Reactions to the Crisis in Japan

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disasters, natural and unnatural

Since yesterday the news about radiation levels in Japan has become far more ominous. It appears even the experts aren’t sure what’s going to happen next or what the likely consequences might be.

There appears to be a strong potential for widespread public exposure to devastating amounts of radiation. This outcome may not be inevitable, however. And we may not know the truth of the situation for a long time.

I am struck by the way reactions to this unfolding tragedy are tinted by human reactors’ personal biases. A clear example of this is Glenn Beck, of course. Beck’s explanation of how nuclear reactors work involved M&Ms and cookware, which arguably trivialized the disaster, although it wasn’t necessarily wrong.

But then he launched into a diatribe about how scientists were spinning the situation at Japan’s reactors into something worse than it really is to promote their personal agendas, whatever that is, and that the real danger to the world is that if the bond market fails America will have no more money, and then people will die because “the U.S. military won’t be able to go in and save them; won’t be able to go in and protect them. … Ask what happens. Ask the people in Libya what happens.” Surreal. And, anyway, my understanding is that the biggest threat to the bond market is Republicans in Congress who are balking at raising the debt ceiling. But that’s another rant.

Oh, and Rush is telling his listeners there is no nuclear danger in Japan, that the reactors are “behaving as designed,” and that “the media” is (sic) speading disaster stories because “the media wants a disaster in Japan.” One wonders what Rush’s tune would be if he lived next door to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and he thought radiation might reach him.

Beyond the frightening stories of radiation leaks, the bigger issue (seems to me) is the widespread and terrible destruction from the tsunami. We see videos of communities in devastation and want to help.

Felix Salmon wrote a column for Reuters warning people “don’t donate money to Japan.” His argument is that donations earmarked for a particular disaster often “leave large piles of money unspent in one place while facing urgent needs in other places.”

Commenters pointed out that many relief organizations accept donations with a disclaimer that surplus funds may be applied elsewhere. And other relief organizations don’t allow for earmarking of donations at all, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use a burst of cash during an extraordinary crisis.

Salmon also wrote, “we are all better at responding to human suffering caused by dramatic, telegenic emergencies than to the much greater loss of life from ongoing hunger, disease and conflict. That often results in a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective.”

That last probably is true. I also have no doubt that various evangelical groups already are planning their crusades to Japan to rescue the simple indigenous people for Christ in their time of need. (Update: Yep.)

So if you do want to donate money, I suggest giving to the excellent Tzu Chi, a Buddhist relief organization headquartered in Taiwan. Relief efforts in Japan are being coordinated through long-established Tzu Chi offices and volunteer groups in Japan, not by random do-gooders parachuting in from elsewhere. Tzu Chi does a lot of good work around the globe, so your money will be put to good use somewhere.

Salmon also says,

Japan is a wealthy country which is responding to the disaster, among other things, by printing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new money. Money is not the bottleneck here: if money is needed, Japan can raise it.

Well, the U.S. is a wealthy country, also, but that didn’t help New Orleans, did it? However, reading through comments on various sites, I’ve been struck by how many people bring up New Orleans as an example of undeserving people being given too much help, when the fact is that the U.S. government sat on its hands and allowed the stricken parishes of New Orleans to rot. But that’s another rant.

Anyway — in the long term it may very well be true that Japan has the resources to put itself together again, but in the short term it’s also probably true that people need immediate help that government may not be ready to provide. Experienced relief organizations like Tzu Chi, Doctors Without Borders, etc. probably are much better than government at responding to the immediate human crisis and the needs of people in the hours and days after a disaster.

I see also that Annie Lowrey warns against giving money earmarked for very specific projects, because it is often the case that charities find themselves with a glut of money earmarked for projects that, it turned out, nobody really needed, while there is no money to meet other needs that are genuinely critical. I think the moral is that it’s best to give money to experienced and reputable relief organizations and let them decide what to do with it.

I’ve read articles noting that there appears to be no looting in Japan. Again, this is bringing up very ugly and racist comparisons with New Orleans. In the credit where credit is due department, a post at American Thinker (normally too right wing for my taste) has a more plausible explanation of why the Japanese may be better at maintaining social norms in extraordinary times than most people.

Back now to the nuclear issue — should we or should we not be re-thinking use of nuclear power? Greg Palast wrote that nuclear reactors can’t be trusted because the people who build and run them can’t be trusted, and that Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) is involved in nuclear power projects planned for the United States, and we should all be afraid. At the same time, two of the damaged plants in Japan were built by General Electric. And we should all be afraid.

On the other hand, as Josh Marshall points out, the proper and planned use of fossil fuels is, arguably, causing a bigger disaster to the planet and taking more lives than the terrible but localized consequences of a failed nuclear reactor. It could be argued that in the long run, nuclear power is safer than fossil fuel power.

