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March 11, 2011

Earthquake, tsunami hit Japan
Posted by Avram Grumer at 03:12 AM * 268 comments

Big earthquake in Japan, 8.9 magnitude, followed by a massive tsunami. Here’s a Google News link, but most of you will be seeing this several hours from now, and will’ve already heard the latest in the morning news. You’ll know more then than I do now.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is issuing tsunami warnings for various regions around the Pacific. Nothing yet for the west coast of the mainland US, but they’re predicting the tsunami to hit Hawaii a bit before 3 AM HST (around 9 AM New York time, I think), and various other countries at various times. (Australia, New Zealand, Guam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Mexico, Chile, Peru, and others.) If you’re up now, check the news and get to high ground.

Update: Y’know the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center I mentioned above? Our primary source for information about tsunami risks? A division of the National Weather Service, which warns us all about hurricanes, tornados, and similar oncoming catastrophes? The Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to cut its funding. Because they’re willing to sacrifice any number of lives on the altar of never raising a rich person’s taxes, ever.

Comments on Earthquake, tsunami hit Japan:
#1 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 03:34 AM:

I just saw some helicopter-based coverage on BBC News online. I've never really understood, previously, the power in a tsunami wave. It's devastating, literally as well as figuratively. My sincere sympathies for all those caught up in this.

#2 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 04:05 AM:

The West Coast and Alaska tsunami warning center. Check there for warnings for California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.

#3 ::: Geri Sullivan ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 04:38 AM:

There have already been 23 aftershocks magnitude 5 or higher in the 3 hours following the quake, 13 of them in the magnitude 6.1-7.1 range.

And 3 more in mid 5s in the last 10 minutes.

Steady, Earth. Steady.

#4 ::: Barb Roseman ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 05:08 AM:

A friend living in Tokyo says it seemed to last forever, and in fact has not really stopped since the first major temblor. His wife is elsewhere in the city and he's waiting to hear from her, but he's not terribly worried about her, just wondering how she'll make it home with the trains stopped.

The videos of the tsunami are amazing and far enough removed that many viewers will not realize just how extensive the damage is until they take in the scale of the roads, etc. The images of successive waves rolling in are really astonishing.

If you are away from a TV, try and choose one of the news channels. Some of the links are working, others not.

Growing up in California I've been through many earthquakes, including the 1971 Sylmar quake which lasted a full minute. This one lasted more than 4 minutes, which I find hard to fathom.

#5 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 07:17 AM:

I'm seeing video from Hawaii of long lines at gas stations.

Keep your gas tank a minimum of half-full at all times and make your bug-out bag well in advance.

#6 ::: David Ferrington ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 07:28 AM:

Long time lurker. Delurking now. Temporarily.

I live in Toyama on the opposite side of the island. There has been continuous news coverage at least since I got home at 5pm, it's 9:20 now.

There was another aftershock about 10 minutes ago, that I didn't feel here, but we got the warning that it was coming.

The damage is quite bad on the pacific side of the Island, Miyagi, Fukushima, and Iwate have been hit hard. There is video of whole houses being ripped apart and swept away.

Worst of all the death toll is rising. People there could really use the prayers, good thoughts, vibes or whatever energies you have to send.

#7 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 07:32 AM:

James D. MacDonald @5: Cue links to your posts on go bags and emergency preparedness? The voiceover on the helicopter view saying that even with early warning systems etc. there's not much you can do for people less than 30 minutes away from the tsunami origin was scary.

#8 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 07:34 AM:

David Ferrington @6: Thinking of you all, and sending what good vibes I can.

#9 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 07:55 AM:

David @6, prayers on the way. I hope you stay all right.

And here's hoping Linkmeister's okay too.

#10 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 08:03 AM:

Have been following the (Japanese language) news pretty closely. The epicenter of the earthquake was offshore, but northeastern Japan still got hit with magnitude 7 vibrations -- and tsunamis over ten meters.

For comparison of scale -- the Great Kantou Earthquake of 1923 killed over 100,000 people, and that was a 7.9

That there are only 59 people reported dead so far seems like a huge triumph of engineering and building codes, but there are still a lot of people reported missing.

#11 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 08:32 AM:

Watching BBC news here. It all looks very bad.

@Emily only 60 so far but I fear the real numbers will be far higher. There will be many deaths in small coastal communities that have simply not been reported yet. Also missing ships at sea or even motor vehicles washed out to sea. And some of the commuters who haven't got home yet never will.

But yes, a tribute to the engineers who redesigned the cities. Even what hit Tokyo would have destroyed many buildings fifty or sixty years ago. It seems they stood up to it. This is bad but could have been far far worse.

#12 ::: Lowell Gilbert ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 08:32 AM:

This is about as big a magnitude quake as can really be measured. We're probably talking about an exa-joule of energy released in the big quake alone.

#13 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 08:35 AM:

Praying hard, and I'd appreciate news from Hawaii if anyone has it--

#14 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 08:45 AM:

Okay, now I've got news from Hawaii--from Kauai: they've evacuated oceanside hotels up through the fourth floor but not above. However, the ships at Pearl Harbor are reportedly still there. FWIW--

#15 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 08:51 AM:

The death toll is now reportedly in the hundreds.

Best wishes and prayers for the safety of all.

#16 ::: David Ferrington ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 09:13 AM:

dcb @8:
TexAnne @9:

Thank you for your thoughts, but don't worry about me so much. I'm safe, warm and cozy. I do worry for the people on that side of the island though.

I am very glad that one of my students came back from there yesterday. If he had stayed one more day...

Bad news, the death and injured numbers are rising very quickly. 200+ from the last report.

The US military has apparently offered to help where needed.

#17 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 09:15 AM:

Candle lit, prayers sped, good wishes and energy on their way.

Now I hope our Pacific contingent checks in soon.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well...

#18 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 09:19 AM:

And Hawaii apparently just got hit by the tsunami. Hoping Linkmeister and other Hawaiians are safe.

#19 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 09:52 AM:

Adding my thoughts for the safety of all the fluorospherians in Japan, Hawaii, or elsewhere in the Pacific.

It was horrific to wake up to this news.

#20 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 10:23 AM:

I was staying up later than I should have been last night and so saw the news come over Twitter almost as it happened. My thoughts go out to everyone affected.

#21 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 10:27 AM:

I've been hearing from folks in Hawai'i that they've had plenty of warning, and that the wave was atypical -- cresting before it receded (rather than the other way around). Looks like the fifth-largest earthquake since 1900.

#22 ::: Denise ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 10:33 AM:

The images are horrifying, and the updates disturbing for all of us with loved ones in the Pacific Rim.

#23 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 10:54 AM:

David Ferrngton, I'm glad you're all right.

Linkmeister, don't know if you have the means to read this or check in -- not sure of the state of Internet connectivity where you are -- but we're thinking of you here. I hope you and everyone are okay.

The islanders I follow on Twitter, from Hilo and the Kona Coast, haven't checked in yet.

God, the images from Japan. Lighting a candle for everyone there.

I can't do much from the US east coast but give to aid organizations. And pray to whoever might be listening. And say to all affected fluorospherians, if there is a way I can help, please let me know.

#24 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 11:18 AM:

The forecast amplitudes for the West Coast are modest and problems are not expected at any major city, but Crescent City and some of the North California and Oregon river mouths and bays are expected to be hammered with waves of up to 2 meters.

#25 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 11:21 AM:

Correction, 2.6 meters predicted at Siletz Bay.

#26 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 11:45 AM:

Coverage from ORegon coast shows pulses of high waves, rather than devastating surges.

So far!

I'm off to Seattle for a rocketry convention; once I get Wi-Fi I'll be looking for emergency charities to donate too. SUGGESTIONS WELCOME.

#27 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 12:04 PM:

Waiting to hear from SIL's uncle, who is in Tokyo, SIL's mother, on vacation in Hawai'i, and my friend Luahiwa and her family, also in Hawai'i.

Thinking of them and all the people I don't know who have been affected.

#28 ::: Carrie V. ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 12:06 PM:

Can anyone point me to a map of areas around the Pacific that are expected to be affected?

My parents are currently on a cruise ship in the Pacific, round abouts Peru, and I'm trying not to worry too much...

#30 ::: JennR ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 12:24 PM:

Carrie @ 28 -- if they're on the cruise ship, they may not even notice it. With this much warning (over 20 hours for the South American coast), they will probably be on the boat if there's any chance of danger in port. The thing about tsunamis is that they don't really do anything in the open ocean -- they're essentially harmless to things on the surface. This may be the kind of thing you're looking for.

#31 ::: Carrie V. ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 12:26 PM:

Thanks, JennR. That's kind of what I was thinking/hoping. I checked their itinerary -- they're scheduled to be in port in Chile today. I wonder if that's changed...

#32 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 12:33 PM:

For those worried about people in Hawaii, everyone here is fine - there have been zero reported injuries here. Possible damage to boats in some harbors, other than that nothing was harmed.

There was a coastal evacuation last night; I slept right through it - they may not have run the sirens in our neighborhood, since it's well inland and well uphill. Linkmeister lives more or less dead center in the middle of the island, so that would be even more true for him.

Most shores saw a sea rise of 1-1.2 meters (3-3.5 feet) but Kahului harbor on Maui saw a 2 meter (6 foot) rise, and reportedly Kealekekua bay on the Big Island got a 3-4 meter (12 foot) wave that washed 100 feet inland. The usual idiots are yammering about "Why did you tell us to evacuate, nothing happened!"

The Pacific Ocean is still sloshing, so a lot of things are shut down today just in case there are more waves later. All schools are closed, smaller airports shut, nonessential workers asked to stay home, etc.

#33 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 12:40 PM:

Last number I saw reported from Japan was at least 300 confirmed dead and at least 530 missing. Two passenger trains disappeared.

Also, I have seen elsewhere and requoted on Facebook:

The headline you won't be seeing: "Millions of lives saved by good engineering and government building codes."

... but apparently the NY Times actually is running that story.

#34 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 12:49 PM:

Just saw this photo from Honolulu and said aloud, "Hey geniuses, get off the beach."

Got one email from a contact in Captain Cook -- they're at elevation, so weren't directly affected. They said they'll see more when the sun is up.

Randolph @24, what does the amplitude mean in terms of how far inland the water spreads? I'm trying to visualize it, but seems like you'd need to know the wavelength, too.

#35 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 12:52 PM:

Helicopter video of tsunami from Japan: The scale is terrifying. I hope to hell everyone had evacuated from that coast.

#36 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 12:57 PM:

Clifton Royston @32, we crossposted. Good to know no injuries reported in Hawaii and little damage.

Here is the Google crisis response page for Japan, with links to information, message boards, maps, news, and a Person Finder if you are looking for someone or have information on someone in Japan.

#37 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 01:06 PM:

Clifton Royston @35:

If what I'm hearing is correct the folks on the coast of Japan had only 30 minutes warning to get to high ground.

I'm home from work with a virus? cold? some sort of respiratory bug. When I wondered aloud "How can you LOSE a train?" my Mom replied: "Either the ground ate it or the wave took it."


#38 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 01:20 PM:

Confirming what Clifton said @ #32, our family is fine. Thanks for the thoughts, y'all. We're 800 feet up, so our biggest concern was power failure.

I have half a tankful of gas, so I inadvertently followed Jim's advice.

#39 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 01:25 PM:

Clifton: I'm sorry, I didn't mean to leave you out. For some reason I thought you were in Oregon.

#40 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 01:29 PM:

Jesus, there is no way that footage is consistent with only a few hundred people dead, unless all those houses and buildings had already been evacuated. And that footage is one small part of the disaster.

#41 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 01:31 PM:

I'm currently worried about the Fukushima Number One nuclear reactor problem.

They successfully scrammed about a dozen reactors, but Fukushima's backup generators failed and the mechanical coolant circulation also failed. You can stop a fission reaction dead in a second, but the reactor vessel is still physically very hot indeed -- hundreds of tons of metal at up to 400 celsius, in a kettle with hundreds or thousands of tons of super-hot water at very high pressure. These things are designed to emit 0.1-1 giga-joules per second, and they don't cool down instantly when you stop the reaction. Right now they're running the emergency cooling systems on battery juice, the reactor is at 1.5 times its normal operating pressure (due to the stored heat), and the latest report is that they may have to vent steam from the primary circuit to keep it from rupturing/melting.

#42 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 01:42 PM:

re 34: The PTWC reports have both the height and period, so if you look at (for instance) Kahului, Maui you'll see a crest of 5.7 ft and a period of 52 min., means that water was trying to flood inland for some fifteen minutes.

#43 ::: Keith E. ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 01:43 PM:

Right off the BBC news feed on Twitter:

Japanese authorities to release radioactive vapour to ease pressure at Fukushima #nuclear reactor, from AP #Japan.

That doesn't sound good.

#44 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 01:45 PM:

Good wishes and hopes, and the best of luck, to everyone in and around the Pacific.

#45 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 01:48 PM:

My friend in Hawai'i has checked in. She and her family are fine.

General reassurances were much appreciated but there's no substitute for actually hearing from the person you have been worrying about.

#46 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 02:32 PM:

Clifton Royston @ 35: "The scale is terrifying. I hope to hell everyone had evacuated from that coast." Unfortunately in the video-from-helicopter they were running on the BBC, it was obvious there were people in vehicles seconds away from failing to get away (they swung the camera away from showing moving, i.e. obviously occupied, vehicles getting engulfed). Apparently the soonest any warning can be useful to people in a given location is if the tsunami hits that location at least 30 minutes after the shock was recorded by the seismographs - the findings have to be analysed (takes 5-10 minutes) then the word got out, then people have to start moving.

There are some initial suggestions for assistance at

Aftershocks are still reaching above 6 - one at 6.2 just before 1900 GMT.

#47 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 02:36 PM:

New Scientist just reported that USGS have raised the severity of the main quake to Richter 9.0. Making it the most severe quake ever to hit Japan.

(Better now than 40 years ago, but better if it hadn't happened at all.)

#48 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 02:59 PM:


Around here, the disaster folks tell us that the earthquake is the tsunami warning. If you can feel the quake, and you're near the shore, head uphill.

Some of the flatter areas near the shore (on the Pacific coast) have been talking about putting in berms, and signing tsunami-resistant buildings. I don't know if that's happened yet.

#49 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 03:16 PM:


Imagining such an event -- the quake, the wave -- happening here, where I live. 60 year old wood frame house: it might stand. Probably not, since it's not earthquake braced.

I think I would not be hit by the wave, I'm just far enough inland to be safe. But places near me -- my favorite shoreline walk -- and some local communities would be swept away.

The videos are terrifying.

One of my friends in Japan just checked in on Facebook. He's been on a train, chugging back to Tokyo. He says everyone has been very calm, very caring to each other. His comment was, "It gives one hope for humanity."

#51 ::: Dave Trowbridge ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 03:57 PM:

What shook me most about the helicopter coverage of the tsunami was the people on the highways driving unknowing towards the incoming water. For some reason it reminds me of what the poet Mark Strand wrote:

I think of the innocent lives
Of people in novels who know they’ll die
But not that the novel will end.

#52 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 04:14 PM:

Yeah, the cars high-tailing it away from the wave were creepy, though the big question in my mind was whether they were the leading or trailing edge of escapees. My fear is that they were the leading edge, the only ones who even might have gotten away (though it wasn't clear whether any of them *did* get away), and most everyone else only noticed the wave coming too late to do anything but die.

