The Japanese earthquake is a disaster of unimaginable proportion and the misery is far from over. The folks in many areas have lost power, phone water and gas, fires are burning and rescue and response are hampered by highways either blocked by debris or clogged with people heading for safer areas. On top of all of this is the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Unfortunately our press seems to dwell on the nuclear issue and fails to adequately address the scale of the overall problem.
The word of the day is “meltdown” and it strikes terror in our collective mentality. We forget that the accident at TMI involved a meltdown but no one in the public sector was harmed as a result of that accident. Is there core melting in the Fukushima 1 reactor, most certainly BUT, and this is a big, but the primary containment is intact. The public has very limited understanding of the defense in depth built in to these plants or in the training of the plant operators, maintenance and engineering personnel. Why? Because it isn’t nearly as “sexy” as a “meltdown” and it doesn’t fit in to a 10 second sound bite.
Folks, these plants are extremely robust and the training is intensive. The accident that has taken place is NOT unimaginable to the folks at these plants; it is the basis for their training. Emergency drills are designed to take the situation to these unimaginable levels including total loss of power (referred to as station black out) and complete loss of cooling. Somehow the Operators and Engineers always found ways to overcome the challenges in these drills and protect the public health.
The people in Japan, particularly in the northern areas, face incredible challenges ahead. They have been hit by events that are far beyond anything imaginable. The earthquake was the largest in history to hit Japan and one of the largest in the world. Tsunamis typically hit 60 minutes after earthquakes but in this case they struck in as little as 10 minutes and overwhelmed barriers and systems designed to protect coastal areas. And Japan has the best emergency preparedness in the entire world. In the near future they will have to deal with the fallout from the fires at the refiners and other public health crises resulting from lack of potable water and electricity not to mention caring for all the people injured and burying their dead.
So folks, pray for them and let all of us learn from this disaster. Let us not make speedy decision based on sound bites and fear mongering. We can learn much from disasters and how they are managed and improve our systems and planning.
(By way of background, I spent most of my 40 plus year career in the nuclear power industry in many different roles including emergency preparedness. I was trained on boiling water reactors of the type at Fukushima plant and completed a great deal of training including courses at Northwestern University and MIT.)