On the third hand, there is William Saletan. At the beginning of his column, his position seems to be that, yeah, maybe some people will get hurt by radiation leaks, but only wusses get hysterical about it. Explaining that the U.S. seems to have moved on after last year’s Gulf oil spill, Saletan says,

That’s how we deal with tragedies in the oil business. Accidents happen. People die. Pollution spreads. We don’t abandon oil. We study what went wrong, try to fix it, and move on.

That may mean we are crazy, but what the hey. But then Saletan goes on to make the point that nuclear power probably is safer in the long run than fossil fuel. Which says to me that we really, really need other sources of energy.

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13 Comments

12 Comments

  1. c u n d gulag  •  Mar 15, 2011 @11:25 am

    After, of course, Horoshima and Nagasaki, and after Chernobyl, this is rated as the next worst disaster – and it hasn’t even completely melted down yet, and hopefully never will. (Though I’m pretty sure I remember one somewhere in the Ural Mountains of the USSR that was covered up. I may look that up later).

    Now, if the Japanese, who are if nothing else, careful engineers who know about the dangers of radiation poisoning pretty much first or second hand, can’t make a plant 100% secure, why should we feel confident in ours?

    Almost all of our nuclear power plants are well over 30 years old, and are built on, or near, active fault lines. Their licences are now easily renewed – and they are allowed to EXCEED the capacity they were designed for when new. Prescription for disaster, anyone?

    That shouldn’t give anyone much confidence.

    Neither should the fact that energy companies, to shave a few extra pennnies, are notorious for cutting safety procedures so save money.

    I live near Indian Point in NY. It sits on the Hudson River, right on top of an active fault. It has had leakage problems throughout the years. I don’t have a lot of confidence if something were to happen that they could contain radiation away from NY City, and upstate counties (depending on the prevailing winds at the time).

    I was actively involved in the anti-nuke movements in the late ’70′s to the mid-late ’80′s. Nothing since then has given me any confidence in the nuclear power industry.
    I would recommend holding off building any new ones, and doing a serious inspection of active plants. And I mean REAL inspections, not the BS that GE will give itself. But that’s something I doubt will ever happen in todays political environment.

    And it’s never too late to start an Energy Manhattan Project. We needed one over 30 years ago, but the new anti-government government people were just getting into power.

    But, instead of getting our best and brightest in a couple of places where they would have access to the best tools, and the best minds, we outsourced all of that to privative industries, where keeping advances propriatary is how you make a bigger profit.

    There’s your pro-government, anti-privatization argument in one paragraph.

    It’s not too late.
    But, somehow, I wouldn’t even bet a penny that something like that is even brought up in DC.
    I mean, if like in MI, you can shut down unions, privatize whole towns, eliminate elected officials, and create company towns, how important is energy efficiency anyway? People will be ‘Owing their souls to the company town,’ so they won’t have money to travel, and lucky if they can afford a few candles. Energy crisis solved!!!

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Mar 15, 2011 @12:12 pm

    Slightly OT – it appears that a number of celebrities and politicians are getting into trouble for their tweets, comments, or jokes about Japan.
    -Gilbert Godfried lost his job as the AFLAC spokesperson.
    -50 Cent was also chastised.
    -And Haley Barbours press secretary had to resign because of tasteless jokes.

    Because nothing provides yuck’s better than the thought of people crushed, drowned, irradiated, and left homeless in the winter.
    HA! HA-HA!!!
    Please stop it!
    No, seriously, please stop it!!!
    ASSHOLES!!!

  3. goatherd  •  Mar 15, 2011 @1:08 pm

    I am probably oversimplifying as usual, and I haven’t read the “American Thinker” article yet. But it seems that there are a number of things that are different from the situation in New Orleans. First, the experience of people of poorer communities in New Orleans was that “the police always come late, if they come at all” as the Tracy Chapman songs says. The people of affected areas in Japan have no reason to suspect that that they will be abandoned. The people of New Orleans had ample reason to believe they would be.

    The response was timely and people that weren’t evacuated beforehand were soon given help. The people of NOLA waited for days and when help arrived it often turned out to be a squad of goons there to protect property rather than rescue people.

    The disaster in New Orleans trapped and isolated people, and the storm was of long duration. The tsunami was horribly devastating, but relatively short lived and devastating over a smaller area so it was less isolating.

    The Japanese are most painfully aware of what atomic radiation can do. I suspect that the percentage of people who would be willing to hang about during a radiation leak would likely be vanishingly close to zero, despite the promise of free, mud soaked, radioactive food.

    And finally, they don’t have an idiot and a bunch of his incompetent cronies running the show

  4. goatherd  •  Mar 15, 2011 @1:10 pm

    Beck explaining nuclear reactors? Bill Nye Sci Guy, watch out!!!

