which was bad, but way smaller than japan. our power went out too. why does japan have so many nuclear plants when they are so prone to these large quakes? i don't understand that.

as for our politics here re making the rich richer, i hate to tell these rich people that if reactors here do what they are doing in japan, their money won't help them a damn bit. you can run, but you can't hide. i don't understand politicians who don't use their brains. scientists can have their own agenda, and it's not always in our best interests. why can't a politician figure out that nuclear plants are dangerous? we have quake faults all over the united states. i'm not sure there is a state without one. why take the chance of a big quake occurring and people dying as a result of radiation in the air and food and water. this is not about democrats v. republicans. this is about humanity and if we care enough about human beings and all things that grow in this country to make sure they are not so polluted, they are no longer safe - humans will get sick and die, and our food and water won't be fit to eat.
Jon, I'll be returning to this all day for the comments - as well as your piece. Thank you.
♥R
I have always been horrified at the nuclear energy. To me, it is the ultimate Faustian bargain we've made. When a uranium-packed fuel rod gives six years!!! of use, but hundreds of thousands of years of radioactive danger to humans, isn't it very clear that's too high a price??
As for solutions, therein lies the conundrum,but the price for humans and the Earth with just "taking out the trash" of nuclear energy is just too high!!!!!!!! (In my humble opinion)
It may not burn fossil fuels and contribute to that type of polution but the damage done by the waste is just as bad since it is around for much longer and the potential damage of a melt down should put it off the list of options not to mention the extremely high cost which means there should be no reason for it at all.

To put it bluntly using it on a large scale is insane!
JustTh ty for pointing out what a losing ratio that is.
Zach I wonder how the French feel abt this, as dependent on nuclear energy as thay are; of course, they're not on fault lines as is CA
I have to say I am not and never have been a fan of nuclear power, even as I reluctantly concede we may have to rely on them to a degree, given our appetite for energy consumption. Even a new plant that is scrupulously run and maintained results in an awful lot of toxic goop over its useful life. And when something goes wrong with one, say in TMI, Chernobyl and now Japan, it goes spectacularly wrong, endangering the health of people for miles around.

I'd like to see us do more with solar and wind power--and to keep researching more clean alternatives. Why green technology has gotten so little of the Research and Development pie? My inner cynic argues that those who'd like us to see us remain reliant on oil, coal and nuclear energy might have a vested interest in making sure we don't explore clean energy too vigorously.

Of course, I'm delighted to know that here in California, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear power plant, built perilousy near an earthquake fault, is in the competent hands of PG&E who brought us the spectacular fireball which was once San Bruno, and whom we know to be vigilant about Public Safety.

rated
Food for thought, Jon. Afraid I'm not knowledgeable enuf to know what we should do - which is part of the problem, I guess. We almost have to trust the "experts." A little harder to do that these days.
Just as a general question about the nature of the spent fuel rods that puzzles me. I doubt anyone here can answer but the danger is that without cooling water they generate heat and can eventually ignite and burn up if not cooled. That clearly indicates they can generate some form of energy even outside the reactor which becomes heat, and this goes on for centuries. Isn't this possibly useful energy? Throwing them away seems rather odd.
shiral hope you never have to run for the hills
jan it's a good question!
matt yes; far tougher, now
The French are subsidizng it heavily according to some recent reports I've heard. It is driving their taxes through the roof so they're paying one way or another.
"What, if anything, does this horror in Japan re-waken in you?"

FEAR! I survived the Loma Prieta Quake of 1989. I was at the World Series game in San Francisco. It was "only" a 6.9, and it took out the Bay Bridge, and liquefied parts of the Marina district. It only lasted 15-20 seconds, but pancaked double decker freeways and killed around 65 people. We were literally traumatized. My voice shook for two months after the experience. Imagine, if anyone can what a 9.0, five-minute tremor would do there. Then add a nuclear meltdown. I'm afraid I WON"T die if it happened here!

Lezlie
Leslie I can understand the sentiment, tho I'm sure I'd want to survive
"Energy-politics gridlock." In there lies the crux of the matter. You said it.

Yes, I am living on the San Andreas fault, however, other than one nuclear plant in Eureka up north near the Oregon border, all others, about 5 I believe, are in Southern California. Not good. At all. What can we say or do to change this? The possible answers are so fraught with "buts," that no one can scarcely finish a sentence. I love my state, but it is in a direct line with "The Ring of Fire." top to bottom and all the way to Alaska, but it is what it is. Someday, we will get another "big" earthquake, north or south and one of them will likely affect one or more of the nuclear facilities of which you speak. Like you, I wish there was a magic switch to make all of this go away, if other energy solutions were directly in hand. But they will take years and years, dragged out legislation, environmentalists who will stop at nothing to stop anything that disturbs a beetle or a sprout (and I am all about saving the environment by any means possible, within reason...which conjures disturbing definitions, whereby there are so many opposing interpretations...).
The reawakening since this horrific occurrence in Japan is mind blowing, many tearful minutes while watching the disintegration of a viable country and its utter devastation and loss of life...One can only pray for those in power to see what is happening globally, form a more singular mind for the sake of our planet and work faster to make the changes that make our world and our lives safer and healthier. A very tall order.
Cathy thanks for this I thought of you and other Open folks in CA when this happened
Naomi I think we all do now. TY.
Any first step in our future energy policies should include conservation. That is and has been ignored for a long time. Somehow a large segment of the population thinks they need to drive ever larger SUV's and pickups. One of the main causes of our recent economic problems was they proliferation of huge, energy hogging homes, often for single folks or couples with no children. When many of the purchasers of these McMansions found they could not pay for them the bubble burst!
It is time for a new paradigm! Alternative energy and conservation are the only near term solutions available.
dick think we'll do it?
This discussion has been very interesting and educating for me so far.
Jon,
Nice piece. I agree - lets rethink use of nuclear plants placed on faultlines, lets rethink nuclear power as a whole. As an architect, I have absolute confidence in the force of mother nature to overcome with ease any and all the safeguards that engineers and architects design into buildings. Natural and man made disasters will always trump engineering and architecture - who could have predicted the combination of and earthquake and tsunami when the power plants were designed? The collapse of the World Trade Center towers was another unpredictable situation - it wasnt the impact of the planes that toppled them - it was a failure of designing a connection between the floor trusses and the walls to be sufficiently fire resistant so that they would not fail so completely - it could have been accomplished - but who would have thought of it at the time of design? These structures are designed against worst case scenario situations, but what happens when the actual worst case exceeds the anticipated worst case - like with the oil spill in Louisiana - if these engineered structures fail, no one knows exactly what to do- that is the frightening part- especially when dealing with radioactive uranium- that is a material so deadly toxic - we should not be handling it at all - because for all the safeguards that make these reactors so called fool proof - what happens when the unpredictible actually occurs>?