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.