  5. joanr16  •  Mar 15, 2011 @1:12 pm

    So far, Glenn and Rush are the only ones I’ve seen politicizing the nuclear aspect of this disaster. So, boys, “Bounces off us and sticks to you.”

    maha, thanks for the various good advice about where to donate (or not donate). Doctors Without Borders is probably where I’ll turn, especially now that it appears iodine tablets aren’t going to cut it.

    This disaster is completely off the charts, imo. Doesn’t matter if Japan is “wealthy,” or non-Christian, or whatever excuse the big meanies want to invent. I’m pretty sure the people of Japan could use the world’s help.

  6. Tom B  •  Mar 15, 2011 @6:10 pm

    If Beck and Rush are convinced the cores are “safe”, I will personally buy them plane tickets.

  7. Candide  •  Mar 15, 2011 @6:23 pm

    The nuclear issue is a complicated one. Instant “experts” like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, of course, can manage to reduce this complexity to a bumper sticker slogan. I’m sure that by the end of the week, we’ll learn that the earthquake, tsunami and radiation leaks were all Obama’s fault.

    A very intelligent discussion about the situation is going on at theoildrum.com:

    How Black Is the Japanese Nuclear Swan?
    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7638

    Fukushima Thread: March 15, 2011
    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7660

    Safety of nuclear power and death of the nuclear renaissance
    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7661

    And Maha, you are right about Tzu Chi. Unlike the Christian relief organizations, you can be assured that donations to Tzu Chi won’t be used to fund anti-abortion rallies.

  8. khughes1963  •  Mar 15, 2011 @6:31 pm

    c u n d gulag-I think you are referring to the Kyshtym disaster in 1957. The cooling system of one of the nuclear waste storage tanks failed, and the waste exploded, scattering radioactive debris around the surrounding area. Both the Soviet and United States governments kept the incident secret for a number of years. Wikipedia does have an article on it.

    Both Rush and Beck are into personal and public relations self-preservation, so I doubt there is anything they could do that would discredit themselves among their acolytes.

  9. moonbat  •  Mar 15, 2011 @9:21 pm

    I’ve been looking around a lot for info about the nuke disaster – this diary on Daily Kos, written by someone with years of experience in the industry, is the best I’ve found, although I think it’s a day old.

    I’ve also read more recent pieces in the NYT and the Christian Science Monitor. My take is that the situation either is, or could be, spinning out of control. I read somewhere that either one or all of the damaged reactors are boiling off something like 30 tons of water per hour. This must be replenished, for weeks, or more damage, possibly including a meltdown will occur. The brave Japanese atomic workers are using more or less firehoses improvised to keep the water flowing. I’ve also read that the US Navy is dumping water on them from the air. Doesn’t sound too good, does it? With all the explosions happening over the last few days, it just looks like a situation that’s gradually heading down the shitter, despite everyone’s herculean efforts.

    The thing I don’t understand – and a nuclear engineer could tell me why this is so – from all reports, the reactors’ control rods did manage to move into position when the earthquake occurred – this supposedly shuts off the reactors. The tsunami then knocked out the reactors’ cooling system. What I don’t get is why the design is such that, even with the control rods in place, it still needs a cooling system, or at least will suffer serious damage if the cooling is stopped. Bad design is my very uninformed lay conclusion.

    As for Glenn, Rush, and the other highly paid liars – a disaster like this really brings out their colors – that they’ll say anything that’s in their heads, regardless of whether it has anything to do with reality. They’ve managed to garner big bux this way, why should they stop now?

  10. moonbat  •  Mar 15, 2011 @9:25 pm

    It doesn’t mention control rods, but this talks to the fact that the Japanese reactors are from the 1960s, and as such, have known design flaws.

  11. Doug Hughes  •  Mar 16, 2011 @3:32 pm

    Moonbat – I went to Nuclear Power School in the Navy about the time these plants were built. The problem is this. Control rods absorb neutrons, which are expelled by uranium at a low level naturally, and a higher level when there is a reaction happening. When a neutron strikes a uranium atom, the big uranium atom fractures into other smaller stuff, giving off heat and neutrons. The neutrons from the split atom fly off and cause more reactions. Generally the ‘other stuff’ is not a stable atom and IT breaks down again and again until it is stable. At every stage of decay, more heat is released, not as much as the initial reaction, but significant. So when you insert the control rods, the process slows, but in every fission reactor the process continues for quite a long time.

  12. moonbat  •  Mar 16, 2011 @9:02 pm

    Thanks Doug – I happened across similar info today, although nowhere as detailed as your explanation. They merely said “it takes a few weeks to cool down”.

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