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When there are too many (thoughts on Fukushima and environmental catastrophe)

March 18, 2011

Back in ’92 there was a spin-off of the 1972 TV series Kung-Fu, called Kung-Fu, The Legend Won’t Shut Up or something like that. Like the original it was a fun series, leaning more to comedy than drama. Both featured flashback scenes to the Shaolin temple where the Kung-Fu guy learned his Fu or whatever.

In one flashback he was learning to defeat several enemies at once. Surrounded, he sent five attackers to the floor and stood, exhausted, looking at his teacher.

“But Master,” he asked; “what if there are too many?”

The wizened old man replied; “When there are too many, you can… only die.”

It may have been inappropriate that I thought of this scene as I learned about the Fukushima Daiichi reactors being hit by a huge Earthquake and a giant tsunami. I can imagine the engineers at the plant looking out to sea and exclaiming; “Aw, come on!” It just seemed… unfair. The diesel generators were put out of commission, and cooling pumps failed.

Despite their preparations, it was… too many. Now the plant teeters on the edge of utter catastrophe while heroic plant workers try to get water back onto reactor cores.  They might succeed, they might not.

There are apparently twenty-three reactors in the US like the ones at Fukushima. I hope someone at each one is doing some forward thinking, especially the four in Illinois. Not necessarily for tsunamis but for possible catastrophes in the locale where they are. Could an Earthquake at the New Madrid fault, for instance, re-route the Mississippi over to the ones at Moline?

I’ve seen a lot of noise about moving away from nuclear power because stuff can go wrong. As some wag commented, though, nuclear causes catastrophes when it goes wrong, and coal causes a slow-motion catastrophe even when it works exactly as intended. It’s just that the coal disaster is more diffuse, in the way people are afraid of terrorism when they should be worried about auto accidents.

We’ve really painted ourselves into a corner with fossil carbon energy. In the long run, we’re going to need to transition to all-sustainable energy for pretty much everything. And “sustainability” means “something that you can keep doing as long as you want“. You won’t run out of whatever it is, and whatever damage it does won’t exceed the environment’s ability to repair on a constant basis.

That’s conservation, wind, some biofuels (not corn ethanol), tidal power, solar (photovoltaic and concentrated), stuff like that.

But we have to get there from here. It won’t be risk-free, and it will involve bridges and transitions. Before we have more electric trains and electric cars powered by windmills, we’ll need drop-in replacements for gasoline and stuff like that. In particular, we will need every low-carbon mains’ power source we can find.

The General Electric Mark I plants like the one at Fukushima are a 40-year-old design. We already know how to build better plants and there are plans for inherently safe ones awaiting approval.

If we don’t get ready for the future that’s coming, we’ll be facing peak oil, spreading desertification, depleted aquifers, higher sea levels, ocean acidification, and stormier weather – a combination capable of sinking the global economy in a way that would make the Great Depression look like a picnic. Despite denials from such reliable sources as Fox News, unfortunately, this outcome is supported by the scientific data.

It could be a civilization-crashing “too many”. But the Kung-Fu master was wrong about dying as the only option. There is another strategy: plan ahead, move carefully, and make peace before it comes to battle. As true between a civilization and its environs as between nations or between a TV Shaolin monk and his enemies.


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