Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Of Nuclear Power, Radiation, Tsunamis, and Global Politics...

Historical 'Rim of Fire' Earthquakes from "Subduction Zones of the World: Comparison to the Cascadia Subduction Zone and the Potential for Producing Large-scale Earthquakes"  by Alicia Thompson

Graph from Aware Electronics RM-80 radiation monitor in author's Home Office
In 1974, I was sixth grader in Oakland, Ca. I had an intrepid teacher, an ex-Marine drill sergeant, who had dedicated his life to teaching.  He was an interesting combination of humility, enlightenment, real-world speak, and mental toughness. For some of us this worked, at least it did some of the time.  Anyway, I was a precocious, 'science interested kid' (no one used the term 'geek' yet) and I had decided to research the safety of nuclear power reactors. During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, there was a fierce debate about the safety of nuclear power. No one could miss it.  In California, no proposed facility stirred more protest than coastally located Diablo Canyon, Pacific Gas and Electric's flagship nuclear facility. As I remember it, anti-nuclear activism was an environmentalist springboard that contributed to the passage of the Coastal Act of 1972, which fundamentally preserves the coast of California from harmful development. Even today, the California Coastal Commission is still continuing to assess the impact of nuclear power plants.

So, eager sixth grade intellect that I was, I did my research then took the bus to Berkeley and wandered the literate,politically active streets  until I found some storefront dedicated to halting nuclear power. (Times were less paranoid then, people more trusting, parental controls just a bit more 'relaxed'.)  There, I got my fill of information, purchased an alarming book on the subject and returned to my Catholic school to prepare a report; certain by now that nuclear power was an evil that the good people of the world were dedicated to preventing.  Imagine my surprise when I heard my intrepid sixth grade teacher start talking to the class about this subject after I presented my report. I must have absorbed too much of the activist's viewpoint for my teacher.  He started telling the class about how he had contacts that were nuclear engineers who had assured him that nuclear plants could never, ever "blow up".  (Of course, even I knew that wasn't the point.  The point was they could 'meltdown' and spread lethal radiation.)  In any event, I rather believed my sixth grade teacher all these years, until last Friday. Interestingly enough, as all this classroom dialog was taking place nearly forty years ago, the Fukushima reactors in Japan were being built as were many of the United States nuclear power fleet.

It turns out all those Berkeley activists were right.  Fast forward forty years later, I am washed up middle-aged activist, my sixth grade teacher has probably passed on (or at least grown very old), and the Ring of Fire has suffered three (Sumatra, Chile, Japan)  8.8 Mw or greater earthquakes in the last seven years, each of them resulting in deadly tsunamis. And what were the odds of that happening? Whatever they were, it appears the odds that the Cascadia subduction zone may create a similar size earthquake/tsunami are very high (See 1, 2, 3 ). In light of this threat to Northwest, the activities of activists that stopped the build out of Nuclear Power on Samish Island appears to have had foresight.

Over the course of last weekend, as most people now know, three nuclear reactors have "blown up" and the entire world economy is being  thrown into a downward spiral of chaos, dependent on whether or not these reactors  'melt down' and spew deadly radioactivity throughout the world. The Fukushima reactors are situated very much like Diablo Canyon: on the coast, facing the vast and tumultuous Pacific Ocean.  Bellingham and Whatcom County are "connected to" the Far East by "Jet Stream". This weekend, we have been very connected as powerful winds passing over Northern Japan have bombarded us.  Studies now show that the West Coast now receives a considerable amount of pollution from China.  Weatherman Cliff Mass may have caused a controversy he wished he hadn't  by revealing probable  jet stream weather patterns in his post "Where would the Radioactivity Go?".  However, I doubt if his concern or efforts are misplaced. The reality is that nuclear radiation is dangerous and insidious. After Monday's Fukushima (third) blast, the vessels of the Seventh Fleet, including the naval carrier Ronald Reagan (on a rescue mission in Japan) actually altered its location away from dangerous radiation. Potassium Iodide supplies are apparently now depleted - in America!

This is all rather a bit of bad news and at least ironic in light of little heralded announcement by China in January that it would be re-architecting the country's energy strategy to emphasize Thorium based nuclear reactors; a potential safe and efficient form of nuclear power. All of this somehow reminds me of a night in Berkeley when I saw Black Rain, a story of the survivors of Hiroshima....

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