If they were the trailing edge, the rare people who somehow missed almost all the warnings, then there might only have been deaths from that footage in the low hundreds. If they were the leading edge, it's hard to imagine the deaths witnessed in that footage being less than a thousand people.

#53 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 04:27 PM:

That LA Times article is all over the map (really, it covers about 800 miles, and does nothing to make that clear. It goes, in one sentence from Morro Bay, to Half Moon Bay, in a way that made me (who knows both) think Morro Bay had a 6 foot surge onto shore.

#54 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 04:38 PM:

I was watching Ponyo last night with my daughter, and marvelling at the storybook-fantasy shots of underwater shoreside towns, with boats floating up on their anchor-ropes, and Devonian fish swimming over highways.

Then I woke up to this, watched some footage, and suddenly felt very, very ill.

#55 ::: Tracie ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 04:53 PM:

Prayers ongoing.

When I lived in Southern California, we had a couple of tsunami watches, but fortunately nothing serious materialized. The radio djs would announce over and over "Do not go down to the beach and watch for the tsunami. If you can see it, you can't get away!" (Unless you could run or drive 50+mph through Redondo Beach). There were plenty of people who just didn't listen.

#56 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 05:06 PM:

re 55; Funny thing, but the Redondo Beach people were hoping that the tsunami would wash their fish kill problem out to sea.

#57 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 05:31 PM:

Hawai'i got off pretty lightly. Boats in harbors got loose and one of the hotels in Kona on the Big Island had some water in its lobby, but that was about it.

It's amazing how quickly survivors' guilt can manifest.

#58 ::: Robert Glaub ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 05:32 PM:

When I was in Misawa in 1978 (northern Japan near Sendai) we had a major earthquake and we had to shut down operations for two weeks and do search and rescue and disaster relief...

#59 ::: David Ferrington ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 06:18 PM:

It is 8AM here now.

Multiple tsunamis have hit. The scenes on TV right now are bad.

The biggest problem right now is the nuclear reactors. They were shut down in time, but they are not cooling fast enough. They have already had to release radioactive steam* once to relieve the pressure.

They are predicting more after shocks of more than 7.0. Tsunami alerts are still coming out.

I really need to improve my Japanese. I can get most of what's going on, but I'm not good enough to give you all really good information. (If there are any factual errors, they are due to my misunderstanding of the language)

I am not good at this kind of thing. So forgive my poor reporting skills. But this is bad. The level of destruction I'm seeing on TV is just dumbfounding. I don't know what to say.

*The radiation in the control room in the plant had reached 1000 times normal. People within 3km have been evacuated.

#60 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 07:54 PM:

I was in a meeting in Gifu City discussing earthquake preparedness when the earthquake hit. We were in the middle of talking about whether it is safer to get under a table or run outside. Then it started and lasted so long that we couldn't believe it. Half of us got under tables, the other half ran outside. It was very small where we were though.

My wife's family in Chiba are all OK, but a close friend of mine in Sendai was right in the middle of the worst and nobody has heard from him yet so I'm very worried.

#61 ::: cajunfj40 ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 08:00 PM:

On the radioactive steam issue: AFAIK, per Wikipedia and various online sources (check Heavy Water and Tritium on the wiki) the major source of radioactivity will be Tritium gas in the primary cooling water. Per the Wiki article, it doesn't bioaccumulate and as these things go, isn't much to worry about. The workers who are fixing things there will have to do shifts to limit total rad exposure and some inside may get sick, but so long as they keep the core underwater it won't start melting like at Three Mile Island. From what I've read, they are running on battery backup for the pumps, as the generators aren't online. There's no runaway reaction going on here, no chance for a Chernobyl either.

So, not good, but if you're going to have a reactor problem this isn't the worst type.

#62 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 08:02 PM:

Best wishes, good thoughts, and so on and on to everyone affected by this.

#63 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 08:53 PM:

Just to add to the dreadfulness of this situation, the House Republicans' 2011 budget cuts include seriously reduced funding for NOAA's Tsunami Warning Centers. That was in the bill the Senate just voted down earlier this week, but it's still on the block for the next round.

Looking at the electoral map, most Republican districts seem to be inland, so there's certainly no need for Tsunami warnings for their constituents and contributors, I guess.

#64 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 08:56 PM:

I heard a report that the power plant's generators were in fact missing, because they were in process of replacing them. Is that true or is it incorrect rumor?

#65 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 09:05 PM:

Terry, they were predicting a crest of 2.5 meters at Point San Luis (and about the same at Crescent City), although Santa Cruz seems to have been a surprise.
(I saw that a lot of the boats in Santa Cruz had left the harbor before the wave got there - I'd guess that most, if not all, the party boats were out well before the wave was due.)
I saw also that the people in Crescent City were apparently down by the shore, taking pictures.

#66 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 09:07 PM:

"they are running on battery backup for the pumps, as the generators aren't online"

From what I can determine, that might be somewhat optimistic:

Apologies for the long quote from the last section, which rather cheerfully describes the accident the design is intended to protect against (which includes a power outage):

"Now let us assume that the power outage hits at T+0.5. The RPS is on a float uninterruptable power supply, so it continues to function; its sensors, however, are not, and thus the RPS assumes that they are all detecting emergency conditions. Within less than a second from power outage, auxiliary batteries and compressed air supplies are starting the Emergency Diesel Generators. Power will be restored by T+25 seconds.

Let us return to the reactor core. Due to the closure of the MSIV (complete by T+2), a wave of backpressure will hit the rapidly depressurizing RPV but this is immaterial, as the depressurization due to the recirculation line break is so rapid and complete that no steam voids will probably flash to water. HPCI and RCIC will fail due to loss of steam pressure in the general depressurization, but this is again immaterial, as the 2,000 L/min (600 US gal/min) flow rate of RCIC available after T+5 is insufficient to maintain the water level; nor would the 19,000 L/min (5,000 US gal/min) flow of HPCI, available at T+10, be enough to maintain the water level, if it could work without steam. At T+10, the temperature of the reactor core, at approximately 285 °C (550 °F) at and before this point, begins to rise as enough coolant has been lost from the core that voids begin to form in the coolant between the fuel rods and they begin to heat rapidly. By T+12 seconds from the accident start, fuel rod uncovery begins. At approximately T+18 areas in the rods have reached 540 °C (1000 °F). Some relief comes at T+20 or so, as the negative temperature coefficient and the negative void coefficient slows the rate of temperature increase. T+25 sees power restored; however, LPCI and CS will not be online until T+40.

At T+40, core temperature is at 650 °C (1200 °F) and rising steadily; CS and LPCI kick in and begins deluging the steam above the core, and then the core itself. First, a large amount of steam still trapped above and within the core has to be knocked down first, or the water will be flashed to steam prior to it hitting the rods. This happens after a few seconds, as the approximately 200,000 L/min (3,300 L/s, 52,500 US gal/min, 875 US gal/s) of water these systems release begin to cool first the top of the core, with LPCI deluging the fuel rods, and CS suppressing the generated steam until at approximately T+100 seconds, all of the fuel is now subject to deluge and the last remaining hot-spots at the bottom of the core are now being cooled. The peak temperature that was attained was 900 °C (1650 °F) (well below the maximum of 1200 °C (2200 °F) established by the NRC) at the bottom of the core, which was the last hot spot to be affected by the water deluge."

So from what I can tell from that, the pumps that keep the reactor coolant from boiling off and leaving the reactor core exposed require the diesel generators to be working.

Without them, all you can do is vent boiling coolant to reduce the pressure and carry away excess heat - but you need to replace the water that evaporates, and the steam releases some radioactivity since it has been circulated through the reactor core. And the fact that they have already vented (or are talking about it) seems like good evidence that everything else has failed already.

What's not clear is what exactly is running on batteries. It could be that just the very simple steam vent system is running and not any of the coolant pumps or other safety systems. And once the batteries are exhausted whatever is depending on them will stop working, of course.

The line "T+25 sees power restored" in there is the one to pay attention to.

Here's the general article on the reactor type:

The last paragraph of the safety systems article starts with "It must be noted that no incident even approaching the DBA [Design Basis Accident] or even a LBLOCA [large break loss of coolant accident] in severity has ever occurred with a BWR." That sentence would appear to be no longer operational.

#67 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 09:07 PM:

The reports I've read all say that the tsunami knocked out the diesel generators. It also downed power lines. They were able to keep running the cooling pumps on battery power, and since then new generators have been delivered, but in the meantime the core temperature has risen and they want to let off some steam.

#68 ::: JennR ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 09:12 PM:

Matthew @ 64 As I understand it, that's a semi-correct rumor. Yes, some of the generators at the plant were being replaced, but there are (iirc) four separate reactors at the center, each with its own dedicated set of generators and control systems. The reactors without generators were "safed" well before their generators were removed, and are in no danger of overheating.

#69 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 09:35 PM:

The Daily Mail thinks the earthquake might have been caused by astrology. A week from now, the moon will be slightly closer to earth than the usual monthly minimum. It's been nearly twenty years since the moon was closer than that, and remember the devastation it caused then!!*

Of course, right now the moon is halfway between apogee and perigee, so it's at pretty much exactly its average distance from the earth. The fckwts must think the tectonic plates are psychic.

* Me either.

#70 ::: JennR ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 09:42 PM:

Matthew @64. Oh yeah, there was this tsunami (you may have heard about it), which took out all of the generators onsite.

#71 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 09:57 PM:

@JennR: yes, but there are claims they were inoperable before that. Quite likely, based on what TomB says above, that people are reading that generators at the shut down reactors were being taken away for replacement and assuming that meant all of them.

#72 ::: Sarah E ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 10:41 PM:

#10 ::: Emily H the Great Kantou Earthquake of 1923 killed over 100,000 people, and that was a 7.9

But IIRC that was hit a more densely-populated part of the country, (Tokyo & surrounding area) and happened at lunchtime, in an era where everyone used charcoal braziers for cooking, and lived in wooden houses. It was the fires that caused most of the fatalities.

#73 ::: Errolwi ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2011, 11:19 PM:

Very sad news.
Special thoughts go to the 120 Japanese USAR workers now recalled from Christchurch NZ. 48 NZ USAR are also being dispatched.
I'm not sure if LA County team dispatched is different from the one which came to Christchurch (and donated much of their equipment, thank you USAID).

NZ Herald report (The CTV building referred to in this report is where approximately a dozen Japanese students from a language school were killed).

#74 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 12:39 AM:

Sean Sakamoto @60, I'm glad to hear your wife's family are OK. And I hope and pray your friend in Sendai is all right, and that you hear from him soon. Do you think it would be worthwhile to post a request for info on the People Finder site I linked above?

#75 ::: Jordin ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 01:41 AM:

Jacob Davies @ #66: The scenario you quote is for an entirely different class of accident, involving a catastrophic break in the main coolant pipes (a Large Break LOCA - Loss of Coolant Accident) while the plant is operating, compounded by a power failure. There's no evidence that there was a LOCA at any of the Japanese plants.

The reactor systems themselves apparently survived quite well, including shutting down as designed -- which is impressive as hell, since this probably was close to or even above the original design spec for ground motion. From the limited information I've seen, the problem is that the tsunami either exceeded the design limits or had unforeseen effects *on the auxiliary diesel generators* which started and ran briefly (I believe I saw a report of 1 hour) and then failed.

Because afterheat decays rapidly, even the worst-case accident at this point is likely to be a Three Mile Island-class event, i.e., catastrophic damage to the reactor cores but with only minor radioactivity release offsite. There are probably some worse possibilities, but I don't know enough about the reactor designs to say anything except that they're unlikely to happen.

The scare headlines about "Japan's Chernobyl" are just that.

The reports that the control room radiation levels are "1000 times normal" fail to note that the "normal" level corresponds to a plant worker receiving less that the allowed cumulative occupational dose after about 40,000 hours of exposure.

The reactor problems are serious, but your last comment ("That sentence [about there never having been an LBLOCA] would appear to be no longer operational") is incorrect.

#76 ::: Lucy Kemnitzer ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 03:07 AM:

@65 -- although Santa Cruz seems to have been a surprise

I'm not sure what the surprise was. We evacuated people on the low ground, and we had significant waves(but small in the scheme of things) -- damage only in the small craft harbor, and only part of that. The actual heights of the waves sound like they square pretty well with the predictions I was reading this morning. Though I think I did some arithmetic wrong because I was expecting the first wave to hit a couple hours before it actually did.

I could have done without all the people who used to live in Santa Cruz but now live inland calling me up in the middle of the night and while I was tryin to get ready for work, wanted to worry about me at great length. I figure they felt helpless with respect to the people in the actual disaster, and were displacing that anxiety by fussing about me.

The other local unfortunate thing was that somewhere along the way the Spanish language radio stations acquired an entirely distorted version of the advisory for our stretch of the coast, which meant there were apparently horrible traffic jams on the three roads leading out of the county, as people desperately fled to higher ground, or at least the Valley.

#77 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 04:51 AM:

The reactor just blew up, or at least a chunk of the plant did.

#78 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 05:44 AM:

Youtube video of reactor explosion. Skip to 45 seconds in for the close-up of the event.

(The big white cloud which appears to condense right after the explosion that wrecks the reactor building suggests "steam explosion" to me.)

I've also heard reports (unsourced) that Cs-131 was detected in the reactor building prior to the explosion, suggesting it had been released from damaged fuel rods.

Worst case is, we're looking at something a bit worse than Three Mile Island (but not in the same league of nastiness as Chernobyl): partial core melt-down followed by a big steam explosion.

#79 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 06:15 AM:

From The Guardian (liveblog):

10.40am: A nuclear expert says the a blast at Fukushima plant No 1 was caused by a hydrogen explosion.

Ian Hore-Lacy, of nuclear industry body the World Nuclear Association, also said the blast may not necessarily have caused a radiation leak.

He told Reuters:

"It is obviously an hydrogen explosion ... due to hydrogen igniting. If the hydrogen has ignited, then it is gone, it doesn't pose any further threat. As far as we know there is no particular danger from radiation leaks. There may be, but we don't know that. There is no reason to suppose that there must be because of that."

I'm hoping he's correct and that it doesn't indicate damage to the reactor core or a core coolant leak.

#80 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 06:38 AM:

I must admit, "1000 times normal" for a radiation problem is pretty meaningless unless you can define "normal". And the specifics of the radiation matter. Some sorts of radiation penetrate the skin, some don't. Stuff you can inhale is worse than stuff you can't. And news media reports, in my experience, are FUD-heavy.

#81 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 06:58 AM:

Robert X. Cringely has something interesting to say. (In an earlier incarnation he was one of the Three Mile Island investigators. His take: what Hilary Clinton said about the US Navy supplying "coolant" is a reference to them sending boric acid or sodium polyborate to poison the reactor, rendering it permanently inoperable.)

Apropos Dave Bell's last observation: apparently various British reactor sites had a big problem in the 1980s with British Telecom Trimphone phone handsets -- they had dials illuminated by tritium in the plastic, and were sufficiently radioactive to qualify as medium level waste. And one particular reactor kept having its radiation warning sirens going off until they traced the source of the radiation to smoke from a coal-fired power station some miles away -- when the wind shifted, the coal ash on the air was putting out enough radiation to trip alarms intended to detect an on-site leak. "A thousand times the normal level of radiation" in a reactor control room is probably on the order of what you'd get from cosmic radiation if you were aboard an airliner flying 40,000 feet above the reactor.

#82 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 07:39 AM:

New Scientist just reported that USGS have raised the severity of the main quake to Richter 9.0.

