A stunning and poetic few paragraphs in Jonathan Schell’s moving reflection in yesterday’s The NY Times on the disasters afflicting Japan right now, specifically the tragic partial meltdown of several nuclear power plants:
The chain of events at the reactors now running out of control provides a case history of the underlying mismatch between human nature and the force we imagine we can control.
Nuclear power is a complex, high technology. But the things that endemically malfunction are of a humble kind. The art of nuclear power is to boil water with the incredible heat generated by a nuclear chain reaction. But such temperatures necessitate continuous cooling. Cooling requires pumps. Pumps require conventional power. These are the things that habitually go wrong — and have gone wrong in Japan. A backup generator shuts down. A battery runs out. The pump grinds to a halt.
You might suppose that it is easy to pump water into a big container, and that is usually true, but the best-laid plans go awry from time to time. Sometimes the problem is a tsunami, and sometimes it is an operator asleep at the switch.
These predictable and unpredictable failings affect every stage of the operation. For instance, in Japan, the nuclear power industry has a record of garden-variety cover-ups, ducking safety regulations, hiding safety violations and other problems. But which large bureaucratic organization does not? And if these happen in Japan, as orderly and efficient a country as exists on earth, in which country will they not? When the bureaucracy is the parking violations bureau or the sanitation department, ordinary mistakes lead to ordinary mishaps. But when the basic power of the universe is involved, they court catastrophe.
The problem is not that another backup generator is needed, or that the safety rules aren’t tight enough, or that the pit for the nuclear waste is in the wrong geological location, or that controls on proliferation are lax. It is that a stumbling, imperfect, probably imperfectable creature like ourselves is unfit to wield the stellar fire released by the split or fused atom.