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The Japan Tragedy

David Brin
By David Brin
Contrary Brin

Posted: Mar 14, 2011

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.

tsunamiWe 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.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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Excellent post in my opinion.

“There is no single direction to the lessons here.” indeed. But if I were to choose one it would be the point about civilisational resistance. It reminds me of the recent thread about the Lifeboat Foundation. We need more research relating to threats to civilisation, more policy focus on resilience, and a clear (but flexible) strategy agreed globally (both within and outside the UN framework. This is a wake up call if ever there was one.

Might have to move Japanese cities inland—what if the next earthquake is say a 9.8?

Inland where? The rest of the country is mountains.

I agree fully with Peter Wicks statement. Unfortunately, I have failed in finding a right place and PhD program aimed at dealing with that novel topics…Since, I was an undergraduate student I did refuse to get highly specialized because I felt things would be different…And they are…
We need to think strategically, to take into account a multi-axis approach and stop thinking as a traditional highly-focused scientists…Otherwise, we will be out of the system earlier than expected…Seriously..!

Then tell us what in your opinion would be the upper limit of seismic activity for Japan in the future.

We need fusion now.

Lawrenceville Plasma Physics aneutronic ‘Dense Plasma Focus’ device is a great candidate and should receive maximum funding.
They are making a lot of progress right now.

If the government won’t do it, maybe Bill or Peter would.

If no one knows the answer to this question: “then tell us what in your opinion would be the upper limit of seismic activity for Japan in the future”, that is not too good is it?
Another question is: if a probability exists that more earthquakes of a similar or greater magnitude might occur, wouldn’t rebuilding coastal areas of Japan be like rebuilding New Orleans only to have it trashed again by another big hurricane such a Katrina?

Naturally, we’re not supposed to worry about such threats, however the authorities responsible it goes without saying do have to worry, and they influence how funds are spent (in this case in Japan, mega-billions)
You hear it said “don’t worry”—yet some people somewhere HAVE to worry.

@postfuturist..Maybe it’s too much to talk of an “upper limit”. I’d rather see some kind of graph plotting average frequency with magnitude.

A related point in relation to: “if a probability exists that more earthquakes of a similar or greater magnitude might occur, wouldn’t rebuilding coastal areas of Japan be like rebuilding New Orleans only to have it trashed again by another big hurricane such a Katrina?”. You can’t eliminate all risks. But what we *urgently need* is some kind of reliable ranking of the existential threats to our civilisation, using probabilistic risk analysis. Some impacts are just too unlikely and/or intractable to be worth focusing on.

What distresses me about the nuclear plants is the Morgsatlarge post I referenced (and which is now semi-viral) entitled “Why I am not worried
about Japan’s nuclear reactors.”, which is now lodged in modified form at

That post describes a very reassuring “defense in depth” strategy, where things are allowed to fail but the designers have done such a good job that there is always another line of defense to fall back to.

Only problem with this:  those fallback positions have each been going down like dominoes.

It seems to me that the safety systems were all “Looks Good In Powerpoint Presentations To Senior Management” safety systems.

I think the concern is - ‘are we ever fully sure we’ve accounted for everything’.  How can we be sure there won’t be some other avoidable mistake that leads to a US meltdown.  Might still be worth the risk - but there is reason to be worried.

“Might still be worth the risk - but there is reason to be worried.”

After Kobe it did make me wonder when the next big one in Japan would be. What I wonder now is:
1. how much of the area in & around the area is seismically mapped?
2. what would the exponentially increased threat of a, say, 9.8 quake be?
3. how much stress was released by Friday’s quake and aftershocks?

When you think of existential threats in America what do you think of? I think of the caldera in Yellowstone, the San Andreas fault, hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and at the Gold Coast of Florida. However the U.S. is so large and has so much resources, it doesn’t appear to be as threatened as Japan.

....“The question is not if but when Southern California will be hit by a major earthquake—one so damaging that it will permanently change lives and livelihoods in the region,” according to a 2008 study by the United States Geological Survey study.
It predicted 2,000 deaths and $200 billion in damage from a 7.8 southern California quake on the San Andreas Fault.
Geologists say a big earthquake in California would probably top out at a magnitude 8 as the state’s fault structures are different from Japan’s.
A quake of the 7.8 magnitude in the USGS study would have about 30 times less power than the one that struck Japan.
Forecasters in 2008 saw a 99 percent chance of a 6.7 magnitude quake within three decades, and 46 percent chance of a 7.5 or greater, with Southern California the likely center. A monster California quake of magnitude 8 had only about a 4 percent probability—except in far Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. That area has a 10 percent chance of experiencing a magnitude 8 to 9 quake—Japan-sized—in the next 30 years.
A repeat of San Francisco’s 7.9 magnitude quake in 1906 could take up to about 900 lives, injure thousands and destroy 3,000 residential buildings, a recent report for the city found.
Even a smaller 7.2 quake would cause $30 billion in building damage, $10 billion more in additional costs—and if fires sweep the city, damage could rise by $4 billion, the report sponsored by the San Francisco Department of Building Inspection concluded. About 27,000 of the city’s 160,000 buildings would become unsafe to occupy.”

My reading of the situation is that while we cannot go on burning fossil fuels, the desirable option renewables is just not ready to grab the baton. Therefore we have to use nuclear (in conjunction with energy conservation and whatever level of renewablesare feasible now) as a stopgap. If that is the case then someone needs to do a cost-benefit analysis on nuclear and we have to accept that there is a certain level of risk we must live with no matter what choices we make.

Flying wind kites, rotary wind generators held down by cables, is a new development. But it’s true wind and solar do not add up to a significant percentage of energy sources: <2 percent.
Which does mean more nuclear plants are going to be built.

Here’s a link:

Yes, I heard of the skywind option recently and apparently if they can pull it off, it can solve our energy problem completely for the foreseeable future (and if we’re really lucky could lead to an energy singularity which would solve it forever). Well, here’s hoping. Sometimes the cavalry gallops to the rescue at the last minute and it’s not lead by a overconfident fool with long blond locks smile.

“...gallops to the rescue at the last minute and it’s not lead by a overconfident fool with long blond locks”

aye, Custer.
The Japan problems wont inhibit nuclear so much; but solar & wind have to be bumped up to better than <2 or 3 of total.

Ukraine pray for Japan

My friend and I have started a project called “With Love to Japan” < >.

In this project, we are collecting beautiful photos of the Tohoku region to pay tribue to the beautiful places in Japan which are affected by the tsunami and earthquake. We hope people wil remember the beauty of the Tohoku region and our project will create a legacy for that beauty.

Please visit us. Thank you.

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