In the tradition of niggling at small stuff because one can't do anything about the big stuff:

"Richter" is an anachronism (and one New Scientist didn't use; their report said "magnitude 9.0"). The Richter scale is out of use these days, partly because of being unreliable for anything over magnitude 7; large earthquakes are now expressed using the moment magnitude scale.

#83 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 07:46 AM:

Why would there be a hydrogen explosion? — I don't see free hydrogen being mentioned anywhere in how those reactors operate, and they are not generating thus couldn't be electrolysing it by mistake or anything like that.

#84 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 08:14 AM:

Matthew @83: reactor fuel rods consist of cylindrical rods of uranium or plutonium oxide ceramics, encapsulated in a zirconium alloy tube. Bundles of these tubes are "canned" inside a thin metal sheath to form a fuel rod, which is then pressurized internally with helium at about three atmospheres. (More info here.)

I speculate that it's possible the plant operators were trying to vent a hydrogen build-up but accidentally created an explosive gas mixture inside the building, which ... exploded.
If zirconium is exposed to water at high temperature, a redox reaction ensues -- the zirconium oxidizes rapidly, and hydrogen gas is released. As I recall this happened at TMI, leading to the build-up of a hydrogen bubble at the top of the reactor containment vessel.

#85 ::: Matthew Brown ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 08:27 AM:

Ah, thank you -- that would explain it.

It's certainly consistent with the impression I'm building that things are worse off in there than anyone's saying.

And rushed work in an emergency has a higher probability of getting screwed up.

#86 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 08:48 AM:

Charlie Stross @81: I recall a news brief in New Scientist in the 90s wherein the top guy of one of the UK's nuclear power stations was complaining bitterly about the fact that if the maximum radiation emission levels the nuclear stations was subjected to were to be applied to coal-fired stations, the coal stations would all have to be closed down as radiation hazards.

#87 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 08:55 AM:

BWR Reactor Safety Systems.

Going by discussion and analysis on Hacker News, it looks like they've given up on trying to save the reactor (that is, in a condition that might allow it to be recommissioned eventually) and have resorted to the Standby Liquid Control System. Which pumps borated fluid into the reactor core but probably FUBARs it permanently in the process.

#88 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 09:55 AM:

Beginner's question: If I've understood the reports correctly, the explosion has destroyed the outer walls of the reactor building, but I've read that this is not so dramatic for now since there are still undamaged internal walls between the reactor core and the outside.

But- isn't it one of the main purposes of the outer walls of the reactor building to be a kind of last line of defense if all safety measures on the inside should fail? So, if the outer walls have collapsed, doesn't that mean that if the situation on the inside should get more dramatic, things would look really dire?

#89 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 09:55 AM:

The numbers I was seeing from NOAA were along the lines of less than 1 meter for most places. That's why Crescent City and Pt San Luis stood out: much larger.

#90 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 10:21 AM:

Reactors and earthquakes.

Turns out that Japanese reactors are designed to shut down safely in event of a quake and to survive (that is: to shut down, but to be undamanged by and re-startable -- subject to a thorough inspection -- shortly after) a 7.75 magnitude quake. The Rokkasho reprocessing plant is designed to survive an 8.25 magnitude quake.

(Unfortunately nobody anticipated an 8.9-9.0 quake.)

Raphael @88: the reactor containment vessel itself is basically a gigantic steel kettle inside that building. A kettle with armoured walls 8-18 inches thick. Think of a main battle tank parked in a barn; you can blow up the barn without scratching or denting the armoured war machine inside.

#91 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 10:33 AM:

Charlie, I got to visit Diablo Canyon,and go inside one of the reactors (it was during the licensing marathon, so it was unfueled). The reinforced-concrete shear walls under the reactor are at least a meter thick.

Fortunately, most of California is on transform faults, so we don't expect anything much over an 8.3 (this is, you understand, a very small consolation).

#92 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 01:32 PM:

Charlie Stross @90, thanks.

#93 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 02:16 PM:

Just went round the usual newsfeeds (BBC, Al Jazeera, NY Times, Christian Science Monitor, Guardian) and it seems to be the case that the decision has been made not to try to save Fukushima No.1 for further use. One source reported that they've already started pumping in seawater with borates to poison and cool the fuel, but I can't find corroboration for that. TEPCO has said that the explosion was hydrogen/oxygen, and that it did shatter the outer wall, but that the containment vessel appears to be intact, and they've seen no additional release of radioactive material. Evacuation of civilians has spread out to 20 kilometers now, but they're saying they can have the core cooled down before the pressure rises enough to endanger containment.

Fingers crossed for everyone there.

#94 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 02:20 PM:

Lucy Kemnitzer: I figure they felt helpless with respect to the people in the actual disaster, and were displacing that anxiety by fussing about me.

Speaking as someone who emailed a contact in Captain Cook, HI, which is halfway up a mountain -- yeah, that's pretty much it.

In my defense, at that point the effects on Hawaii weren't clear. And at least I didn't phone them at 4 AM their time to worry at them.

Now I think I will displace anxiety by donating money to disaster relief. And by taking action to make sure I'm prepared for a disaster here. I'm signing up for a Red Cross First Aid/CPR/AED course, making sure important papers are in a grab-and-go file, and making a shopping list for a proper go bag.

#95 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 02:37 PM:

This LA Times story has more useful information than most other US news sources seem to:,0,2957196.story

This is the best diagram of this type of BWR I could find: Diagram of BWR

The red cylinder in the center of that diagram is the reactor vessel, the steel container that Charlie mentioned in #90. The thick white walls around that is the reactor containment, made of steel and concrete. The torus at the bottom contains water to cool steam from the reactor in an emergency.

The turbine hall is not shown, but would be connected to this building with pipes that take water to and from it. The whole setup is shielded by the large square concrete buildings you're looking at on the news, because in a BWR the water that drives the turbine passes directly through the reactor, unlike in PWR designs.

In the diagram you can see that inside the big square building there are several pools containing rods, probably used fuel rods from the reactor that are still hot - physically and radioactively - and need to be kept in pools of water. So even though the reactor containment is supposedly intact, if the reactor building is damaged there could be problems with dispersal of material from those rods, or fires caused by them.

Cringely seems to have been right about the boric acid delivered to poison the reactor. Hopefully that will work.

The plan now seems to be to fill the containment structure with seawater, which they are talking about very calmly, sort of as if it's routine, but one should keep in mind that nothing like that has ever been done to any reactor and this is far outside the normal response playbook. And it absolutely guarantees that a lot more radioactive material will be released because you're basically talking about pouring water on a red-hot pile of metal, which means it will instantly turn to steam, and that steam will need to be released in large quantities. And even once that is under control, just from looking at that diagram, it seems to me that the volume of water inside the containment is not going to be enough to keep it cool for the couple of days needed. Which means you're basically running an open-loop cooling system with seawater through a reactor that is almost certainly badly damaged already, which means washing out a bunch of junk from the reactor.

Better than a meltdown. But very, very bad. And that's if things go according to plan, and so far that has not been happening with any of the other things they've tried.

This reminds me of the Deepwater Horizon response, with repeated reassurances not to worry because all the emergency safety systems will work and it's just a little bit of oil/radiation. I certainly hope they're right, but I wouldn't say I was confident in that.

#96 ::: tnv ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 03:07 PM:

Concerning the tritium/radioactive vapour: as people pointed out, it is far from the worst as problems go. As with all poisons, the dose makes the poison and that is true of tritiated heavy water vapour as well: tritium is dangerous when concentrated in a small enclosed space where humans can ingest it, while the atmosphere and the world's water contains some small concentration of tritium at all times. If tritium vapour is released, it disperses through the atmosphere at a much lower concentration, and its danger is reduced to almost negligible levels. That is why it is standard policy in nuclear health physics to, if you cannot clean up a tritiated water spill, to ventilate the area so it can disperse and break down in the atmosphere.

Note that I am against the dumping of other toxic wastes into the atmosphere, but tritium is far from the worst culprit.

(I happened to have a discussion about tritium with my local radiation health physicist the other day. It was in the context of the realism or lack thereof of Spider-Man 2; I did not expect that information to become so morbidly useful so soon.)

Also, the people who note that 1,000 times above normal radiation levels in a control room is still pretty small are right. The normal yearly exposure from working at the nuclear power plant near me is about a hundredth of the radiation dose received from an intercontinental flight.

#97 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 03:29 PM:

There is a story about Fiesta Ware pottery.

Some of the glazes are possessed of trace amounts of uranium. Someone who worked at a facility with the sorts of concerns we are talking about had such a bowl, and used it to toss his keys in.

When his dosimeter was checked... the reaction was intense. He had a huge (relative to acceptable, much less expected) dose.

Took them some time to track it down, but it was all based on his movements, because no one else showed that sort of spike.

#98 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 04:05 PM:

And I'm now seeing comments that this shows that nuclear power is too dangerous to have.

#99 ::: tw ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 04:59 PM:

People are scared of nuclear power the way they are scared of terrorists. Car accidents and voluntary UV radiation exposure kill far more people every day. I will take a Japanese nuclear plant over the Alberta tar sands any day.

#100 ::: Sean Sakamoto ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 05:21 PM:

@#74 Caroline

Thanks, I did post a request on the google earthquake tool. We're still waiting to hear anything, but his town was about 20 miles inland from the ocean, so at least he was probably out of range of the tsunami.

#101 ::: Kyndra ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 08:22 PM:

Terry @97 The colleague of a friend of ours who is a radiation oncologist had a similar experience which was eventually traced back to her new marble counter top. Turns out the unusual vein pattern was actually a radioactive material of some kind and was causing her exposure badge to be over exposed!

A minute amount of radiation but enough to cause an investigation..

#102 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 08:44 PM:

I've heard granite countertops can be a problem, too.

#103 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 09:15 PM:

Uranium salts used to be used extensively in ceramics and stained glass for their vivid yellow-orange to red-orange tones.

The radioactive Fiesta ware was orange. That's why the "new" versions look so insipid compared to the originals.

I have the pitcher from a sugar-and-creamer set of my great grandmother's that I'm sure would peg a Geiger counter over. It's packed well away from anything I'd use.

If you're concerned about this stuff, choose a pew away from the stained glass window full of the red and orange cloaks.

#104 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 09:25 PM:

Well, basements in granite is the classic risk case for radon....

#105 ::: Torrilin ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 10:34 PM:

Or basements over coal seams.

#106 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 10:49 PM:

Carol Kimball: I have the pitcher from a sugar-and-creamer set of my great grandmother's that I'm sure would peg a Geiger counter over. It's packed well away from anything I'd use.

This was discovered after folks were using that shade of FiestaWare pitcher for their morning orange juice. Don't remember the exact chemistry involved, but the acid in the O.J. leached out the uranium. Not that I'd choose either for a teddy bear, but even if one of them gets used by accident you should be pretty safe--it was the long-term effects of the uranium internally which were so dangerous.

#108 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 11:04 PM:

Carol Kimball #103: Not to mention, when radioactivity was new, it was a fad for a while! Yellow-Green dishes that glowed in the dark, radium drinks, and the like.

#109 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 11:07 PM:

After rereading the article, that should be "possibly" underway.

It seems like it ought to be possible to design an emergency cooling system that uses the power generated by the impending meltdown to cool things off. I mean, it's a power source that you're guaranteed to have when you need it.

#110 ::: Charlie Dodgson ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2011, 11:44 PM:


According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, recent reactor designs (GE's ESBWR) go one better than that: there are large prepositioned reservoirs of coolant that come in via gravity feed. (After 48 hours, you've got to replace the stuff boiling off, but you'd need to do that no matter what.)

Fukushima no. 1 is an old one, though --- in fact, literally within a few weeks of its 40-year design life; absent special regulatory dispensation, it would have been shut down March 26th.

#111 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 12:01 AM:

Radioactivity in old ceramic glazes can get radiation dosimeters excited, but for actual safety risks it doesn't begin to compare with lead or cadmium glazes.

The old red Fiestaware had lead, as well as uranium, and the lead was much more dangerous.

#112 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 12:23 AM:

thomas: Lead (I don't know about cadmium) can be sintered and then limited to high-fire glazes, both of which function to stabilise it. I'd still not use it for acidic liquids, but it's possible to have foodsafe glazes with lead.

#113 ::: Spiny Norman ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 12:32 AM:

"I will take a Japanese nuclear plant over the Alberta tar sands any day."

So long as it's not in my back yard, and I can post this comment, eh?

#114 ::: tw ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 01:05 AM:

Spiny Norman,
I've seen the list of what the tar sands put out into the surrounding environment everyday and how it's impacting the people there. It's about seeing one thing as lower risk than another. But if you want to accuse me of something then be less of a smarmy twit about it.

#115 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 03:16 AM:

Another reactor gone haywire, and first indications in all those 'missing' figures of what order of magnitude the real human quake-toll is apt to be in. I really thought for a few hours that Japan had withstood the thing impossibly well. And it was impossible. Crap, crap, crap.

Fingers crossed that a huge chunk of this missing-ness turns out to be an artefact of the chaos, and will be found again soon.

I wonder if the ultimate result of successfully shutting down the broken nuclear plants (please, please...) will be a bit more global ability to talk sense about radioactivity and its risks? It's a long shot, but it might just happen.

#116 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 03:48 AM:


I believe people might be less afraid, if the US government had not been complicit in such a wide range of nuclear power and testing-related abuses and cover-ups, the full extent of which only really started to become widely known when related documentation became declassified in the 90s.

That kind of shenanigans make it really hard to regain trust, later.

#117 ::: Spiny Norman ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 05:00 AM:

@tw: the way things were already going in Japan when you posted #99, I think that it was almost impossible to read what you wrote as profoundly insensitive (to those affected in Japan) and deeply presumptuous (with respect to what your comment implied about those who don't share your views about nuclear power*). Your comments also presented a difficult and complicated set of problems as a simplistic dichotomy, and then lept to an appallingly Panglossian conclusion. I therefore wrote something intended to gently ruffle your feathers.

I could apologize for hurting your feelings, but it wouldn't be sincere, so I won't.

*E.g., it's a good bet that i've done substantially more professional work involving the direct handling of radionuclides than you have.

#118 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 05:33 AM:

KayTei@116: Yes, exactly. My biggest problem with the nuclear industry (UK perspective, here) has never been its inherent special danger, but its special convenience as a stalking-horse for More National Security With Everything. Suddenly a whole sector of the economy goes so much more opaque, and all the usual mischief that flourishes out of the sunlight follows as night follows day.

I note that generalized anti-nuclear and terrorist-related paranoia become assets, as much as problems, for the mischievously-minded here.

This is a big shame, because we need that kind of power, dammit!

#119 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 06:37 AM:

OK, with the reactor at the end of its design life, some of the measures are less significant. Pumping in borated seawater isn't as last-resort as it seems.

I've been wondering about the storage of spent fuel rods. And now I see this: Tokyo Electric has not commented yet on those pools, which in the case of the GE-designed reactors are located on the roof, possibly making them vulnerable.

That seems crazy in so many ways that I would not be astonished to learn that the report is wrong on that detail. Even without the earthquake risk, you're talking about a lot of weight to reliably support, and a leak of water would be a serious problem.

OK, at least you'd know it was leaking; maybe we're talking about something more like a basement under the pool, allowing inspection.

