Getting back to normal

I’ve spent the past week and a bit in a stupor, trying to wrap my head around the triple-threat disaster unfolding in Japan. It’s grim stuff, the kind of thing that makes reasonably good backplot to any number of anime stories (seems like we’ve maybe been down this road before, no?), and the scale was just incomprehensible. There’s a not-insignificant part of me that wonders if the devastation here felt more surreal, and more awful, because of my connections to Japan and my love for the country; I’ve never been to, for instance, Haiti or New Zealand or Chile, so I can’t really comprehend the scale of the disaster that befell those countries. Nor could I really get a handle on the devastation following the Indonesian earthquake and subsequent tsunami — southeast Asia was too foreign for me. This might be something we could term “first-world disaster privilege,” as though we only really understand disasters when they happen to people who are sufficiently like us — but then, I don’t really get why the Christchurch earthquake didn’t inspire those feelings of dread and horror.

I watched NHK more or less continuously for about a week, fell asleep on more than one occasional watching it on my iPhone (there is, in fact, an app for that!), and things finally seem to be calming down. I worry continuously that the events (and largely theoretical consequences of those events) at Fukushima Daiichi are going to overshadow the very real earthquake and tsunami (and largely very real consequences of both); to a degree, this has already happened, though I note a certain amount of pushback on the subject from various outlets. As the situation begins to stabilize, the world turns its attention elsewhere, and I know that I’m feeling better about it to, because I’m beginning to throw things again.

I’ve had a lot of problems with Salon’s nuclear reporting. Well, let’s back up: I’ve had a lot of problems with most peoples’ nuclear reporting. What isn’t poorly done is sensationalistic, and what isn’t sensationalistic is lazy. I knew we were in for it when BBC hauled out someone from the Plowshares Institute on one of the early days of the crisis, but Tom Engelhart’s post on Salon, crossposted from his own site, is probably the single worst piece of “journalism” you could find on the subject. I don’t say that lightly. It’s really, really awful.

I should disclose at this point that I have my own biases on this subject. I am as big a supporter of nuclear power as one can find that doesn’t involve money changing hands. There isn’t anything that strikes me as being particularly immoral or dangerous or foolish about a power source that promises to get us a good portion of the way towards energy independence, and to do so in a clean, non-greenhouse-gas producing way. We need to be clear about this: much like people who crow about “deficit reduction” without considering revenue increases, anyone who seriously thinks we can solve global warming without using nuclear power has basically forfeited all credibility on the subject. Anti-nuclear sentiment usually ends up being emotional rather than technical, and to the extent that there is a technical argument it’s primarily about waste, and that comes down to a political issue. (Most nuclear “waste” isn’t waste at all, but rather fuel that needs to be recycled into new fuel, through technologies and processes that we understand and can make use of; what’s left can either be transmuted from the high-activity isotopes down to less worrying stuff, and what’s left after that can probably fit in a gallon-sized bucket, and that stuff can be buried.) Solving global warming without using nuclear seems to come down to, at the end, wishing really hard that other people will sacrifice their standards of living to appease your own personal choices, and, well, if that’s your strategy — I wish you lots of luck with that.

But let’s get off the soapbox, and back to Engelhart’s article. Set aside, for the moment, the rather flippant way that he conflates nuclear weapons and nuclear power. (The jig is up as soon as he starts talking about annihilation during the Cold War. Lookit, “reactor =! bomb.” Let’s move on, shall we?) That’s bad, but what’s worse is Engelhart’s bizarre idea that no one wants to consider the worst possible scenario: a full-scale melt of Fukushima Daiichi’s fuel, and what that might mean for the rest of the world. The answer is, incidentally, probably nothing — as anyone who has done even elementary research on the design of both the RBMK and BWR reactors could tell you. What made Chernobyl bad, on a great many levels, was a combination of: a lack of containment, which was destroyed in a wholly conventional explosion, followed by a highly flammable moderator (graphite) that caught on fire, thus spewing smoke filled with exceptionally radiologically dirty fuel particles over a protracted period of time.

