Earthquakes, Waves and What Ifs

The explosion at a Japanese nuclear plant in the early hours of Saturday looks, on the footage, huge and calamitous. An “expert”, interviewed on the BBC, tactfully described it as “energetic”. Here are excerpts from the Associated Press story from Japan, on the wires at about 2. am Saturday, PST. Rarely has my father Claud’s admonition “never to believe anything till it’s officially denied been given such powerful buttress. Comforting phrases and words in italic.

‘WAKI, Japan (AP) — An explosion at a nuclear power station Saturday destroyed a building housing the reactor amid fears that it was close to a disastrous meltdown… A nuclear expert said a meltdown may not pose widespread danger….

‘”We are now trying to analyze what is behind the explosion,” said government spokesman Yukio Edano, stressing that people should quickly evacuate a six-mile (10-kilometer) radius. “We ask everyone to take action to secure safety.”

‘…A “meltdown” is not a technical term. Rather, it is an informal way of referring to a very serious collapse of a power plant’s systems and its ability to manage temperatures. It is not immediately clear if a meltdown would cause serious radiation risk, and if it did how far the risk would extend.

‘Yaroslov Shtrombakh, a Russian nuclear expert, said a Chernobyl-style meltdown was unlikely.

‘”It’s not a fast reaction like at Chernobyl,” he said. “I think that everything will be contained within the grounds, and there will be no big catastrophe.”

‘The reactor in trouble has already leaked some radiation: Operators have detected eight times the normal radiation levels outside the facility and 1,000 times normal inside Unit 1’s control room.

‘Ryohei Shiomi, a nuclear official, said that each hour the plant was releasing the amount of radiation a person normal absorbs in a year.

‘He has said that even if there were a meltdown, it wouldn’t affect people outside a six-mile (10-kilometer) radius – Most of the 51,000 residents living within the danger area had been evacuated, he said.’

Here on the West Coast of the United States the Japanese earthquake was swiftly domesticated in the early dawn hours of Friday as the possible dimensions of the tsunami speeding States-ward across the Pacific.

On the coastal stretch of our local county road in Humboldt county, northern California,  perhaps the irksome signs  installed a few years ago alerting drivers and hikers that they were in a zone exposed to the risk of  tidal waves would at last be of some use, though what precise use is hard to say. If there really was a tsunami of destructive size racing towards the shore, by the time you saw the sign and looked out to sea, you would be engulfed long before swerving uphill at McNutt and inland towards CounterPunch’s southern HQ in Petrolia.

The whole tsunami signage is locally derided as either a boondoggle or one more extrusion of the eco-panic  convulsing the genteel classes, stretching from the Mayan calendar Apocalypse  to the menace of flies flying into one’s latte, a pressing concern of the county Health Department, and requiring my neighbor Joe Paff – a coffee roaster – to install costly anti-fly barriers on his  milk steamer machines. Of far more use would be alerts on the coastal stretch  for wandering cows.

In the event, so far as I could elicit from my current field HQ,  in Indian Wells, southern California, is that in our neighborhood the tsunami was of modest dimension, even though coastal roads were blocked and the entire region on high alert. The town worst affected in northern California was Crescent City, which experienced an 8’ surge and considerable damage to boats, jetties and so forth.

Some surfers furtively deployed, excitedly awaiting the Big One. Not so long ago I was looking at youtube at some King of the Waves whose idea of fun is to get pulled out by a Zodiac and then put in the path of 50’ waves, at night.
As for the impact of an 8.9 I can barely imagine.  We had a 7.1 in Petrolia in 1992, and that was a rolling surge through the ground that went on for what seemed like 30 seconds. I’m proud that by Friday morning  this site already featured three excellent stories on the risks of nuclear disaster. Concerning  the proximity of the large earthquake in Japan’s recorded history to nuclear reactors, Robert Alvarez writes,

“In the aftermath of the largest earthquake to occur in Japan in recorded history, 5,800 residents living within five miles of six reactors at the Fukushima nuclear station have been advised to evacuate and people living within 15 miles of the plant are advised to remain indoors.