Oh, it was over forty years ago that I saw descriptions of reactors. Including the "swimming-pool" type of reactor. But the description of a power reactor was emphatic that the fluid cooling the core did not go through the turbines. There were heat exchangers. I suspect it was a description of a PWR--these reactors in Japan almost seem primitive, not at Chernobyl levels of risk, but were they the right design?

40 years, and now we're finding out the answer to that question.

#120 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 07:07 AM:

Spiny Norman @117:

The only reason I didn't intervene in my moderator voice after your 113 was that tw had already responded. I'd hoped that reading 114 would make you realize how much you injected into 99 to make your vastly uncharitable and unhelpful reading possible. The NIMBY implication, in particular, was very much your own invention.

Was it insensitive of tw to think about the ways that this disaster—whose extent was unknown when the comment was posted and is unknown now—would affect future energy discussions, particularly ones closer to home? I don't know. I've been thinking about this in terms of its longer-run implications, too. It's inevitable. It's one of the places the mind goes to get away from the horror and the grief of the things we already know about.

So you disagree with tw about the relative merits of two energy sources. You even have some factual information to bring to the discussion. Tell me, then: do you think that you inclined tw, or me, or anyone reading this thread, to listen to your expertise and change their views?

Not so much. Frankly, you came off as a jerk. I can't compel you to apologize; your reputation in this community is yours to choose through your own actions. I can, however, insist that you give other commenters more benefit of the doubt from this point forward.

And indeed, I do so insist.

#121 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 09:53 AM:

As I understand things, the big problem with nuclear power in the USA is that between organized crime, corporate shenanigans, and backstabbing within government, we're too corrupt to actually build and run new plants to safe standards. Not to mention the whole nuclear waste problem, given that Yucca Mountain apparently panned out on closer inspection.

#122 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 11:00 AM:

The Republican Party seems to think that Yucca Mountain will work just fine.
(Given their views on science, engineering, and education, this is not good.)

#123 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 11:11 AM:

Found via BoingBoing: before and after satellite photos of the areas hit by the tsunami.

#124 ::: Joyce Reynolds-Ward ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 02:26 PM:

WRT to the failure of nuclear power in the US--Am I the only person here with WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply System) experience? Frankly, after spending over a year working as a paralegal on the WPPSS bond default securities litigation, my take on the failure of nuclear power to go anywhere here in the US was more of a factor of a fallout from that litigation than TMI/waste disposal (I was also a public power activist and there were financing issues as part of our anti-nuke stance, not just safety issues).

WPPSS revealed a major flaw in the system as it stood in the US during the late 70s/early 80s--attempts to quick-design plants, design simultaneous with build, cost overruns as a result of the just-in-time design process, and eventual default on the bond financing. Many of the major investment banks in the US at the time were involved in the WPPSS securities lawsuit--over forty-some law firms. I went to one deposition--80 lawyers in a room. One objection during deposition led to a round of objections. Expensive litigation. Expensive settlements.

#125 ::: Idgecat ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 03:06 PM:


Murphy's nuclear power system -- WPPSS (very appropriate acronym, pronounced whoops)

Did more to kill nuclear power in the US than anything else possibly could have, even TMI.

Design failures, cost overruns, litigation, default... If it could be botched, it was.

#126 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 05:44 PM:

Joyce@125, my experience with WPPSS was watching a coworker who'd invested in WPPSS's junk bonds during the Reagan years. He was getting something like 20% interest on them, and figured that if they took at least five years to collapse, he'd break even. They didn't, and he didn't, but he knew they were junk bonds when he bought them, and most of his money was in much more stable investments.

On the other hand, I've got Three Mile Island experience - not as a nuclear engineer or an investor, but as a New Jersey electricity consumer, having moved to an area where the local electrical monopoly was a 1/4 owner of TMI just after the explosion. (As far as other kinds of TMI experience, I don't think that acronym has been developed back in the 80s, so I'll spare you :-)

#127 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 05:57 PM:

Ok, this is fairly trivial in the larger scheme of this disaster, but here's a small entry in the "boneheaded behavior by media people" category:

So there's a debate about the earthquake and its consequences on German tv, and the guests include, among others, the German Minister of Enviromental Affairs, and the Japanese ambassador to Germany. Shortly after the start, the ambassador talks a bit about how seriously the whole thing has affected Japan. Immediately afterwards, the host turns to the minister and asks him how the disaster will affect the country, refering to Japan.

Umm- basic courtesy, anyone?

#128 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 07:13 PM:

Interactive before/after aerial photos showing the tsunami's effects: Japan Earthquake: before and after.

#129 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 08:45 PM:

The NYT has also has a (different) set of before/after satellite photos.

#130 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2011, 10:59 PM:

Re #119: spent fuel storage on the top of the reactor building, fluid cooling the core not going through turbines, pumping in borated seawater not being a last-resort

Re: spent fuel storage, take a look at this diagram of the BWR reactor; the spent-fuel cooling/storage pools are on top of the reactor building because the fuel is transferred from the reactor to the pools using a crane (yellow/orange at the top of that diagram). So yes, they are up top and the pools are presumably exposed now that the top of the reactor building has been blown off. Whether the spent fuel itself is exposed is a separate question. The spent fuel is physically hot from decay and needs to have cooling water circulated around it to keep it cool, although it's nowhere near as hot as the reactor fuel in a reactor that was recently shut down.

Re: coolant circulating through the core and the turbine, in most reactors, yes, there is a heat exchanger between the core fluid and the water used for the turbine. In a BWR like these the water circulating in the core also goes through the turbine, which means it is radioactively hot but only in a very short-lived way, because the fuel rods are sealed off from the water.

Re: pumping seawater and boric acid, I think "last resort" is a pretty good description. The fuel has leaked in at least one of these reactors, maybe several, the top of the building blew up in one and may in another, the ordinary emergency cooling systems aren't working, and they're pouring in seawater and boric acid - which has never been done before - because otherwise the cores will melt inside the reactor pressure vessel, maybe fall into a pool of water there and cause a steam explosion, maybe burn a hole through it and land in water beneath and cause a steam explosion in the concrete containment, who knows. Hopefully the seawater and boric acid will do the trick, but it is a lashed-together attempt to solve the problem and I don't think they have any other ideas except "hope if it melts down it doesn't explode". Which I hope too.

#131 ::: Jason Aronowitz ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 10:30 AM:

I believe the spent fuel on top design was prevalent in the 1970's. My recollection is that the NRC eventually gave that design a thumbs down, but only after quite a few were built.

#132 ::: inge ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 12:07 PM:

David Harmon @121: As I understand things, the big problem with nuclear power in the USA is that between organized crime, corporate shenanigans, and backstabbing within government, we're too corrupt to actually build and run new plants to safe standards.

You're not the only ones. The Germans can't do it, the Swedes can't do it, the Japanese can't do it...

But, to quote an old quip of the current German cancellor on radioactive material going god-knows-where, "When you are baking, you sometimes drop a little baking powder, too".

#133 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 02:14 PM:

I should have thought of this, but BoingBoing pointed me to the IAEA webpage, whose information may be somewhat slower to be put up than standard news sources, but is likely to be far more accurate.

There has been a third hydrogen explosion, at Fukushima Daiichi reactor #3 this time. Six injured, containment vessel remains intact, control room still operable. Prior to the explosion, #3 was having borated seawater pumped in, and for unknown reasons the water level had stopped rising.

As of early this morning, Vienna time, borated seawater was being pumped into Daiichi #1, whose containment vessel was intact though the outer building was destroyed by the previous explosion, and into Daiichi #2, whose containment vessel and building are intact.

At the Fukushima Daiini plant, reactor #1 is being cooled towards shutdown by the reactor's coolant system, the coolant systems of #2 and #4 are being repaired, and #3 is in safe cold shutdown. There has been no venting from any of these 4 reactors as of early this morning.

So the overall situation is improving slowly, but there are still some rough bits to get over before it's all done, and things could still go very pear-shaped. I hope for the greatest good luck and smooth operation to all the engineers and technicians who are doing their damnedest to get all those reactors locked down cold, and to all the people in the surrounding region whose health and safety may depend on them.

#134 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 02:42 PM:

The second explosion took place at Reactor #3 this morning. I've not seen any news that a third explosion has occurred anywhere, but if one did, it would have been on Reactor #2, which is the one most in danger right now.

#135 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 04:43 PM:

P J Evans@122:

Roy Edroso covered some of the Republican talking points on the Japan quake. seems a fair number think that it's a ringing endorsement to build Nuclear plants in the US since, hey, it wasn't a total disaster. But this is the same gang of nincompoops who, after Deep Horizon went belly up, thought that the answer was to drill for more oil in the gulf coast. They've taken contrarianism to it's logical extreme: right off a cliff.

#136 ::: tnv ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 05:15 PM:

The Nuclear Energy Institute's latest updates on the situation: gets a bit technical, but is likely to be as good facts as you can get.

Also, adding link to Bruce Cohen @133's comment: The IAEA's page, for easy finding

Both are getting updated regularly throughout the day.

I hope that is not too many links.

#137 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 05:26 PM:

Republican talking points on the Japan quake. seems a fair number think that it's a ringing endorsement to build Nuclear plants in the US since, hey, it wasn't a total disaster.

I'd be slightly more skeptical than that.

I'd put my thinking this way; if after a severe earthquake and a tsunami, the Japanese nuclear plants release less radioactive material into the environment than 1 year of normal operation of a coal-fired plant does, I would be inclined to believe that nuclear power plants can be built and operated safely.

#138 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 06:09 PM:

Inge #132: Well, in the current case, the Japanese got bitch-slapped by the Universe, with some really bad luck included.

#139 ::: Vom Marlowe ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 10:36 PM:

According the NY Times, the worst off plant is headed for meltdown or do whatever they call it. The containment has been breached and they have evacuated the plant workers.

Am sending thoughts and prayers. I can't quite decipher the science-speak, but it doesn't look good.

#140 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2011, 10:50 PM:

NEI says (as of two hours ago) that there may be containment breach (looks likely from their information) but that radiation levels aren't rising significantly -- "in flux", though.

#141 ::: JimR ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 12:51 AM:

According to PM Kan's latest address (I guess? I'm seeing lots of attribution, but the Yomiuri says it's from him), there has apparently been a breach in Dai-ichi. Within the evacuation area of 30km, radiation is reaching harmful levels, about 400 milisieverts. Everyone near the reactor who hasn't been evacuated is being told to stay inside, seal their homes and avoid any exposure outside.

#142 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 01:06 AM:

New York Times:

TOKYO — Japan’s nuclear crisis verged toward catastrophe on Tuesday, after an explosion at one crippled reactor damaged its crucial steel containment structure and a fire at another reactor spewed large amounts of radioactive material into the air, according to official statements and industry executives informed about the developments.

Totally ignoring the radiation leakage for a moment . . . tens of billions of dollars of plant are ruined. A significant chunk of Japan's power capacity offline for the forseeable future. The cleanup costs are going to be immense, and the effort will take years.

#143 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 01:08 AM:

IAEA reports Fukushima Daini reactors 1, 2, and 3 are in cold shutdown (coolant water at atmospheric pressure and below 100°C). They're working on the cooling system for #4. No further word on the Daiichi reactors.

#144 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 01:24 AM:

Apparently the first report I saw of the 3rd explosion was incorrect, it was in the #2 reactor at the Daiichi plant and may have damaged the containment vessel.

Stefan, there is one small silver lining here: several of the reactors that are now completely fubar were almost at the end of their operational lives, and scheduled for decommissioning. On the other hand, you're right, the capacity situation is going to be very tight for quite awhile; even if the production capacity comes back quickly (and it's not likely to; there are other reactors that were damaged, though not as severely as the Fukushima units) I'm sure there's a lot of damage in the distribution system from the earthquake.

#145 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 05:04 AM:

What I've seen in the media so far, there are far too many useful idiots in panic mode about stuff they don't understand, and not just the reporters.

I'll note that the Captain of the USN's carrier in the area, offshore to support relief operations, took the trouble to explain how slight the radiation risk was: an aircraft carrier can move, so it did. No big deal all round. He wouldn't be in that job if he didn't know what he was talking about.

#146 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 08:20 AM:

Dave Bell @145:
"What I've seen in the media so far, there are far too many useful idiots in panic mode about stuff they don't understand, and not just the reporters."

You mean, say, the Government of Japan? Yes, I'm sure they're just hysterical and panicky with their silly claims that there are health risks because of radioactive substances in the atmosphere.

(Oh, and while I'm sure that that officer knows what he's talking about, most people don't live on ships that can always just move a bit.)

#147 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 11:25 AM:

Raphael @146: Well, there is the governor of Tokyo, who is going around saying that this whole thing is down to the gods punishing the Japanese for their sins. Not panic, exactly, but not helpful. (Thank goodness he's in Tokyo, and not anywhere critical.)

#148 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 01:23 PM:

Ok -- I'm going to ask the stupid question:

What actually happens when a nuclear reactor melts down?

From my youth, I remember the phrase "China Syndrome" as it "a hole all the way to..."

#149 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 02:01 PM:

SamChevre @ 137: "I'd put my thinking this way; if after a severe earthquake and a tsunami, the Japanese nuclear plants release less radioactive material into the environment than 1 year of normal operation of a coal-fired plant does, I would be inclined to believe that nuclear power plants can be built and operated safely."

I'd go further: if the plants release less radioactive material than a coal plant would have released over the past forty years, then I'll believe that nuclear power can be run safely.

#150 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 02:05 PM:

Lori @148: what happens is, the metal fuel rods in the core get hot and begin to run together into a big glob of molten zirconium alloy with ceramic uranium and plutonium oxide fuel pellets embedded in it.

Potentially the fission reaction could start up again. (But no explosion is possible -- the fuel simply isn't enriched enough.)

More likely, it puddles in the bottom of the steel reactor vessel, and eventually the reactor vessel glows red hot, warps and melts, depositing a puddle of molten zirconium (with crunchy bits) on the floor below ...

Which is about six feet thick and made of reinforced concrete, designed to not only contain a puddle of radioactive molten zirconium with crunchy bits, but to spread it out. (At which point any criticality reaction in progress stops and it begins to cool down again.) This structure is called a containment building and as long as it's intact the molten core stays there.

It does not drill through the crust and then come up in China. That's nonsense.

It doesn't get spewed all over the landscape unless the containment is full of water (at which point you get a molten zirconium/water explosion -- not pretty).

It doesn't emulate Chernobyl, which was built without a containment building and which had a graphite core which caught fire on contact with air and spewed radioactive smoke for four days.

After a meltdown they basically brick up the doors and windows and leave the core to cool down for a few years. Then they go in with the high tech equivalent of picks and shovels to remove the cold reactor vomit for reprocessing.

#151 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 02:07 PM:

PS to @150: I should have said no nuclear explosion is possible -- the fuel simply isn't enriched enough.

Red-hot zirconium alloy (over 800 celsius) and water do not play nicely together.

#152 ::: E. Liddell ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 02:09 PM:

@147: If I recall correctly, the governor of Tokyo is the one who's also been pushing censorship in a big way. The two things combined are enough to make me start to seriously question the man's mental state.

In other news, radiation at the Fukishima Daiichi reactors appears to be dropping off again, now that the fire at reactor 4 has been suppressed.

#153 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 02:18 PM:

Mr. Stross, my thanks -- I'd been having daydream/nightmares of a sort of radio-active version of the Blob, munching its way through the earth's mantle.

I knew enough to know there wouldn't be a mushroom cloud, and understood that the uneven application of water to the reactor could cause steam explosions.

I have an imagination that loves to gnaw on these things...

