There are so many levels I want to write about in responding to the horrible tragedy in Japan. I’ll offer just two that come to my stunned mind, and follow up later.
First of all, this is breathtaking in its transfixing horror. The images and video footage show both how technologically advanced and well prepared the Japanese were… and how woefully lacking any preparations can be, in the face of such overpowering natural force.
We live on a planet that has allowed our numbers to swell into seven billions, largely because it’s been so calm and predictable throughout the holocene epoch (since the ice ages ended). Nowadays, we fret over tiny atmospheric wobbles like snowstorms or tornadoes or piddling hurricanes, while taking for granted the glassy smoothness of oceans, around whose rim we’ve perched most of our cities, utterly depending on them not to vary height even to a hundredth of a percent! A degree that would be imperceptible in your bathtub.
While our hearts and prayers—and urgent aid—must go out to the people of Japan (which also happens to be one of the most future-and-SF-oriented nations in the world), let’s also ponder what we can all do to enhance the resilience and robustness of our own homes, communities and civilization. I’ve long urged folks to take CERT training and join their local Community Emergency Response Team, for example, but there are so many other things people can do, all the way down to keeping a vegetable garden. And helping reverse the trend toward absurd grouchy nostalgia that’s sweeping both right and left. Seriously.
Point two: the news from Japan is clearly a setback for those of us pushing for a gradual, prudent resumption of US endeavors in nuclear power. (This movement includes many of the “tech-liberals like Stewart Brand, helping turn it into a bipartisan movement.) In fact, the negligence of the operating company—Tokyo Power, which has been cited for violations frequently in the past—is appalling!
The central problem arises from a series of failures that began after the tsunami. It easily overcame the sea walls surrounding the Fukushima plant. It swamped the diesel generators, which were placed in a low-lying area, apparently because of misplaced confidence that the sea walls would protect them.
This was supremely bad management and the whole world will suffer, because of a new suspicion of nuclear power. This was so avoidable. Such a blatantly stupid failure mode would never happen here, where there are backups to backups to backups… and we have other stupidities, all our own.
On the other hand, it slaps the face of all those who said that US nuclear regulations have been “obviously” absurd.
There is no single direction to the lessons here. It has long been obvious that some streamlining and fast-tracking of a return to nuclear in the US is called for. In fact, Obama pushed through the first speedup and simplification of nuclear licensing in the US in 50 years, though tepidly according to some of the zealots. (It will still take years.) Nevertheless, this is something we must process, meticulously. And Fukushima illustrates that there is a place for nitpicking and quadrupled precautions.
Note: For accurate info on the nuclear aspects of this disaster, try the IAEA site.