How close are we to disaster? Couple of years ago a tornado came through our community and damaged 800 homes making national news. This was three blocks from our house. Thankfully no one was killed. Then New Orleans and hurricane Katrina. Then Haiti. Now Japan.
One thing I’ve noticed about modern day catastrophes: If they occur in a first world country, the news coverage of them is phenomenal. Two days ago, during the last day of school before spring break, the kids and I watched live Japanese television reports of the earthquake and ensuing tsunami on the classroom 4’ smart-board through the CNN web site. At first the reporters were speaking Japanese with an English stream at the bottom. Then the reporters started speaking English. I can only guess that the Japanese producers realized they were being watched worldwide and brought in English speaking reporters for a segment.
The US national news had some of the coverage later in the day, but we saw about two hours of continuous live and taped videos. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the helicopter video of the tsunami wave spreading inland over rice fields carrying an ocean going fishing trawler with it. The commentator said that from the air, the wave didn’t look like it was moving that fast, but on the ground if you are in its path, you almost couldn’t escape it. Just as he finished these words, a car was seen fleeing the oncoming wave on a road at an angle away from the wave front. We didn’t see if the vehicle made it to safety or not.
By the time you read this, more results may be known about the nuclear reactor issues in Japan. And since many of us in the paper industry are in the power generation business and paper mills are power hogs, it behooves us to follow that issue closely. We owe relatively inexpensive electrical costs in the southeast in part to our nuclear power generating stations and hydroelectric power. These low costs spread somewhat to our neighbors as power distribution lines permit.
What I’ve read so far is that the Japanese should not have a Chernobyl catastrophe. At Chernobyl, the core overheating caused the fuel rods to react with water producing hydrogen and oxygen. Add heat and they had a hydrogen explosion which vaporized tons of nuclear fuel. Hopefully the Japanese situation is just a steam vessel explosion with rod melting that can be stopped by flooding the reactor with sea water. Still not pretty by any means but no radioactive cloud.
The main cause of the situation as I know it today is that the Japanese reactors survived the earth quake but the main power failed and the tsunami flooded the back-up diesel generators causing them to fail. Then the station batteries could not provide power to operate the safety systems.
What have we learned so far?
Well, don’t build a nuclear power plant on or near a major geological fault.
Even if you are located a mile or more inland, a major tsunami could reach you.
If your operation is on or near the coast, it may behoove you to re-evaluate your disaster plans soon.
And finally check your preventative maintenance plan for station batteries. Know when they were last tested and what reserve power they should provide.
Gene Canavan is retired and lives in Prattville, Alabama, USA