#154 ::: Vom Marlowe ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 02:27 PM:

I'm going to echo Lori's confusion with an additional dumb question, Mr Stross.

The NY Times is reporting that the big concern right now is the spent fuel rods at reactors 5 and 6, which are currently on the roof and are in big pools of water. The water is supposedly boiling off and they are now thinking of trying to add water via helicopter by air.

So I guess what I'm asking is: does that mean it's not contained and also that it will mix with water (and therefore be explosive)?

#155 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 04:05 PM:

The spent fuel rods are contained in a large pool of water to control the heat they generate. If the water completely boils away (this is a BIG pool of water), which is unlikely, then the rods will heat up, crack and warp, and eventually, start to melt.

Before any of that happens, though, they'll add more water to the pool and keep them under control. The rods can't "mix with the water" (they aren't water soluble) and about the worst that could happen to them is they melt and make a mess. That would take a long time with them out in the air and heating up, though.

As for Charlie Stross' comments as to what a "meltdown" is, that's the absolutely worst case scenario under the category of "meltdown". About the only way that could happen is if the reactor was generating power and suddenly lost all its coolant without having it replaced. Then, within an hour or so, what he described would happen.

When you hear the officials saying they believe that a "meltdown" may have occurred or is about to occur, though, what they're saying is some of the fuel rods have reached a temperature where they will begin to deform or crack. Several things have already happened to prevent the ultimate "meltdown" from taking place:

First, the control rods slammed into the reactor as soon as the earthquake hit. They shut down the nuclear reaction taking place in the core, so the reactor will slowly start to cool off from that point. However, it is very hot and needs a lot of water to keep it cool; in a perfect situation a reactor that's shut down is "safe" after about 2 days. These aren't anywhere near a 'perfect' situation though.

Second, the reactors have had coolant running through them, at least most of the time. These reactors sit in a big container full of water, which is circulated to remove heat. The circulation has stopped at times since the earthquake for loss of power, and some of the pool of water has boiled away while the hot reactor is slowly cooling off. The operators are making every effort they can to keep that coolant water running and those reactors submerged, using whatever power sources they can. The longer they keep water on the reactors, the cooler they get, but it's going to take a while.

At least a couple of the reactors boiled enough of the pool of water around them to the point they were partially exposed out of the water. Those segments might have heated to the point they partially melted. They certainly got hot enough to react with the steam and produce hydrogen gas, which is why they had to vent it out of the containment vessels. They don't want those explosions to take place inside the containment structures, which is why they vented it into the outer building.

That's where we are now. The reactors are still hot, but cooling, and may have partially melted. Water is still being used to keep them cool and fairly controlled, but since it isn't nearly as much water as they should be using, any interruption in the flow causes the reactors to become exposed to the air and potentially heat up again. Hopefully they've cooled to the point where they aren't going to melt now, but they still need to be cooled until they're absolutely sure.

But, the chance that we're going to see a catastrophic "China syndrome" scenario is rapidly approaching zero, if it ever had a chance of taking place at all.

#156 ::: Vom Marlowe ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 06:16 PM:

OK, that makes much more sense now. Thank you so much for the detailed explanation, John L!

#157 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 06:50 PM:

Charlie Stross: "It does not drill through the crust and then come up in China. That's nonsense."

Of course it is. This is Japan, not 3MI. It drills through the crust and comes up in Argentina.

Seriously, though, thanks for the explanation. Scientific enough to not be obviously handwavey, simple enough for humans (+wikipaedia, if one doesn't know the Zn-H2O reaction off the top of your head). It's as if you write for a living or something :-).

#158 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 07:50 PM:

Getting accurate information about what's happening to those nuclear reactors has been a major pain; almost every source I've checked is either going ballistic, as in "We're all going to die!", or really hasn't got a clue about the subject and is just grabbing quotes from anybody they can find that wears glasses and has a pocket protector. I heard part of an interview on NPR this morning with a physicist who sounded like he actually knew something about nuclear physics, though it wasn't clear how familiar he was with the engineering details, or how good his information about the current status of the reactors was. And that's a problem even for the few conscientious reporters who are trying to get it right: there's not a lot of reliable information about what's going on; certainly none that's less than 6-12 hours old.

#160 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 08:21 PM:

I want to emphasize what Charlie said about Chernobyl: that was very close to the worst possible nuclear clusterfuck, and it certainly was much worse than anything I can reasonably foresee happening in Japan now. At Chernobyl the reactor that blew did not have a containment vessel that could hold in the radioactivity emitted when the fuel overheated, and the people running it made several egregious mistakes, mistakes that were in fact violations of the standard operating procedures. They were running a test of the emergency generator system in the process of shutting down the reactor. But they first brought the reaction up past the point it was supposed to be running at, and then scrammed the reactor, which pushes all the control rods in to stop the reaction completely. Due to the slowness of the control rods (it took them about 20 seconds to run in) and what may have been a design flaw in the reactor, the power spiked during the scram, and a pulse of heat caused the core to overheat and explode. This in turn jammed the control rods so the power continued to climb to well above the normal peak operating power of the reactor (computer simulations indicate it may have been as much as 10 times normal, around 30 gigawatts). The resultant heat caused a steam explosion, followed by another explosion that may have been the core itself in what's called a "nuclear excursion"; a large part of the reactor, including uranium fuel and radioactive water, was blown out into the air. The last explosion was the equivalent of around 10 tons of TNT.

Now, none of that is going to happen at Fukushima, because all of the reactors are shutdown, not generating a lot of additional heat, though the fuel is still very hot; the only danger of explosion is steam or hydrogen, and those, even if they breach containment vessels, are not going to toss large parts of the reactors into the air. So far the releases of radioactivity from the hydrogen explosions have been relatively small; the biggest danger I can see right now is that the control room of one of the reactors may become too radioactive to work in, making it harder and take longer to bring that reactor to cold shutdown. The spent fuel is a problem, but as far as I know it isn't likely to get hot enough to release a lot of radioactivity, especially since they can dump water on it from above if they can't get to it any other way.

The politicians may be running around screaming "The sky is falling!", but from what I've heard so far the engineers on site are doing their very best to clean the mess up under rather daunting conditions, and so far have been largely successful, though the job's not done yet.

#161 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 09:17 PM:

Actually, hot water plus almost any hot metal is going to produce hydrogen. (Memories of general chemistry....)

It's too bad that the older reactors were designed (and built) before plate tectonics really took root (so to speak). They'd probably either have designed the plants differently or sited them elsewhere, if they'd been aware of the potential for both earthquakes and tsunamis larger than the historical records indicated.

#162 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 09:52 PM:

Lori@148, there's what really happens when a real nuclear reactor melts down, which is messy and complex, and there's what fictionally happens when a fictional nuclear reactor melts down, which is a lot more straightforward and makes a better plot device.

In both cases, the nuclear fuel rods get overheated and start to melt, and in the fictional case, they melt into a puddle of hot nuclear fuel at the bottom of the reactor that has the right mixture of materials and densities to sustain a heat-generating nuclear reaction in spite of not having the shape of moderating material the reactor was designed to work with. In some fiction, it's too hot and creates a nuclear explosion, in some fiction (including the sales literature for the nuclear reactors), and hopefully also in reality, it's too cold and fizzles out, leaving a nasty radioactive mess that may take years or hundreds of thousands of years to be safe enough to clean up.

But in some fiction, the cartoon physics makes it just right, so the nuclear porridge is hot enough that it eventually melts or cracks the concrete containment dome, sinks into the ground, and because uranium is very dense, it keeps melting the dirt and heading downhill toward the center of the earth. If the fictional physics is extra-specially just right, even hitting the molten parts of the Earth's core aren't enough to dilute it and it heads all the way down, though if you want it to bounce back up the other side you've got to get into highly creative speculative physics.

For a normal science fiction China syndrome, like the eponymous movie, just getting hot enough to melt its way through the bottom of the containment building and hitting groundwater would be enough to splatter dangerous nuclear material all over the place, contaminating a huge area. That's a bit easier - it doesn't even require that the nuclear reaction be running efficiently after the meltdown, just as long as there's enough residual heat to bust through the shoddy construction work of the greedy corporation that built the reactor and is trying to cover up their corruption by killing off the heroic journali#$#@##@#^&!!! *

* (If I were Charlie or one of the other helpful commenters, instead of ending the note with a cheap ascii-special-effects explosion**, I'd probably have spent more space talking about how the nuclear reaction depends on having moderating materials to slow down the neutrons so that they're more likely to hit the fissionable fuel material instead of flying by and expending their energy making the cement containment dome marginally more radioactive, and how lots of the work in reactor design is in making sure that that only happens when everything's working right, and that if things go wrong, the moderator and fuel aren't still together so the reaction fizzles out, whether that's boiling away the heavy water or gravity separating them or whatever.)

** There's supposed to be an Earth-shattering kaboom?

#163 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2011, 10:31 PM:

Teenager rumor mill says the creator of Pokemon was killed in the earthquake/tsunami.

Anyone know?

Yeah, I know this is trivial compared to the nuclear stuff.

For some reason, tonight's news coverage on ABC brought me to tears, probably because they were talking about the lives of ordinary people quite a bit.

#164 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:48 AM:

#160 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers):

It's too bad that the older reactors were designed (and built) before plate tectonics really took root (so to speak). They'd probably either have designed the plants differently or sited them elsewhere, if they'd been aware of the potential for both earthquakes and tsunamis larger than the historical records indicated.

That's a remarkable case of unknown (or semi-known) unknowns.

#165 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 03:10 AM:

It occurs to me that scenes of devastation get old very quickly in news media. I saw one such scene yesterday which could have been posed by the photographer: an almost anime-stereotype schoolgirl, looking a little too clean, sitting in the middle of the rubble, weeping. It may have been a real survivor, but it screamed "set-up" to me.

Looming disaster for the world, they can keep selling newspapers with.

Yesterday there was another earthquake, quite bad, a good way south of Tokyo. It's not getting much attention, even though it's a 6.1 according to the first reports. All the reporters seem to be on some hill, inland and upwind of Fukushima, with telescopes on their cameras, squealing with delight when something visible happens.

The slow search and rescue (and not much chance of rescue now) is Just Another Heap of Rubble.

And there's war in Libya, bringing back into the news the placenames of 70 years ago, but it isn't nyuclear. Torture in an American prison. Political shenanigans. None of that seems to matter.

The news business is really disgusting at times.

#166 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 03:45 AM:

Frankly, all this talk about how this is no big deal and we shouldn't worry and it can't get that bad sounded a lot more convincing on the weekend, before the steady trickle of new bad news since Monday, and especially before the press conferences and addresses of Tuesday.

The explanation about how thick and strong and impenetrable and indestructible the containment buildings are leave out

1) that the containment building at one of the reactors (I think no. 2) has apparently already been damaged;

2) that at another one of the reactors (I think no. 4) there's apparently trouble with spend rods that were already outside the containment building;

and most importantly, 3) that every reactor at a power station naturally has various tubes for pressurized water/steam leading from inside the reactor all the way to outside the containment building as a vital part of how it works (a detail that's apparently often conveniently left out when people want to explain how save reactors are), and that radioactive substances might get into the steam or water in the reactor, move with the steam or water through the tubes, and get released into the atmosphere, which has apparently already happened to some amount, and is apparently still happening.

Basically, if you spent the first days after the earthquake telling us all to move along because there was nothing to see there, then you've got egg on your face now. (Or perhaps it's white smoke or steam in your face.) And it would be nice if you started to notice that.

Thank you.

#167 ::: juan ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 04:05 AM:

I've (just recently) found the blog associated with MIT's Nuclear Science and Engineering Department to be pretty helpful at explaining the engineering and scientific issues behind the press reports:


Recent Posts

* What is Decay Heat?
* What are Spent Fuel Pools?
* Unit 2 Explosion and Unit 4 Spent Fuel Pool Fire
* Explanation of Hydrogen Explosions at Units 1 and 3
* Damage to Fukushima Daiichi 2 [World Nuclear News]

#168 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 05:41 AM:

Fuck. I actually believed the post debunked here when I first read it. I even saved it in my collection of valuable pages, which I don't do often. I know it's silly of me and I shouldn't be surprised, but I actually feel kind of personally betrayed.

#169 ::: juan ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 06:25 AM:

I have to say, I had no idea just how extensive the reliance on active control (line power, diesel and battery water-circulation systems) of the heat generated by fission in active and spent fuels is in this generation of nuclear power facilities.

And now I read that I've got one of the same design just a little ways from my home. Along with about a quarter of those who live near a US nuclear plant.

Mine's also upstream of our municipal water intake.

#170 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 07:23 AM:

Raphael @166:

I'd be very interested in why you are so eager to figure out the relative quantities of egg on different people's faces, particularly all the people miles away from the disaster and with no decision-making role in dealing with it.

Wait, no, I wouldn't. Can we all do a quick reread of this very relevant comment and dial back on the dominance games?

(Media figures are a different matter, but your comment reads like it's addressed to other people in the conversation. Clarification welcome.)

#171 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 08:47 AM:

abi @170 "(Media figures are a different matter, but your comment reads like it's addressed to other people in the conversation. Clarification welcome.)"

Ummh, yes, it was.After the events of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday so far, I'm simply not all that interested in being nice to people who insist that this is no big deal for the moment. It's probably better if I stay out of this for a while.

#172 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 08:52 AM:

Raphael @186: The original article has been edited and updated by actual MIT engineering faculty. Have you read that?

As to feelings of betrayal, it may be fair to hold that against the original author of the piece, though he meant well, but if you're going to extend that to everyone else who isn't yelling that the sky is falling, you're not going to find much welcome here.

As Abi says, nothing that happens in Fukushima now is going to be even noticed in North America or Europe, radiation-wise, and we aren't in a position to affect the situation anyway. Panic and sensationalise if you like, but don't expect everyone to join in.

#173 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 09:58 AM:


I've not seen anyone here say this is no big deal. It is a very serious situation, and it could get much worse, but every day that nothing catastrophic happens lowers that chance quite a bit.

Now, some of the things taking place lately are cause for concern. First, the damaged containment structures.

These reactors have multiple layers of containment around the radioactive fuel, starting with the cladding on the fuel rods themselves. It's made of a zirconium alloy and is very heat resistant. Unfortunately, in at least two of the reactors the operators believe temperatures got high enough to cause the cladding to possibly crack or rupture, which could allow the fuel in the rods to contact the water directly.

The next layer of containment is the reactor vessel itself, a sealed steel cylinder about 8-10 inches thick. It's made of special hardened steel that is resistant to heat and pressure, and none of these pressure vessels have ruptured or been damaged. If they had, we would see a huge increase in radioactivity outside the buildings, far above what they're getting right now.

The third layer of containment is a meters-thick reinforced steel and concrete structure that surrounds the pressure vessel, pumps and other cooling systems. It is designed to withstand pressures from inside or outside the structure, and it can be flooded with water to help cool the vessel in an emergency. These reactors also have a torus at the base of this containment structure that holds water, and is used to help regulate the pressure inside the steel reactor vessel. It's also used as an emergency coolant supply.

The explosion in Reactor #2's outer building has apparently damaged the torus around the containment structure, but not the concrete structure itself. There are some reports that the hydrogen explosion at Reactor #3 on Monday damaged the containment structure there, but they haven't said anything else about that. As long as the core remains cooled inside the pressure vessel, though, no major release of radiation will happen even if the outer concrete structure is damaged. Btw, the buildings on the outside of the reactor systems themselves aren't considered part of the radiation containment systems. They're present to basically keep the weather off of everything else. The hydrogen explosions at Reactors #1, #3 and #4 all happened inside these buildings but outside the containment systems.

