Legitimate scientists understand that the terms, “worst case” and “well prepared,” especially as they apply to natural disasters, pertain far more to relative hope than they do to absolute surety. It isn’t that they don’t use the terms—I’ve used them myself countless times—it’s just that they understand the implications.
But, scientists also understand that Mother Nature is not in the least bit compelled to govern this pale blue dot, upon which we all live, in alignment with what we humans think we know about things. And, we need to stop thinking we’re “in charge” of ANYTHING pursuant to the natural world.
Our planet is neither hostile nor benign; it’s merely indifferent. Humans are nothing more than ONE of a multitude of life forms that live here. But, we often seem to forget that Mother Nature runs the show while consistently enforcing the immutable laws of physics… as SHE understands them, NOT the way WE understand them.
Life is tenuous under the best of circumstances. And, even if we do everything right, it’s no guarantee that a gamma ray burst, or some other natural catastrophe—on this planet or from without—will not wipe us out in a matter of hours.
A majority of Humans love certainty. When they can’t find it, they become upset and begin a search for “experts” that will give them what they want, whether it’s fact-based or not. Pseudo experts are a dime a dozen with the greatest concentration of them found among the nation’s politicians, issue oriented radio/TV talking heads, their callers, and a multitude of anecdotal gut-feel aficionados.
But, ever since Japan’s 8.9 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami, the media, in all of its forms, have used these terms incessantly. They’ve paraded an endless line of “experts” before us seeking absolute answers. But, there are no absolutes; and here’s why.
First, let’s understand that “worst case” is always a projection based on what we’ve learned so far. Our scientific conclusions must always be based on actual science, not that pseudo stuff the talk-show hosts use to rally their political bases. Second, the phrase, “well prepared,” is merely a consensus based on how we determined “worst case.”
Japan’s catastrophe is fresh in our minds. It provides an excellent opening to demonstrate what I’m talking about: earthquakes and tsunamis are not “one size fits all” catastrophes.
We describe earthquakes using the Richter scale, which is a logarithmic base-10 scale that measures amplitude. An earthquake is a seismic wave that causes things to oscillate (the common “technical” term for this is SHAKE). And, the greater the amplitude of the shake, the greater the amount of energy released (the technical term for this is DAMAGE).
Earthquakes that register a 6 on the Richter scale aren’t slightly more powerful than those that register a 5; they’re 10 times greater in amplitude (shaking) and about 30 times greater in energy released. A quake that registers an 8 causes 20 times more shaking and about 60 times more energy than one registering a 6 does.
The amount of damage, in dollars and lives lost or injured, from an 8-point quake would depend on where it occurred. In a no-man’s land devoid of critical superstructures, it would be a “by-the-way,” ho-hum event. If it occurred in Manhattan, the cost would be about $100-billion along with possibly TENS of thousands of lives lost and injured.
Reliable risk assessment requires us to calculate two things; the probability of occurrence and the cost of recovering from it, including both material and human losses. As well, these costs always go beyond mere dollars.
Regardless, we have to base the former on the laws of mathematics as opposed to a collective nonscientific guess. And, we must base the latter on contemporary market replacement costs, not on original building costs.
The question on our collective mind—with California being the favorite focal point—is whether a Japanese-like “one-two” punch (earthquake/tsunami) could happen here. After all, everyone “knows” California is soon due for the BIG one.
According to the University of California’s Seismological Laboratory, California has a 99.7 percent chance of experiencing an earthquake of the 6.7 or greater variety within the next 30-years.
However, since the state sits in the epicenter of the country’s most intense seismic activity, the most likely sites are along the Hayward fault running through the San Francisco Bay Area and the southern San Andreas Fault east of Los Angeles.
As well, along the longest sections of these faults, an 8.0 earthquake is not out of the question. But, even so, a “one-two” punch scenario remains a possibility, but not highly probable.
Most of California’s coastal faults are “strike slip,” where one plate rubs along another. These are far less likely—but not impossible under rare circumstances—to cause tsunamis. Subduction faults, wherein one plate forces the other deep down under it, are another matter. This type of fault activity causes large vertical water displacements, which, in turn, generate massive tsunami waves.
In addition, both of California’s active nuclear power plants include additional built-in fail-safes. Diablo Canyon sits about 80-feet above sea level. The one at San Onofre sits 50-feet above sea level behind a 30-foot high CONCRETE tsunami wall. Moreover, BOTH sites store their cooling water at even higher locations so that GRAVITY can kick in should electrical and other failures occur.
So, a Japanese-style “one-two” punch is far less likely along the California coast. But, the important thing to remember is that, as far as a tsunami wave goes, scientists have based those fail-safes on the assumption that an 80-foot tsunami wave is the highest possible.
So far, so good; but Mother Nature doesn’t care about human projections. She could repeal what we KNOW in as little as a few minutes.
Also, remember that earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only threats to nuclear reactor security. Terrorism is also possible, with the main goal being multiple containment breeches causing massive nuclear radiation releases. This is another ballgame altogether.
Clouds of radioactive particles contain a few dozen fission byproducts that dissolve anywhere from immediately to two hours short of eternity. And depending on the rate and type of particles released, the impact on human life can be negligible to catastrophic.
For example, Iodine 129/131 has a half-life of 8-days and emits Beta particles. These particles settle on the ground and contaminate grass and other vegetation. Dairy cows eat the grass causing the isotope to contaminate their milk. Once ingested by humans, especially children, these isotopes go to the thyroid gland causing cancer.
Strontium 90 is another one. It has a half-life of 29-years (this keeps it in the environment for decades) emitting Beta particles. We inhale or ingest them by eating contaminated food and drinking contaminated water.
Chemically, Strontium is like calcium. It heads straight for the bones and bone marrow. And, even though our bodies eliminate between 70% and 80% of it, the remaining 20% to 30% can accumulate causing bone cancer and leukemia.
But the gem of gems is Cesium 137. Its half-life is also 29-years. But, it emits BOTH Beta particles AND gamma radiation. The Beta particles ride on dust particles where humans can inhale or ingest them with contaminated food and drink.
We can even expose ourselves to Cesium 137 by merely walking on contaminated soil. And, there’s an added bonus. Its gamma radiation penetrates deep into our bodies causing cancers that even some doctors have difficulty pronouncing.
Nuclear power is safe in terms of the number of mishaps relative to other energy-producing sources. But, a small part of the reason for this is the fact that there are far fewer energy-producing nuclear power plants than all the other types. You know the drill… FEWER exposures, FEWER chances for mishaps.
Personally, I have no problems with increasing our use of nuclear power as a cheaper source of electrical energy as long as we understand one simple fact. Sources of potential danger with a small probability of occurrence, but carrying catastrophic consequences, warrant more scrutiny than do those with a relatively high probability of occurrence but carrying relatively less harmful consequences!
Joe Walther is a freelance writer and publisher of The True Facts. You may comment on his column by clicking here.