Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nuclear power plant troubles in Japan: three perspectives

A plausible analysis of the immediate predicament at the Japanese nuclear power plants is this (from the LA Times):

“Backup generators powering the pumps at the first five disabled reactors failed almost immediately after the earthquake, apparently inactivated by exposure to seawater from the tsunami that swept through the seaside plants. The facilities had to rely on backup batteries that last up to eight hours until additional batteries and generators could be brought in.
Although the company has released no details about the sixth reactor, it appears the diesel generators there worked for a couple of days before they too finally gave out.”,0,3146984.story

A broader overview comes from academics like Charles Perrow who study “normal accidents.” A series of unexpected technical or natural mishaps along with human misjudgments lead to a cascade of events leading to catastrophe. Better engineering and planning can help avoid such outcomes, but never completely.

In my view, Aeschylus described the basic situation 2,500 years ago. In “Prometheus Bound,” Prometheus explains his crime against the gods:

Prometheus: I caused mortals to cease foreseeing doom.
Chorus: What curse did you provide them with against that sickness?
Prometheus: I placed in them blind hopes.
Chorus: That was the great gift you gave to men.
Prometheus: Besides this, I gave them fire.
Chorus: And do creatures of a day now possess bright-faced fire?
Prometheus: Yes, and from it they shall learn many crafts.
Chorus: These are the charges on which –
Prometheus: Zeus tortures me and gives me no respite.