In order to keep pressures from building up in the reactor vessels, TEPCO has vented steam from the reactors into sumps, and from the sumps through a mechanical scrubber and out to the atmosphere. The scrubber removes some of the radiation but not all of it; what's left is the relatively short-lived isotopes that are harmless after about 48 hours. It's these radiation levels being noticed downwind and outside of the nuclear plant itself.

Now, the spent fuel is another story though. The spent fuel rods sit in a deep pool of water, with no containment around them at all. The water serves to both cool and moderate the radioactivity in the rods, and the pools have temperature gauges and pumps to keep the water level stable. In at least Reactor #4's pool, though, they have failed and the water level is decreasing. If the rods become exposed as the water level drops, they'll start heating up. Also in Reactor #4's pool is the reactor's fuel rods they removed to do some maintenance to the reactor structure itself. If the rods end up fully exposed, they could heat to the point where the cladding cracks open and releases some very long-term radioactive isotopes. It's unlikely that they could spontaneously catch fire, but if there's a fire nearby then this material could be thrown up into the air and carried downwind.

Right now, TEPCO is trying to keep water circulating through all three reactors to keep them cool. They've estimated that about 70% of Reactor #1's core was damaged, and about 33% of Reactor #2's was damaged. Radiation levels on the plant grounds have forced a temporary abandonment of the plant by the crew, although I just read a report saying 180 personnel had just returned. They are focussing on controlling Reactor #3 and the spent fuel storage pond on Reactor #4. They believe that Reactors 1 and 2 are stable and will continue cooling without further trouble.

Now, none of that is "nothing to worry about" or handwaving the dire situation away. It's all factual, based on news reports, discussions with people who do that kind of work daily, and my own research into this whole issue. The situation is still very hazardous and it could get a lot worse if something unexpected happens, but the crews are working heroically to control this and the designs are performing as they expect them to.

#174 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 10:48 AM:

Melissa Singer @ #163: Teenager rumor mill says the creator of Pokemon was killed in the earthquake/tsunami. Anyone know?

On this point, at least, the news remains good.

#175 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 10:53 AM:

Japan isn't the only place where a huge earthquake and tsunami could happen.

Pacific Northwest

#176 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 10:55 AM:

John L @ 173: Thank you for that summary/explanation: very useful.

#177 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 11:37 AM:

Paul A @174: Thanks! News and links conveyed to teenager.

#178 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 01:14 PM:

Raphael --

It is, I think, entirely possible that some of the other posters in this thread are growing short with you because in comparison with all of the rest of the earthquake-and-tsunami-related damage and suffering in Japan right now, the nuclear reactors are a sideshow.

An expensive and frightening sideshow, but still . . . entire villages have vanished. An entire train -- also gone. We've got reports of bodies washing up on the beaches not in tens and twenties, or even hundreds, but thousands. The survivors are crammed into shelters. Comms are patchy to nonexistent. Water, light, even heat are completely out at worst and undependable at best -- and the weather is turning cold.

This is not, I would submit, the time for spectators on the other side of the world to be using somebody else's catastrophe to bolster their own political positions.

#179 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 01:40 PM:

My problem is that I want to do whatever teeny bit I can to help, but I don't know how. I've received communication from Doctors Without Borders that the massive mobilization that Japan has organized doesn't need their relatively small assistance, so they aren't taking donations either for work in Japan.

So I don't know what to do.

So many people have stepped up when I broadcast the call for help for Haiti and for New Orleans -- and I also knew the deal with those places, with intimate familiarity of location and people. I knew a lot more too about Pakistan, partly due to my neighbors downstairs with whom we'd gotten very friendly.

With Japan, not at all. All the Japanese I know are American, and most of them say they don't even speak Japanese.

Nevertheless, I can figure out all too well what it means to be without shelter, clothing, food in the winter.

Love, c.

#180 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 01:41 PM:

Debra Doyle @178:

The last item I was able to find on the trains gives a total of 4 missing (I'm presuming they were passenger trains).

I've been following the news to try to find out what happened to far, I've seen one picture of a couple of passenger cars amidst the assorted rubble. I don't know enough about where the tracks ran to even guess what happened. (And I'll confess I've been too disheartened to look it up.)

The pictures from the fishing village, showing that there was one road up into the hills -- and over 9,000 people in that town...with as little warning as they had -- did anyone manage to leave?

#181 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:08 PM:

Lori #180: The pictures from the fishing village, showing that there was one road up into the hills -- and over 9,000 people in that town...with as little warning as they had -- did anyone manage to leave?

Are you referring to Otsuchi? A person named Brian Barnes headed for the hills as soon as the quake hit and shot some video. There are survivors in the video that he shot afterward in the town, he says he ran into about a dozen survivors there, and that's grim. He says there were around a half-dozen people on the hill with him, including a couple of firefighters. That isn't real good.

The time elapsed between the earthquake and the tsunami was on the order of 8-10 minutes.

#182 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:23 PM:

Constance @179 and others looking for a good place to make a donation. Look at the Japan Commerce Association of Washington DC website Most of the site is in Japanese but front and center there is a link in English about donations. They are taking checks through March 31 which they will accumulate into a single donation to the Japanese Red Cross.

I don't have personal knowledge about the organization but I heard of the effort through an e-mail to the parent list at my daughter's high school from the school's Japanese teacher, who said she was an active member.

#183 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:26 PM:

There's a page here listing organizations taking donations to help with the disaster. Some of the organizations are religious, others are secular, so there would appear to be something on the list for concerned donors of either stripe.

#184 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:29 PM:

One of those four missing trains was found, I think on Saturday. It was wrapped around a tower and torn to pieces by the force of the water and debris.

News reports are saying some of the truck drivers are refusing to deliver emergency relief supplies to evacuation camps where people from the zone around the reactors were moved to. Apparently they believe the evacuees are radioactive and won't get near even the camps.

#185 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:35 PM:

Has anyone shared this link yet?

It's one small bright spot of a company's good reaction during a crisis. Also an interesting look at communications technology during disaster.

#186 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:38 PM:

Constance @179, how recent was that communication from Doctors Without Borders? What you report doesn't match with what they show on their website with a date of 3/15:

Elsewhere on their website, they do mention their policy of not accepting targeted/earmarked donations, only donations to their general fund, to provide the largest resource pool available for fast mobilization during emergencies.

#187 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:41 PM:

This is a glimpse of how monumental the search and recovery process will be, even without the nuclear problems:

(contains no photos of bodies)

#188 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:45 PM:

Here's the latest I've found on those trains. It's dated two days ago.

#189 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 02:45 PM:

and also this:

#190 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 04:02 PM:

So one high-speed train derailed and got taken by the tsunami. And three others are still unaccounted for...probably similar thing happened to the rest of them.

Otsuchi -- I'm glad some folks did make it out -- Amazing video.

#191 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 04:54 PM:

Rikibeth @ 185: Thanks for that - nice to see a company behaving properly - like a menche!

#192 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 05:25 PM:

Lori, that's only a high speed train by US standards. In Japan (and Europe) it's a commuter train.

I note the early reports that a shinkansen was taken out are allegedly down to a report in the Daily Mail, which is slightly more reliable than the Weekly World News on days with a "Z" in their name.

#193 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 06:29 PM:

I only read Weekly World News on days with a "Z" in their name.

#194 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 07:24 PM:

#182 ::: OtterB

Thank you! That looks good!

The Doctors Without Borders e-mail was sent out to people in the UK (which was forwarded to me by an SF/F writer friend there) on Sunday.

Love, C.

#195 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 08:31 PM:

I'm donating to Doctors Without Borders precisely because they're being honest about how all the money goes into a general fund for current and future emergencies. I've heard too many stories of earmarked Red Cross funds being oversubscribed and not being able to use all the money for that disaster, while other disasters go begging.

I did notice that the current cellphone Red Cross donation drive didn't specifically claim to be earmarked for Japan: instead of texting "Japan" or some such thing you just text Red Cross. I hope that means that the money goes into their general fund, to be used as best they know how, but I don't know.

#196 ::: DanR ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 10:03 PM:

What's going on with this thread? Only one guy is shouting about the impending nuclear meltdown?

One of the things I love about this forum is the detailed analysis you can glean about specific scientific issues, without the bias of the standard news outlets. Has anyone yet breached the topic of upper air winds and regions in latitudes 35-45 being affected by radioactive rain?

Or are the isotopes going to be so spread out after the Pacific crossing that the results will be too vague, or too slow-surfacing to measure?

With the fuel rods exposed, the water levels dropping, and Japan water-bombing from helicopters, does a full meltdown still seem improbable?

#197 ::: Nancy C. Mittens ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 10:06 PM:

Lizzy L, on Thursdaze?

#198 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 10:59 PM:

Debra @ #178: Yes.

"How can we make this be about us?" is neither useful nor attractive.

#199 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 11:22 PM:


If you want to find out specific information about the nuclear situation this isn't the best place. The MIT site at has information from people who are knowledgeable and not apparently badly biased. If there ends up being a radiation risk to people outside northeast Honshu there are various meteorology/climate and health blogs that will be useful.

At the moment, hypothetical radiation exposure to the US is so not the biggest problem.

#200 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2011, 11:57 PM:

Not as cheerful as the story about the Apple store in Tokyo, but something that deserves wider broadcast:

Miki Endo. May her name never be forgotten.

#201 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 01:04 AM:

Nancy @ 197, Wenzdayz.

#202 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 01:04 AM:

John L @ 184:

That is why the sensationalist reporting on stories like the reactor problems is not only irresponsible, but downright immoral. It's hard enough to do what needs to be done in an emergency; giving people false reason to believe that the danger to themselves is great makes it much harder.

#203 ::: DanR ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 08:50 AM:

Thomas @199

Understood. I will check out the MIT site. However, it's not the technical aspects of the meltdown that concern me, but the international ramifications of a Chernobyl-style meltdown and upper-level winds.

While it's true that this concern is low on the list of what is important right now, I'd planned on traveling to the Pacific in two weeks and I'm having difficulties finding enough information to make an educated decision for my family.

In the wake of the BP disaster, I can understand some of the frustrations expressed by the skeptics who refuse to accept the double-talk, or buy into the gentle let down of "the sky is not falling" contingent.

Will keep abreast on wunderground, etc. My wife seems to think even minimal risks of radiation exposure should be enough to deter us from traveling at this time.

#204 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 10:24 AM:

The real dangers to survivors come from contaminated water supplies, poor shelter, bad weather, disease, and the knock-on economic effects of their farms and shops and businesses being destroyed. That might still kill hundreds, and will certainly cause pain and distress to tens of thousands, maybe millions.

Compared with that its a bit callous to spend all our time playing high-tech disaster movies in our heads with half-understood nuclear threats that are vey unlikely to cause anywhere near as much death and destruction. Chernobyl - which was worse than any very likely outcome of this - didn't actually kill very many people compared with really nasty things like, say, our habit of driving around in cars. I don't just mean road accidents - the air pollution caused by motor vehicles kills far more people every year than the highest estimates of the rise in cancer and other diseases due to nuclear pollution.

I guess the horror of what has happened and the pictures we see of it disrupt our sense of scale.

#205 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 11:27 AM:

My wife seems to think even minimal risks of radiation exposure should be enough to deter us from traveling at this time.

What your risk tolerance is is individual. It might be worth thinking of/presenting the radiation exposures in terms of the flight to the Pacific; if my memory serves me correctly, as of yeasterday spending time 2 km from the reactor was less exposure to radiation than the same amount of time in a standard jet.

#207 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 07:44 PM:

This article, arguing that the Japanese government has been ineffective and unable to communicate, is interesting to read in parallel with the post that Nancy links to @ 159 about the panic levels of English-language media. Especially this quote:

"On Wednesday, Mr. Edano told a press conference that radiation levels had spiked because of smoke billowing from Reactor No. 3 at Fukushima Daiichi, and that all staff members would be temporarily moved “to a safe place.” When he did not elaborate, some foreign reporters, perhaps further confused by the English translator from NHK, the national broadcaster, interpreted his remarks as meaning that Tepco staff members were leaving the plant. From CNN to The Associated Press to Al Jazeera, panicky headlines shouted that the Fukushima Daiichi plant was being abandoned, in stark contrast to the calm maintained by Japanese media, perhaps better at navigating the nuances of the vague comments."

On the other hand, it's not just the foreign media getting irate:

"“We cannot confirm,” an official insisted. “It is impossible for me to say anything at this point,” another said. And as always, there was an effusive apology: “We are so sorry for causing you bother.” “There are too many things you cannot confirm!” one frustrated reporter replied in an unusually strong tone that perhaps signaled that ritual apologies had no place in a nuclear crisis."

This sentence wins the memorial Those Mysterious Easterners, So Different From You and Me award:

"Powerful bureaucrats retire to better-paid jobs in the very industries they once oversaw, in a practice known as “amakudari.”"

Mein Gott! Shocking! They have a special word for it even!

#208 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 08:52 PM:


My apologies. I overreacted.

It is safe to say that any radiation reaching the US will be spread out over quite a wide area. This means, firstly, that the levels will be very low, and secondly, that it won't be confined to the coast. There has been a map circulating on the internet that purports to predict high levels of exposure on the Pacific coast. This map is definitely a hoax.

As far as I can tell the worst-case meltdown scenario is still major local contamination rather than anything with significant consequences world-wide. That's plenty bad enough, but it's not a reason to avoid the Pacific. If anything happens that is dramatic enough to make being on the Pacific coast more dangerous than flying there, you'll hear about it days in advance.

#209 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 08:58 PM:

I'd use an analogy like 'opening a bottle of perfume out of doors' to explain why any escaping radiation won't be a problem by the time it gets to the US. You notice it if you're close enough to the source but farther away it's about one molecule of perfume per large-volume-of-air.

#210 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 09:44 PM:

@heresiarch "Powerful bureaucrats retire to better-paid jobs in the very industries they once oversaw, in a practice known as “amakudari.”"
Mein Gott! Shocking! They have a special word for it even!

Can we steal that word? I think English needs that word.

#211 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2011, 11:21 PM:

Thena: Corruption? Regulatory Capture? SNAFU?

#212 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 12:21 AM:

Thena, Terry: The American equivalent is "revolving-door hiring". Because it goes the other way too; corporate executives can take a couple of years "vacationing" in the regulatory agency that's supposed to control their industry. This is generally seen as a step along the path to a higher-paying position.

#213 ::: Torrilin ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 12:37 AM:

My wife seems to think even minimal risks of radiation exposure should be enough to deter us from traveling at this time.

A lot of people think this way.

I'm a TMI survivor, so my lifetime radiation dose is unknown. There is a clear ceiling on the dose I could have gotten, but the actual dose is unknown, and never will be known. More people died trying to evacuate Dauphin and Cumberland counties than died of causes attributable to the reactor meltdown. It is entirely possible I'm alive to type this because my parents decided to remain in place. Car seats at the time weren't very good, and their cars weren't very good for hauling around a small child.

For a lot of very understandable reasons, Japanese people have a cultural bias to find radiation far more alarming than Americans. This is why the evacuated area is so large, and it is why with each piece of bad news, the evacuation cordon grows. They are expanding the cordon as fast as they can safely evacuate. (I've read some of the primary sources in translation... and it's definitely horrifying stuff. Horrifying enough that my brain has done its best to block out as much detail as possible)

This leaves me not much inclined towards panic, but I can see why a person might reasonably come to a different conclusion. Particularly for optional travel.

