Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Headlines we won’t be seeing [update 2]

Reports of those who died in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami continue to rise. As blogger John Cook says, it’s only natural to only see the people who died and not the people who did not. [Hat tip Gus Van Horn.] But let’s look at the other side of that coin and consider a headline we won’t be seeing but should:

Engineers save millions of lives in Japan

Sure, we’ve seen headlines around the traps that Building Codes Saved Lives. But the techniques embodied in those building codes don’t just spring out of the ground fully grown, to be plucked when desired by well-meaning bureaucrats. They’re ingenious techniques invented by heroic men and women who saved millions of lives in Japan, and thousands of lives in Christchurch. (Techniques which in a more rational society would, and should have been progressively required by insurance companies keen to minimise the risk for what they insure.)

So let’s pause for a moment to thank those heroic but unsung men and women: the seismic engineers whose ingenuity saves lives.

Here’s another headline we won’t be seeing:

Thousands of people did not die mining coal to generate electricity that powers Japan. [Hat tip John Cook]

And another we fortunately won’t see:

Earthquake destroys hydro dam killing thousands downstream.

And another:

Tsunami hits solar farm sweeping tonnes of lead and cadmium telluride across cities and into the sea. [Hat tip Berend]

And another, which few newscasters would ever run:

Irrational scaremongering about nuclear fallout scaring already tragically hard-hit people.

As Josef Oehmen comments, “Nuclear safety and journalistic meltdown - I wish we could build containments for both.”

Fortunately, we at least have nuclear containment vessels, something of which few journalists seem aware. Containment vessels which Chernobyl did NOT have (where up to 50 died), but which Three Mile Island DID have (where nobody died).

So while Japan has been hit with the deadliest natural event to ever hit a modern industrialised country, the modern media is instead obsessed with a fantasy.

For more sense on the problems facing the damaged nuclear reactors, for which you will need only some very basic physics, try these:

  • “If a meltdown does occur in Japan, it will be a disaster for the Tokyo Electric Power Company but not for the general public. Whatever steam releases occur will have a negligible impact. Researchers have spent 30 years trying to find health effects from the steam releases at Three Mile Island and have come up with nothing. With all the death, devastation and disease now threatening tens of thousands in Japan, it is trivializing and almost obscene to spend so much time worrying about damage to a nuclear reactor.
    ”What the Japanese earthquake has proved is that even the oldest containment structures can withstand the impact of one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history.”
    Japan Does Not Face Another Chernobyl – W A L L  S T R E E T  J O U R N A L
  • “There was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity.
    ”By ‘significant’ I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.”
    Fukushima Nuclear Accident – a simple and accurate explanation 
    – Dr Josef Oehmen, T H E   E N E R G Y   C O L L E C T I V E

Send a copy to every journalist you know.

UPDATE: In response to Dr Josef Oehmen’s original post, his employers at the Mass. Institute of Technology have begun setting up an information hub on the nuclear situation in Japan.This you really must  send to your journalist friends: http://mitnse.com/

UPDATE 2: Another very good piece at Bad Astronomy [thanks to a reader for the link]:

Japan’s nuclear reactor overreaction – B A D  A S T R O N O M Y
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant … is facing a crisis with its reactors. While this situation is serious, let me be very clear: we are notfacing a nuclear explosion, nor are we facing the release of a huge, deadly radioactive cloud (more on both of these below). The fear-mongering and misinformation on the web and in the news is rampant, and the last thing we need is people panicking because of it! The news is bad enough without exaggeration of it…
    Here’s what happened…


  1. I don't quite agree that there's no chance of significant radiation contamination if there is a total meltdown ... but even so, what's the worst case scenario? That nobody can live in a 30km of the plant for 1000 years? That sounds terrible but really, is it so bad? It's happened before and while terrible, it's hardly the end of the world.

  2. Engineering marvels really.


  3. Look what else ingenuity can create. The earthquake early warning system. Detects p-waves and alerts people before s waves arrive.


  4. A good summary over at BadAstronomy.com


  5. Not quite the headline you wanted but close:

    Fukushima is a triumph for nuke power: Build more reactors now!
    Quake + tsunami = 1 minor radiation dose so far


  6. Engineers aren't heroes or superhumanv - they are just people doing a job. SOme do it well above the call of duty, others judt do a job.

    And containment vessels are good but nature can decide to play tricks and exceed the performance tolerances of even the best engineers' designs. That could be happening now judging by the news. Fingers crossed it's not.


  7. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhJzdtzl6KY&feature=player_embedded

    Indeed, human genius can be honored. I am amazed to witness these buildings dancing a tango with the Earth... It is even beautiful ! I deeply like to observe such beauty in chaos.

    Now, I also agree that Engineers are doing a great job, but like anonymous said, they are no heroes, they are only doing their jobs, a job they master for most. Of course the power of humanity is much stronger in such painful moments, which in a way beautify their task.

    For the disinformation card, I agree. I feel sick to witness this kind of disaster porn. In the same time, I feel sick to read so many pseudo-specialists about that difficult question on what is happening exactly. I am not sure even on site Engineers know or knew what was going on.

    Indeed this disaster is very different from Chernobyl disaster and it is different from Three Miles Island disaster. It is a very unique disaster. We do not need to compare them to understand its implications and consequences for now or the future (which are a very different task than counting human lives cost). And this disaster is not ended right now. More bad surprises can be faced at anytime.

    I strongly believe in Nuclear power (fusion as our tomorrow energy), but I also believe in rational thinkings. We need to master these technologies before using them in some specific areas of the world and in some specific ways. The way Japan (and it is not only the case in Japan) rushed to implement these energy plants was in a post WWII logic. And this logic was established 60 years ago... These power plants were from far up to date on many points. It was a huge mistake not to upgrade them (it is sometimes amazing how these power plants can look from the outside or from the inside boards). Pierre did work on several Atomic centers in France (notably on cooling systems) and he saw some terrible things that not so many Engineers who work everyday on the power plants know or are aware...

    Science and technologies must be used to evolve and not only to make money profit. If so, we become irrational.


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