Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thank You, Mr. Science

After I wrote here on Saturday – not to minimize the tragedy nor the nightmare of Japan and particularly the psychologically destabilizing crises at the various atomic energy facilities there – but that this was the death knell of American Nuclear Power, I actually got two snarky, condescending tweets.

One chided me for being a 'typical liberal who tried to turn tragedy into politics.' The other dismissed our risk of something similar to the fact that 'flyover country was safe from earthquakes and tsunamis so cares about the coasts?'

Seriously. I'd quote them verbatim but neither was as non-scatological nor as concise as that. That's right, I'm trying to turn tragedy into politics by pointing out that the super-safe Japanese Nuclear Power complex that even President Obama applauded while trying to pitch the same Doomsday Machines to us two years ago, turned out to be not so safe after all, and there's no reason to assume our antiquated nukes are somehow even as impervious to disaster as Japan's obviously weren't.

Oh, and about 'flyover country is safe so screw the coasts'? Read on... We associate American earthquakes with California, and to a lesser degree the Pacific Northwest. What most Americans don't know is that the strongest series of quakes in the history of this country took place on the New Madrid fault line in a seven-week span in the winter of 1811-12.

"New Madrid" was in Missouri - which last time I checked was definitely in flyover country. On 12/16/11 (that's right, we're approaching the 200th anniversary off at the horizon) something around a 7.5 hit northeast Arkansas. Fortunately there was almost nobody living there, or in the future site of Memphis, Tennessee, which also rumbled. Liquefaction was reported – you know, when the solid ground suddenly turns into a kind of quicksand. It's usually reserved for landfill and other unstable surfaces found in places like San Francisco's Marina. Six hours later there was another quake of roughly the same magnitude. Then they had a month off, until 1/23/12 when a neighboring fault let go with another quake which would have scored at least a 7.0 on the modern Richter scale. The "big one" in the sequence hit on 2/7/12 at New Madrid, which was promptly wiped out. St. Louis was hit hard and the force was so strong (perhaps an 8.0) that it caused temporary waterfalls on the Mississippi River.

There are also legends that the Mississippi ran backwards for a time, and that the quake was so strong that it rang church bells in Boston, but these stories may be apocryphal. Still – temporary waterfalls are enough for me, thanks.

The point is, they wouldn't be apocryphal now. An earthquake "swarm" like this along the same fault – which has been relatively quiet for nearly 200 years – would devastate an area that has literally grown up with almost no awareness of the prospect of seismic activity. There is one nuclear facility at Fulton, Missouri, and dreams of another – dreams probably already scotched by the Japanese disasters. Lord knows what would happen to an earthquake-ravaged nuke in the middle of Missouri.

And lord knows what kind of tsunami or similar water-borne force a New Madrid quake could conceivably generate to the south. Could it send force waves intense enough through Arkansas and Louisiana to produce more liquefaction in New Orleans? Could there be enough juice left to produce a small tsunami in the Gulf of Mexico? Could Texas be threatened?

All of a sudden that condescending attitude of 'Good riddance to the coasts' seems cretinous. Do we want to find out if the New Madrid fault still has power? If Texas is threatened?

The other part of this is the previously linked piece at Mother Jones that contains all those unfortunate quotes from the President from October, 2009, that were not disavowed Monday by the new Press Secretary:

"There's no reason why, technologically, we can't employ nuclear energy in a safe and effective way. Japan does it and France does it, and it doesn't have greenhouse gas emissions, so it would be stupid for us not to do that in a much more effective way."

Stupid. Maybe President Obama would like to circle that word and rethink it's meaning. It would be stupid to keep pushing nuclear power at the exact hour that the "safe and effective way" in Japan is proving to be 'that slight increase in radiation in Tokyo is nothing to worry about. But if you're within 20 miles of the plant please stay indoors because we don't know if the thing is going to meltdown, blow up, shoot nuclear rods into the sky or into the ground water, or what. Have a nice day."