#214 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 12:59 AM:

Lee: The effect of the revolving door is "regulatory capture", which is corrupt, and fast becoming SNAFU.

#215 ::: Kate Salter Jackson ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 02:44 AM:

My co-worker in our company's Tokyo office gave me the following link for the Japanese Red Cross.

He lives west of Tokyo, and is working from home, dealing with Rolling blackouts and other issues.

#216 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 11:16 AM:

Terry, while I agree with you, I would quibble about SNAFU. It is rapidly becoming SN, but unlike the Army, the way it works is exactly the way it's intended to work (by the people involved, at least - not to us, of course).

I feel the situation is more like BAD, from IBM - "broken as designed".

Doesn't make me feel any better about it, though. And of course, I live in Republican North Alberta, so I'm strangely intimately familiar with the issue.

I like amakudari. I should get my Japanese exchange co-worker to teach me how to pronounce it properly.

#217 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 01:24 PM:

We have no special word for that phenomenon in the US, for much the same reason we have no word for the subset of humans who breathe oxygen and have their genetic information encoded in DNA molecules inside their cells.

#218 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 02:32 PM:

The problem with using "amakudari" to describe the American situation is that it makes it sound like the practice is something foreign in origin, rather than entirely homegrown. In its place I humbly put forth the neologism "Sachsmanning," which is defined as "the act of repeatedly rotating between pubic employment in a regulation agency and private employment in the industry regulated."

#219 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 03:51 PM:

Mycroft W #216: AIUI, Japanese transliterates just fine, because except for that pesky L/R composite, its phonemes are a subset of English's. So you pronounce it as written, just faster.

And regulatory capture isn't "BAD"... because it's not a design choice, it's a failure mode!

For almost any governance system, really -- the details are in just how the regulatees collect enough influence to "defend themselves against government interference".

#220 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 04:12 PM:

David Harmon @ 219: So you pronounce [amakudari] as written, just faster.

The problem I have with pronouncing Japanese words is remembering (or, more likely, guessing) which syllable is accented. In this case, I'm guessing "ku" (after the pattern of "SA-shi-mi" and "hi-RO-shi-ma"), but I certainly wouldn't be surprised to find out that I was wrong.

#221 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 04:28 PM:

heresiarch, lee, terry, mycroft, thena, david harmon (sorry if I left anyone out)

I have a problem seeing a crossflow between regulators and the regulated industry as an unmitigated evil.

The unspoken assumption I'm hearing here is that all the bad guys are in industry, and if you could just keep them from getting their greasy fingerprints all over the regulatory process, that everything would be fine. That's a legitimate concern, but I think there's a risk in the other direction as well.

If you put up walls between the parties here, you decrease the risk of regulatory capture, but you increase the risk of regulations made with a lack of understanding of practical considerations, technology changes, local conditions, etc. You increase the risk of by-the-numbers regulation: this is declared safe if someone has checked off all the boxes on the safety form, whether or not that bears much relationship to underlying reality. (And I'm not talking about deliberately falsified forms, I'm talking about oversimplifying a complex situation and then mistaking that simplification for the whole picture.)

To me it seems similar to management-union relationships. It's best for workers if the union is truly independent and not a company union (or dismantled). But it's also best if the two groups can, under most circumstances, work with a certain level of respect for each other and a recognition that some, though not all, of their interests are in common.

If you reduce it to the point where people demonize the other side and only communicate through their lawyers, you lose the upside potential of genuine collaboration.

But then I remain, despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary, a believer in the existence of people with integrity in pretty much every job out there. The challenge is to empower them without handing over the key to the henhouse to the foxes. Perhaps this is doomed to be written as a fantasy, and never as near-future science fiction.

#222 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 04:29 PM:

I suspect regulatory capture is almost never entirely one-way, either. The sensibilities of the regulators, what makes their lives and jobs easier, etc., filter into the practices of the regulated industry, just as the sensibilities of the regulated industry filter into the regulatory agency.

The thing to understand is, while there is an adversarial aspect to their role, they're broadly working in the same industry, and in many areas, the goals of the regulators and regulated industry align. USDA meat inspectors and meat packing plants are both in the business of getting hamburger to my table. They have somewhat different interests in terms of what kinds of tradeoffs between food safety and cost are acceptable (the meatpackers would probably rather spend less and accept more risk of their customers getting sick, though that's limited by the likely loss of business if they're too often sickening their customers). But both want the US meat supply to have a good reputation for safety, both are likely interested in US meat suppliers doing well financially (regulators depend on the regulated industry to justify their funding and existence), and meat packers that comply with regulations have an incentive to see their competitors forced to comply, as well. (For an illustration of this, note how the USDA's criteria for how much meat should be tested for mad cow disease changed after a case was reported inside the US. My understanding is, they forbad suppliers to test *all* their cows and report the results.)

And somewhere in the broad category of regulatory capture is what Simon Johnson called "ideological capture," when some industry has higher social position or ideological weight than its regulators or other decisionmakers, and so (for example), decisionmakers start taking the word of investment bankers as being extremely weighty, see them as an important part of the financial system that must be protected, when investment banking experience is seen as giving a person a huge edge in terms of how smart or capable they're assumed to be, etc. My sense is that the intelligence agencies and military have substantially ideologically captured US media and many US politicians, for example. (Which I guess is fair in some sense--certainly, the *financial* rewards of a career at CIA or in the Marines aren't nearly as nice as the rewards of a career in the financial industry. But it makes them less reliable when they're reporting on what the latest Pentagon shill is telling them.)

#223 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 04:53 PM:

OtterB: Sorry, but government regulators don't just walk around in utter innocence of the industry they regulate, just because they haven't been a "company man". You're holding up a contrived and theoretical threat against a present danger to our welfare.

albatross: Sure, if the regulators have actual power, they could influence the industry. But when the corporations are paying far more than government, they get far more allegiance from someone who's playing both roles. There's also the point that we're not talking about assembly-line workers who train as inspectors -- we're talking about high executives of the company, who are magically granted similarly high positions in the agency that's supposed to rein in the very corporation that's still paying them through pensions or stocks.

Yeah, some of them could be all high-minded, and willing to smack down their company in the name of public safety, even if it means sacrificing their return to that better-paid corporate position.... Personally, I'll bet on that old saw about "hard to make someone see a problem when their salary depends on ignoring it".

It doesn't help when both government and corporations are working by a rule of "no headlines, no foul", either.

#224 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 06:21 PM:

The chance of a "meltdown" of any of these reactors was slight at the start, and is rapidly approaching zero with every passing day. Here's why:

As soon as those control rods slammed into the reactor cores on last Friday, the nuclear reaction in the cores came to an abrupt end. All that was left was the decay of some short lived isotopes in the rods (which died out in about 48 hours), and the intense heat created by the nuclear reaction itself. That heat at that point (last Friday) was so high that, if the cores had lost all their cooling at that point, they would have melted in a very short time.

They had cooling; for at least an hour after the earthquake hit, every active reactor had cooling water circulating through them courtesy of the backup diesel generators. The tsunami knocked those out on Reactor #1; batteries were brought in to keep the pumps operating while backup generators were brought in, but the generators didn't produce electricity in the phase the power station needed (Japan has two phases of power in the country), and the batteries only last about 8 hours.

When the batteries died, and before more could be flown in, the water level in Reactor #1 dropped far enough that the core was exposed, creating a partial meltdown. TEPCO estimates that about 70% of the core was damaged. Once emergency generators were brought in, they pumped seawater into the core and have continued to do so, but the damage has been done. That reactor is ruined but the seawater is keeping it stable.

Reactors #2 and #3 had diesel generators running the cooling pumps for at least 24 hours longer, when they began to fail. While operators were trying to get Reactors #1 and #3 under control, Reactor #2 actually had all the cooling water evaporate from the reactor, fully exposing and overheating the core before seawater flooded the chamber. TEPCO estimates about 33% of the core was damaged.

Notice the difference in damage. Reactor #1 lost pumping power almost immediately, while Reactor #2 didn't lose it until about 36 hours later. In just that short amount of time, Reactor #2's core cooled enough that even a full core exposure (no water at all) resulted in only a third of the core being damaged. Plus, it wasn't exposed once, but twice while they fought to get power back to the pumps.

Since last weekend, all three reactors have had constant amounts of seawater cooling them. They've cooled enough that the chance for a meltdown has probably long gone, but they could still generate hydrogen if they were left to heat up, so they still get watched and monitored.

The fuel storage ponds are a different problem, but if the pumps still work at those ponds, once power is restored they will fill up and keep them from heating at all. If the pumps don't work, they will need to get water in them somehow, or the rods could heat to the point where the cladding could crack open, releasing high levels of radiation into the nearby environment.

There is ZERO chance of a "Chernobyl like" event. The airborne radiation being detected in Tokyo is the short-lived isotopes that have a half-life of a few hours. The heavier isotopes aren't carried by the air; at Chernobyl they were blasted into the atmosphere by the combination of a core explosion and graphite fire, neither which we will have here. Even if the rods heated to the point where they caught fire, the heavy elements would not spread more than a few miles from the plant.

MIT has a good description of all this, so does the IAEA. Don't listen to the media, especially the US media, because they are doing their best to frighten everyone about this disaster.

#225 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 09:06 PM:

And doing a damned good job, from what I've heard co-workers saying. (No, they don't have a clue about radiation even under normal conditions. Very few of them have science beyond the minimum required for whatever they majored in.)

#226 ::: tw ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 09:15 PM:

Agree P J Evans, MIT NSE department is doing an amazing job. Just explaining what going critical actually means compared to what media and pop culture use it for is top notch. Nice when coming back from a break to see the science catching up to the hype and hopefully overtake it.

#227 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 09:18 PM:

David Harmon @ 223

Nicely put. There's nothing an entry level regulator can't learn in the same ways an entry level industry employee would. You just tack on some additional training on not only what things are and how they work, but how to detect when people are hiding things. Really, once you've got the auditorial/investigative skills, it's a matter of critical thinking and research.

I'll also point out that most people in the upper levels of government realize that they may need an escape hatch someday, if they offend the wrong person. So even if they're a career government employee, it doesn't inherently prevent them from conflict of interest.

#228 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 09:39 PM:

David Harmon @223 Sorry, but government regulators don't just walk around in utter innocence of the industry they regulate, just because they haven't been a "company man". You're holding up a contrived and theoretical threat against a present danger to our welfare.

I didn't say that regulators were in utter innocence if they'd never been "company men." I don't think all regulators need to have worked in the industry. But neither do I think that the only reason to move back and forth is to feather one's nest. I think a mix of experience in the people making and enforcing regulations is to the benefit of all.

If I absolutely had to pick a side, I would pick the regulators. I do not think industry can be self-policing in the things that matter most; there are too many counterpressures and incentives to look the other way. But I think it's a false dichotomy to think that all the virtue is on the side of pure, unsullied regulators and all the vice on the side of the corporations.

I was going to say that I agreed that underregulation was more of a problem than overregulation at this point. But the more I think about it, the more I think maybe there's a problem with badly-aimed regulation. Sort of like the thing about having pages of specifications for a military purchase of chocolate chip cookies, but nowhere does it say that they have to taste good. (Is that one an urban myth? Hope not.) There are probably mile-high stacks of HIPAA forms, but private information leaks in unanticipated ways. Airport security is more and more intrusive but we're not convinced it's making us any safer.

I do understand why this happens. General regulations are too easy to evade. (This starts early: "But mom, I'm not touching her!") To make sure you get what you want, you have to specify in detail. The more precisely you can specify something, the more easily you can confirm that it happens or doesn't happen - and the less likely you are to have covered everything. I don't know how you fix this, other than an unlikely radical overhaul of human nature.

#229 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 10:26 PM:

I meant the scary news media were doing a damned good job putting out bad stories about radiation. (my bad, sorry)
I'll admit, the LA Times is being pretty good about 'it isn't going to be dangerous', but it's hard to get through to people who are all 'OMG radiation! We're all going to die in agony!'

#230 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 10:37 PM:

Tim Walters @ 220: "The problem I have with pronouncing Japanese words is remembering (or, more likely, guessing) which syllable is accented."

That's because it's a trick question--none of the syllables are accented. Japanese has a fairly subtle two tone system* and voiced/unvoiced vowels, but no accented syllables. That's why it sounds fast (cf. David Harmon @ 219) and monotonic to English-speaking ears.

* Most places.

OtterB @ 221: "The unspoken assumption I'm hearing here is that all the bad guys are in industry, and if you could just keep them from getting their greasy fingerprints all over the regulatory process, that everything would be fine."

Speaking only for myself, but the concern I have isn't that icky nasty business people will contaminate the regulatory system--it's that in order to do their job, regulators need to have a point of view that's quite distinct from that of businesses. Businesses work to optimize the system for a certain set of parameters--namely profit--and we've discovered that tends to muck things up rather royally. Regulators ought to work to optimize the system for stability and the good of the rest of us; to do so they need a calculated lack of sympathy for the poor businesspeople, just trying to make an honest dollar! Not ignorance, not hatred, but not benevolence either. Constantly cycling individuals between private enterprise and regulation means that no such distinction exists, and weirdly enough it's not the regulator's view that wins out.

"If you reduce it to the point where people demonize the other side and only communicate through their lawyers, you lose the upside potential of genuine collaboration."

Given the world as it is currently constituted, I rank this possibility just above worrying how excessive asteroid mining in the Oort cloud could expose Earth to higher concentrations of deep space radiation on my list of Things Which Concern.

#231 ::: tw ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 10:53 PM:

I'm waiting to see if there is a future uptick in thyroid disorders from people outside the disaster zone self medicating with iodine tablets they didn't need.

#232 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 11:12 PM:

OtterB #228: I do not think industry can be self-policing in the things that matter most;

But that's exactly the issue -- if the companies control the regulatory agencies, they effectively are self-policing. And like I said, we're not talking about the rank-and-file here, on either side. We're talking about the people who make and enforce policy -- and unless they're Very Special People, their long-term loyalties are going to be to the folks who pay them the big bucks. This is not good for the regulatory agencies....

And then, if you somehow deal with that problem, you get to heresiarch #230's "mindset" issue!

#233 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2011, 11:44 PM:


Regulators do need an outside point of view, but they also need to understand the business they're regulating pretty well, just to be able to do things like negotiate effectively or know what the incentives are on the other side. And like I said, regulators and regulated industries aren't exactly opponents, though they're not exactly allies, either. (If they become either, I think the system fails.) For example, you don't want the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies being opponents, or new drugs won't get developed. But you also don't want them being partners, exactly, or unsafe drugs will get approved.

#234 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 01:14 AM:

albatross @ 233: "Regulators do need an outside point of view, but they also need to understand the business they're regulating pretty well, just to be able to do things like negotiate effectively or know what the incentives are on the other side."

Didn't I cover that with "not ignorance nor hatred"? It is true that they're not opponents in the sense that their interests are so perfectly opposed that any win for one is a loss for the other, but they are operating within the same system trying to maximize different characteristics--there's an inherent conflict there.

And I continue to be mildly thrown by being cautioned about the danger of overly-distant relations between regulators and the regulated in a world where regulators literally in bed with the industries they're regulating.

#235 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 01:24 AM:

heresiarch @ 230: Japanese has a fairly subtle two tone system* and voiced/unvoiced vowels, but no accented syllables.

