Sunday, March 13, 2011


Two New York Times stories, two narratives about the disaster in Japan. Which will prevail?

Will it be this one, from a story in the A section?

... Over the years, Japanese plant operators, along with friendly government officials, have sometimes hidden episodes at plants from a public increasingly uneasy with nuclear power....

Last year, [a] reactor with a troubled history was allowed to reopen, 14 years after a fire shut it down. The operator of that plant, the Monju Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, located along the coast about 220 miles west of Tokyo, tried to cover up the extent of the fire by releasing altered video after the accident in 1995....

Some also said there might have been missteps in handling Reactor No. 1. A quick alternative source of water for cooling the destabilizing core should have been immediately available, said Nils J. Diaz, a nuclear engineer....

To make plants resistant to earthquakes, operators are required to build them on bedrock to minimize shaking and to raise anti-tsunami seawalls for plants along the coast. But the government gives power companies wide discretion in deciding whether a site is safe.

In the case of Saturday's blast, experts said that problem was avoidable.

Or will it be this, from an article in the Week in Review section?

...The sobering fact is that megadisasters like the Japanese earthquake can overcome the best efforts of our species to protect against them. No matter how high the levee or how flexible the foundation, disaster experts say, nature bats last. Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, warned that an earthquake in the United States along the New Madrid fault, which caused strong earthquakes early in the 19th century, could kill tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people in the more densely populated cities surrounding the Mississippi River.

All technology can do in the face of such force is to minimize damage to communities and infrastructure, he said, and "on both of those fronts, we're never going to be perfect." ...

Hmm, let me think.

Really, is there any doubt? If it's a choice between "powerful people in expensive suits got away with having a cavalier attitude toward public safety, and with having inadequate resources to avert disaster, while government officials looked the other way" and "oh well, stuff happens," I think it's obvious which will be chosen: the one that's not going to encourage us to look at our energy producers with suspicion.

Then again, perhaps there's a third choice, suggested by the last paragraphs of the print version of that Times news story (for some reason, the paragraphs don't appear online):

...Andrew C. Kadak, a consultant and former chief executive of the Yankee Atomic Electric Company, said when it came to communicating nuclear issues to the public, Japanese and American cultures were different.

"We have the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, everything is out in public view," he sais. "The Japanese system is a little different. They are not used to openness and transparency."

Covering up safety issues? That could never happen here!

When I wander over to Robert Stacy McCain's blog and see a post titled "Finally: Japanese Official Admits 'Possible Partial Meltdown' at Nuclear Power Plant," I really wonder if that's going to be the narrative we settle on: the Japanese made mistakes, but heaven knows we would never allow energy producers to endanger the public safety that way. God bless America!

No comments: