I’ve got your meltdown right here

So far, Japan’s nuclear power plants represent an amazing triumph of design robustness

Like some of you, I’ve been trying to follow the post-earthquake events at the nuclear facilities in Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture. This effort has been both reassuring and infuriating. The bottom line at this moment appears to be that, despite worst case being heaped upon worst case, the design of the containment apparatus of the Fukushima power plants has successfully prevented any danger to the Japanese populace.

Indeed, one is forced to conclude that we have witnessed a demonstration of the near-impossibility of public danger from nuclear power plants of this type. This facility is situated in what we would be tempted to call the stupidest possible place—though densely populated Japan does not have much choice in the matter. An earthquake of the magnitude of March 11’s was literally considered impossible by seismologists, and the plants were not built to survive it. (Some, in fact, will certainly not survive as power-producing assets; where there has been partial meltdown or cooling by unfiltered seawater, the economic value of the cores will have become zero—minus the cleanup cost—almost immediately.)

When trouble came, the onsite generators that are supposed to circulate coolant in an emergency had been wiped out by the tsunami, and mobile backup generators rushed to the scene could not be hooked up because of flooding. (Who could have seen that coming after a tsunami?) As a consequence of the resulting heat buildup, hydrogen started exploding all over the place—presenting no apparent threat to the integrity of the containment vessels, but quite a significant one to the integrity of emergency responders’ bodies.

It’s a frustrating sequence of events to behold, and it has been made more so by the poor crisis management of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) and the Japanese government. A serious nuclear incident is the whole world’s concern, and TEPCO and Japan have an obligation to explain to the world just what has happened. But English-language reports from the state broadcaster, NHK, have been shockingly feeble and confused. TEPCO’s press releases, meanwhile, are masterpieces of indecipherable technical and even legal jargon. (“As the reactor pressure suppression function was lost, at 5:22am, Mar 12th, it was determined that a specific incident stipulated in article 15, clause 1 has occurred.”)

The global public has been left to figure out for itself what to make of hazy videos of nuclear power facilities exploding. What little context we can assemble, as we try to interpret such a mortifying sight, arrives mostly in shreds provided by Western oracles—ones who, in their turn, seem to mostly be working from supposition and indirect evidence, and who may not be particularly independent from the nuclear industry.

No one should forget, while trying to make sense of what’s happening in Japan, that something like 300 people died in major coal mining accidents around the world in 2010 alone. None of those accidents involved natural disasters, and probably not all of them even involved culpable human error. We just accept a certain quantum of mortality as the cost of keeping the lights on—when it comes to every means of power generation, that is, except nukes. A death toll in the single digits from the Fukushima troubles would represent an amazing triumph of design robustness. (Especially if we judge the quality of Japanese engineers and regulators by their competence at communications.)