With bated breath, hopes for Japan


March 15, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Hour by hour the world watches in horror as Japan sits on the precipice of nuclear disaster as a result from Friday’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Fears mount of a nuclear meltdown at any one or more of its now four compromised stations.
Overnight, the catastrophe has become as dire as Chernobyl in 1986.
The quake was the fifth-strongest ever recorded. That it triggered a massive 30-foot high tsunami delivered a double-punch for which safety experts in their design of the nuclear power plant did not prepare.
Also to its disadvantage, experts say, is that the stations were all of retirement age and did not include more modern safety measures.
Nothing is immune from a massive earthquake. That said, structures such as nuclear reactors include a number of measures that account for the swaying and jolting of the earth. These seismic gyrations can trigger a multitude of system failures, which are compensated by backup systems.
So when facilities like a nuclear power plant are built, it’s with the assessment that it can withstand your average catastrophe.
To rebut the wrath of Zeus, however, is not economically viable.
If a quake is that horrific, governments take the gamble that the money is better spent for widespread emergency preparedness. Better to have a majority of public buildings built to new quake-prone standards, to have adequate rescue facilities, fire stations, and hospitals to tend to the injured.
Friday’s quake was a “once in a century” event. For those of us who experienced a 500-year-flood, we know those projections are meaningless. It could as well be tomorrow as never.
The lesson is to reassess current safety standards and to prepare for risk as best as can be done.
Japan has turned increasingly to nuclear power over the past 40 years because of its dearth of natural resources to fuel its factories or heat its homes. The island country depends on imports for about 85 percent of its primary energy requirements.
An estimated 30 percent of Japan’s electricity comes from nuclear energy.
For the United States, the focus on nuclear has been twofold. One, to reduce our dependence on imported oil; and two, to rely more on “clean” energy as opposed to that generated by coal, natural gas, and oil-fired generators, which contribute to environmental pollution.

THE SPOTLIGHT, once again, is on the safety of nuclear power. Our hope is that catastrophe can be averted in Japan not only for the sake of its people, but also for the industry as a whole.


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