I was in Japan a few months ago, and that's not what I heard at all. For example, the accent on the first syllable of "sashimi" is very strong. (I'm willing to believe that it's agogic, or based on voicing or pitch, but it definitely isn't subtle.)

#236 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 01:18 PM:

Some words pick up stresses in everyday spoken Japanese, but the way to bet on an unfamiliar words is on no stress. In addition, U's in certain syllables can be destressed so as to almost disappear, as can some I's, so that 'sashimi' sounds like 'sashm^' (that's meant to be a schwa). I don't know what you heard, of course, but that might be it.

As to 'amakudari' it would definitely sound more like 'amak^dari' or even 'amakdari' than 'amakoodari'.

#237 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 05:52 PM:

Tim Walters, NelC: As I understand it, the "destressed" sound of many U's and some I's is due to them being unvoiced. It's particularly pronounced when they follow an unvoiced consonant, such as K, Sh or S; in those cases they sound very much like lone consonants. There are also agogic differences in Japanese, if my google search on the definition of agogic is to be trusted: some vowels are held for two beats rather than the standard one. For example, Tokyo is four syllables in Japanese: "To-o-kyo-o."

#238 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 06:39 PM:

Maybe it's just my misunderstanding of "stress"; the only language I've ever heard that I would truly consider unstressed is Cartoon Robot.

Japanese speech may be more even in volume than U.S. English, and I may well sound like I'm exAGgerating EVerything when I try to pronounce it, but if it's a word I know, then I think I'm at least exaggerating the right syllables, if that makes sense.

I heard "sashimi" as SAH-shə-mee. Merely correcting the vowels, and eliminating the stress, from the typical American pronunciation ("sə-SHEE-mee") isn't enough to make it sound right to my ear. But if this puts me in disagreement with someone who actually knows something about Japanese, then I'm probably wrong.

#239 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2011, 06:53 PM:

Reuters is reporting that continual streams of water sprayed onto the spent fuel pond on Reactor #3 has managed to cover the rods, and radiation levels are dropping around the plant. Also, offsite power has been restored to Reactors #5 and #6, and their storage pond temperatures are dropping as their pumps kick in.

The next step is to get power hooked up to Reactor #4's pumps, with the intention of getting water circulating through that storage pond again. Reactor #1 and #2 also will be getting power soon, and they'll see if the main coolant pumps still work. If they do, that will enable them to focus solely on Reactor #3 and its storage pond in order to get it under control.

#240 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2011, 06:29 AM:

OtterB: I think the difference is involvement vs. capture. I don't think anyone who has a personal interest, one which will have a direct effect on livelihood/standard of living, is going to be able to completely set that aside when making decisions. One person might, two perhaps, but get three together, and the sense of "us" shows up, and that provides cover for self-interested decisions.

When their future livelihood will probably depend on the people they regulate thinking well of them...

The banking industry is likely to become the classic example. Everyone who looks at, from the outside, sees a system which cannot keep itself from creating huge boom/bust cycles. Everyone in a position to regulate it (right now) comes from inside the industry and what they are suggesting is, "pay off the debts they created, and lets get things back to normal." When questions of how to prevent it from happening again come up the answer is, "they learned from last time, no need to change things; that will only make it harder to make money. We can trust them to learn from their mistakes."

Never mind that the people who did it in the 80s (S&L fiasco) are the same people who did it in the '00s. It's not that people who understand the industry have to come from inside it, it's that people who are looking to get inside it (or go back to it) can't be trusted (as a class) to not look to make sure their nest is feathered.

I'm going to tackle the issue of military food specs (because it's something which affected me personally). The canonic one is actually fruitcake. There is a long, and detailed list. It's not a recipe. It's a minimum level of inclusion. If "fruitcake" doesn't have that minimum level of stuff... it's not fruitcake. That keeps dishonest contractors from putting a lb. of candied cherries in fifty lbs of bread and calling it fruitcake.

To enter a product for bid, it has to meet the standard (then the folks at Natick test it, and have soldiers taste it, and do other reviews before they buy it for the Army). So, at it's core, it's a myth. If the food isn't edible, it won't make the cut. I am curious as to why you want it to be true that one can sell unpalatable food to the Army.

#242 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2011, 08:37 AM:

Wow. XKCD is right up there with Jon Stewart when it comes to the lost art of journalism.

#243 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2011, 10:00 AM:

Tim, I should say that I'm not an expert on Japanese, I just went to evening classes for a while, and spent a few weeks in Japan on a couple of trips, during which I never ordered sashimi. I have a fuzzy recollection of hearing my sensei saying the word with no particular emphasis, but take that with a grain of salt. Besides, teachers' language is seldom quite the same as the language as it is actually spoken.

Still and all, with Japanese unstressed is the rule. There are exceptions: hashi with the stress on one syllable means 'bridge', and with the stress on the other means 'chopsticks', but which is which depends on whether you're in Tokyo or Osaka. (I can never remember which is which, and my dictionaries won't help me.)

As to Tokyo, in Japanese furigana it would also be written as four syllables: と う きょ う or to u kyo u ,

#244 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2011, 10:45 AM:

I am curious as to why you want it to be true that one can sell unpalatable food to the Army.

Terry @240 Sorry, don't want that at all, but I can see how it sounded that way. I was hoping it wasn't a myth because I didn't want the original discussion to go haring off after that subpoint because I'd chosen a bad example. Which it didn't. I'm glad to hear that the pages of specs are minimum to get a product into consideration, not the final hurdle.

#245 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2011, 02:13 PM:

NelC @ 243: "There are exceptions: hashi with the stress on one syllable means 'bridge', and with the stress on the other means 'chopsticks', but which is which depends on whether you're in Tokyo or Osaka."

That's actually an example of a tonal difference, not a stress difference. This page explains it, sort of, and this one has lots of examples.

Japanese tonality is something that's usually mentioned offhand in the introductory chapter, lost in the confusion of hiragana and katakana and kanji and SOV sentence structure and levels of formality, and then perhaps explained in an appendix, but is otherwise totally ignored in language classes. I also think it is the single reason why Americans almost invariably have utter crap accents in Japanese--no one ever tells them to stop trying to stress syllables.

#246 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2011, 02:38 PM:

heresiarch @ 245: Thanks, that's very helpful. I'm pretty sure what I'd been doing is abstracting out the accenting mechanism, hearing the high syllable as accented without noticing it was doing it in a different way than I would expect from English.

#247 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2011, 02:59 PM:

On regulators and regulated:

Regulatory capture doesn't require amakudari, though that makes it worse. There's a nice bit in Yes, Prime Minister explaining how each Ministry ends up representing the sector it is supposed to regulate rather than the interests of the people. That's in a professional Civil Service where there wasn't any exchange of personnel. (things have changed since)

The problem of shortage of expertise is a real one even though it gets oversold by regulated industries. I don't know about the nuclear industry, but I do know about FDA advisory committees. These are staffed by academic medical researchers who are knowledgeable about current research in their area and are willing to take on a fairly time-consuming job because of its public-health importance. These are exactly the sort of people who also organise and run large clinical trials, and large clinical trials are usually paid for by the pharmaceutical industry (because the alternative would be for the NIH to spend most of its budget providing the industry with free trials). The only people without out some industry connections are the minority who refuse all industry funding on principle. These people do exist -- in Seattle, I worked with probably the largest entirely grant-funded pharmacoepidemiology group -- but there aren't many of them. I think the FDA should put a lot more effort that it does into getting some people without any industry connections on to the committees, but there are limits to what is feasible.

#248 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 21, 2011, 07:29 PM:

And the Christian Science Monitor has either a penetrating expose or some Monday morning quarterbacking, depending on your bias....

Meanwhile, The Australian uses Japan as an example "Why we need WikiLeaks".

#249 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2011, 01:48 AM:

thomas @ 247

Well, and that kind of thing is why mandatory disclosure of interests becomes relevant. In a well-run system, you're required to recuse yourself where you're in a potential conflict of interest situation. Doesn't stop general sorts of industry loyalties, but at least prevents the worst sorts of company loyalty excesses and indirect payoffs. (It's also why many assurance jobs have objectivity requirements built in on the front end -- e.g. you can't work on issues related to decisions you were involved with for two years after you switch sides to become an auditor.)

Which is just to say -- we have tools available to help identify and mitigate some of these problems (better implemented in some places than others, for sure); the main problem I see is that it's hard to go after people for thought-crimes such as being sympathetic to the wrong industry groups -- I mean, how do you prove that and at what point is it an abandonment of your responsibilities, rather than simple disagreement?

#250 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2011, 01:07 PM:

This is amazing.

#251 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2011, 05:54 PM:

I like it, for the story (and the aside about the vacuum cleaner), but the last bit bothers me. I suspect there are lots of people doing that.

#252 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2011, 06:43 PM:

@250: That is some serious badassage.

#253 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2011, 07:21 PM:

Terry Karney @ 251: one of the news sources indicated at the end -did- say other people were also searching and helping.

#254 ::: DanR ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2011, 09:50 PM:

Okay, I admit it. I go to for news. It's more a weakness than a habit, I suppose. Over there, they are keeping Libya in the foreground and Fukushima in the periphery... but from what I can infer, the radioactive material is still melting down, still being released (in ever-widening ellipses) into the air and water and soil.

Regardless of Fukushima's implications on the upper-level winds, and thus my vacation (cancelled), the fusion of radioactive material and Japanese coastline is ripe for some killer evolution anime.

#255 ::: DanR ::: (view all by) ::: March 22, 2011, 09:51 PM:


#257 ::: tw ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2011, 12:39 AM:

The good news is power is now hooked up to all of the reactors. Thermometers are working which means data will be coming in for how much damage there is.
I want the media to stop using xtimes normal. Xtimes normal only means something if you know what normal is.

#258 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2011, 02:03 AM:

tw #257 I want the media to stop using xtimes normal


There's a perfectly good standard unit that's even calibrated well to medical risk. If they want to, they could still say that 100 microSeivert, for example, is about 2.5 cross-country flights or about 2% of a CT scan.

#259 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2011, 06:08 AM:

My summary of Fukushima would be that it could have turned really bad, but the release of radiation can be classed as minor. And it's so easy to detect the traces of contamination.

One thing I've seen mentioned: the people shown in TV reports, walking around in facemasks. It's a different culture: the Japanese wear them when they're suffering from a cold, so they're less likely to infect others. They'll wear them when pollution is bad, such as the refinery fire in Chiba, a few miles from Tokyo and also a consequence of the Earthquake. But it's been presented in some reports as a radiation thing.

It's not just irrational fear of radiation, it's ignorance about Japan.

#260 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2011, 07:55 AM:

Dave Bell #259: Say rather, it's the press playing up irrational fear of radiation, because panic sells so much better than truth.

#261 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2011, 05:51 PM:

In case you've been wanting to donate to the relief effort and don't know what organization to give your money to: a friend of mine in Japan suggests giving to Doctors Without Borders, to the International Red Cross, and/or to
these folks.

#262 ::: tw ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2011, 07:17 PM:

The IAEA is now getting numbers and has been posting them up.
"The IAEA radiation monitoring team took additional measurements at distances from 30 to 73 km from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Results from gamma dose-rate measurements in air ranged from 0.2 to 6.9 microsievert per hour. The beta-gamma contamination measurements ranged from 0.02 to 0.6 Megabecquerel per square metre."
The Tokyo water contamination is 210 becquerels per litre of iodine-131.
So one can look up the risk and meanings for yourself. Not normal, needs to be and is being taken seriously but no run around screaming end of the world panic and no significant risk to human health when dealt with appropriately.

#263 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2011, 09:22 PM:

They do that even in the US. I've seen people, probably Japanese, wearing masks out on the street. (I've also seen people here, Asian of some kind, holding on to safety grips in the subway with tissue between their hand and the grip.)

#264 ::: tw ::: (view all by) ::: March 24, 2011, 01:52 AM:

Now getting information on the state of the reactors.

#265 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: March 27, 2011, 11:32 AM:

Sorry for re-opening this thread, but I've had more than a week to calm down and rethink now, so perhaps I can try to write a bit about what had riled me up so much back then.

To recap from memory, on Friday the 11th, the Earthquake hit. From Saturday onwards, the situation in Fukushima got a good deal of attention. On Saturday and Sunday, it looked as if, although the situation was serious, any major consequences would probably be limited to the reactor buildings themselves. And a number of people who knew something or seemed to know something about nuclear power stations told us that things would soon be (or already were) under control, that there wouldn't be that much trouble at Fukushima, and that arguably the biggest problem was that hysterical people might overreact.

And with the information we had available on that weekend, all that sounded perfectly reasonable.

Then, on the Monday after the Earthquake, we heard about various incidents at the plant, some of which were said to have damaged some parts of some reactor buildings.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Kan held a short speech and a press conference- around noon Japanese time, at night where I live. (Since I had some trouble sleeping that night, I partly followed it on Twitter.) He said that things were more serious than expected, and that radioactivity that had been leaked from the plant might pose a danger to public health.

Now, to me, that press conference, combined with Monday's news reports, made it sound as if the situation was a lot more serious than most people had thought. But apparently, that was not the impression it made on most or all of the people who had said that things were mostly fine on the weekend. They continued saying that things were mostly fine, and they continued calling anyone who disagreed hysterical, throughout Tuesday and Wednesday. There was no sign of reflection, introspection or rethinking, no gesture or thoughtful comment along the lines of "Ok, it turns out that we were wrong when we said that no significant amount of radioactivity would be released, so, sorry about that". There wasn't even any sign that they had noticed that things had apparently taken a turn for the worse.

And that was what drove me up the wall. It was the attitude of someone who got you lost but still insisted that he always knew where he was going. Or, alternatively, the attitude that certain self-described Very Serious People have, in debates over various issues, shown towards people they consider Unserious, even though the Unserious People have repeatedly turned out to be right where the Very Serious People turned out to be wrong. That's what prompted my "egg on your face" comment.

And, since then, it doesn't seem to have gotten any better. In the second week after the earthquake, we got so many conflicting reports about black smoke and white smoke rising over Fukushima that pretty much everyone and their dogs made the obvious Pope election jokes. And then we heard about radioactively contaminated water in the buildings as well as some amount of radioactive particles in the ocean before Fukushima. And throughout all that, the Very Serious People are still talking about how things are fine and the biggest problem is that silly people might get themselves iodine poisoning. Still no acknowledgement that things might have taken a turn for the worse since the first days after the earthquake, or perhaps that those of us who are a bit more worried about this might not all be a bunch of screaming lunatics. And that still sometimes makes me fairly angry.

So, I'm not quite sure how I should have reacted to that, or how I should react to it now.

On a sidenote, re: the claim that people got angry at me because I took a thread about a horrible disaster that killed tens of thousands of people and turned it into a political debate- I don't think the comments from early in the thread that everyone can still read confirm that claim. As far as I can tell, the thread was already heavily focused on Fukushima before I posted a few irritated comments.

Thank you.

#266 ::: Paul Duncanson sees Rancid Spam ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2011, 02:54 AM:

Thosands of people are dead, towns are destroyed, lives are ruined. Wanna print some signs?

#267 ::: Rob Rusick thinks #268 and 266 are SPAM ::: (view all by) ::: September 24, 2011, 06:21 AM:

To be fair, Paul already flagged #266.

#268 ::: Jennifer Baughman thinks #270 is spam... ::: (view all by) ::: March 23, 2012, 04:15 PM:

One year later...

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