“Plant operators have not been able to cool down the core of one reactor containing enormous amounts of radioactivity because of failed back-up diesel generators required for the emergency cooling….Early on Japanese nuclear officials provided reassurances that no radiation has been released. However, because of the reactor remains at a very high temperature, radiation levels are rising on the turbine building – forcing to plant operators to vent radioactive steam into the environment.”

Perhaps the news that Japanese nuclear reactors have been damaged and that clouds of official deception are already rising above them will cool the revival of enthusiasm for building new nuclear plants here in the US, spearheaded politically  by President Obama and okayed by major green groups using the cover of alleged AGW, as long ago planned by the nuclear industry:

As Harvey Wasserman points out on this site today:

“Had  the violent 8.9 Richter-scale earthquake that has just savaged Japan hit off the California coast, it could have ripped apart at least four coastal reactors and sent a lethal cloud of radiation across the entire United States.

“The two huge reactors each at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon are not designed to withstand such powerful shocks. All four are extremely close to major faults.”

A Giant Has Gone from Us

A giant of sententiousness, an endlessly cresting tsunami  of tedium, I must hasten to add. I speak of David Broder, for many years chief political correspondent of the Washington Post, who passed  this week amid much respectful invocation of his mastery of the American political process.

Broder hated any form of disruption to what he admired in American political arrangements, viz two orthodox political large parties agreeing on all essentials, bartering amiably through the medium of  the various chieftains with whom Broder palavered on a daily basis.  He detested all forms of disruptive change, any threat to received wisdom, any excessive zeal in the pursuit of any cause.  The possibility that the American political system might long ago have evolved into  irredeemable corruption and criminality never crossed his mind.  Through the filter of his reports  the American Melodrama was recast into endless reassurance that everything was, in the last analysis, on the right track. Rarely has someone got history so consistently wrong.

Take his comforting report to Washington Post readers in April of 1987, when Ronald Reagan held a press conference amidst the Iran-Contra scandal. It was clear enough to those listening to the President that either the Oval Office was inhabited by a person amid the onrush of Alzheimer’s (as one of his sons recently confirmed was his own personal  judgement) or so schooled in deception that he should submit to immediate impeachment. Here’s Helen Thomas’s question and RR’s answer at the March 19 press conference:

Q: ”Mr. President, is it possible that two military officers who are trained to obey orders grabbed power, made major foreign policy moves, didn’t tell you when you were briefed every day on intelligence? Or did they think were doing your bidding?”

Reagan: “Helen, I don’t know. I only know that that’s why I’ve said repeatedly that I want to find out. I want to get to the bottom of this and find out all that has happened and so far I’ve told you all that I know. And you know the truth o the matter is, for quite some long time, all that you knew was what I’d told you.”

Broder hastened to inform the readers of his nationally syndicated column that the press conference “provided the strongest evidence yet that the proprietor of the shop has regained a good measure of his emotional balance and is ready to reclaim his role at the center of government… he showed the steadiness and confidence that has been so conspicuously missing in the final months of 1986.”

Not Me

Last Sunday my phone rang a couple of times from people watching “60 Minutes” reporting that in a segment on Christopher Hitchens, the following exchange occurred:

Interviewer (Steve Kroft): ” ALEXANDER COCKBURN, a former friend of yours, called you ‘self-serving, fat-ass, chain-smoking, drunken, opportunistic, cynical contrarian,'”

Hitchens: “Well, I don’t see what’s wrong with that…though he should see my ass now.”

I was puzzled. It’s not my argot of abuse, and besides, I haven’t written anything recently about Hitchens. Why, unless occasion absolutely requires it, publicly kick a man in as  tough spot as he’s evidently in? (This is restraint, I should add, not displayed by CH himself who elected to write harshly about Edward Said in the Atlantic Monthly shortly before Edward died of leukaemia.)

It seems that 60 Minutes, an immensely popular and profitable adornment of CBS News, can’t afford to hire conscientious or experienced researchers and checkers.  The phrase is taken from the headline of a torrent of measured abuse of Hitchens written by Jack McCarthy for this website in 2002, a year when emotions were running high, amid the work-up to the attack on Iraq.  Any moderately seasoned checker knows headlines are no-nos for specific attribution without detailed inquiry, with certainly did not occur in this case. In fact this particular head was written by co-editor Jeffrey St Clair, etxracted from Jack’s tsunami of recrimination.

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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com.

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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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