None of which was ever very likely to happen in Fukushima, or was even able to happen in Fukushima. The reactor design precludes it. What we’ve ended up with, it seems (and here I must wander out into the forest and bang on a good many trees), is a somewhat messier version of Three Mile Island. Which, as I recall, killed very few people. This, however, does not make very good copy. And radiation is inherently unhinging — it is very difficult to get people to talk about it in a rational manner, despite the fact that we desperately need to have a rational conversation about it.

And in any event, there’s been plenty of discussion about the worst case at Fukushima. It’s just that the vast majority of people who’ve been asked aren’t the ones who are likely to go around screaming about glowing green radioactive death, for the simple reason that it wasn’t very likely. This, more than anything else, is what pisses me off about this kind of writing: the writers just assume that the risks are unknowable, and therefore unquantifiable, and therefore very very scary. And that’s just not true — we know exactly how bad things could get at Fukushima. We knew exactly how bad things could get at Chernobyl, too, once we understood the magnitude of what was going on. (Remember, the Soviets denied anything had happened until Swedish researchers picked up a bit too much fission byproduct during a survey a couple of days later, thus forcing Moscow’s hand.) After about Day 6, it was pretty obvious that, barring something truly bizarre and unexpected, this wasn’t going to rise to the same level, never mind get dramatically worse. So the reason that Engelhart’s “worst case scenario” doesn’t get talked about in the media isn’t conspiracy — it’s because it’s not actually a scenario at all. It’s a fantasy.

To be fair, there is something to be gained from talking about a “worst case scenario.” So let’s talk about it — let’s suppose that somehow there is a catastrophic release of radioactive material that then goes and contaminates huge swaths of Japan and the surrounding ocean. Let’s further suppose that the wind shifts in such a way as to carry large quantities of radioactive contaminants all over Tokyo, crapping up (this is the technical term) a significant part of the city. Would there be problems? Sure. Would this still be on par with nuclear devastation in the Cold War? Of course not. What it would look like is something along the lines of Goiania, but with more people and better preparation on the part of the to-be-contaminated. Would we be abandoning Tokyo forever? Probably not, though doubtless a good number of people would freak out and try to leave — and they wouldn’t even necessarily be irrational for having decided to do so! It would not, however, represent the end of Japanese civilization as we know it.

We can, and probably should, talk about the existential risks we face in day-to-day life. Like Engelhart, I grew up with the painful and terrible notion that it could end more or less at any time. The Republican Party’s nostalgia for Reagan always inspires in me a fear that this might have been the guy who started World War III more or less for fun, and to this day bright flashes of light — whether it’s lightning, sunlight glinting off a car windshield, a flashbulb going off, or an old-fashioned lightbulb burning out when I flip the switch — produce a very, very transient sense of anxiety as I wait for the blast that would inevitably follow. We should talk about the dread fears that the loss of one of the world’s major cities might have upon all of us. But you don’t do this in the news — you do this through fiction. Coming to terms with this has been an interesting process, and many of us who were convinced we weren’t going to get out of the 1980s alive have had to find other things to worry about when we can’t sleep: global warming, asteroids, gamma ray bursts (hey, there’s something for people to freak out about! extra-terrestrial and radioactive!), that kind of thing. Some are more realistic than others. Some have solutions. Others don’t. You pick your battles and fight the ones you can win.

At the end of the day, Fukushima is probably not going to be the death knell for nuclear power, and for that I am supremely grateful. No less than George Monbiot, someone whose writing I’ve made fun of in the past, wrote a striking article for The Guardian on Monday that might represent the first time I’ve ever agreed with him. It’s really amazing. You should go read it, because it is probably the lesson that real environmentalists — as opposed to lifestyle fetishists — should be drawing from Fukushima. What happened in Japan was not a demonstration of the dangers of nuclear power but rather its safety: an old plant survived an earthquake it was not designed to survive, then got run over by a tidal wave it wasn’t intended to survive, and still nothing hugely catastrophic happened to anyone much beyond the main gates of the site. Seriously?! It’s hugely impressive. It should make everyone feel better.

Why it won’t — that’s something worth talking about and exploring.