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Mole's Progressive Democrat

The Progressive Democrat Newsletter grew out of the frustration of the 2004 election. Originally intended for New York City progressives, its readership is now national. For anyone who wants to be alerted by email whenever this newsletter is updated (usually weekly), please send your email address and let me know what state you live in (so I can keep track of my readership).

Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

I am a research biologist in NYC. Married with two kids living in Brooklyn.

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  • Saturday, March 19, 2011

    Japan, Nuclear Energy and Earthquakes

    The opening scenes of the Japanese Anime movie, Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba) shows the distant skyline of Tokyo, as seen from the suburb of West Tokyo, emerging from the evening mist. The first images give you a feeling of an almost endless city, overwhelming yet beautiful in the morning mist, then normal street scenes of life in West Tokyo...all accompanied, seemingly incongruously, with a version of John Denver's "Country Roads."

    (From the English dubbed version's opening scenes)

    To me those opening scenes of Whisper of the Heart always brings a nostalgic tear to my eye because it captures perfectly what life in Japan is like. As I see the scenes from Japan now, after such devastation, I can't get these scenes out of my head.

    To understand why the song "Country Roads" (and a parody of it called "Concrete Roads") plays a strong and recurring theme in Whisper of the Heart, you have to know some background on West Tokyo. Today this suburb is a huge, sprawling outgrowth of Tokyo proper, all linked together by a spiderweb of rail lines. Everyone takes the train and you can reach almost any corner of Tokyo by train. West Tokyo was built on the rural area called the Tama Hills. Before Tokyo overflowed into the Tama Hills these were, from what I hear, a gorgeous and quiet mix of forest and agriculture. The beauty of this very Japanese, almost sacred combination of nature and agricultural life is portrayed in another Anime movie from the same studio as Whisper of the Heart. The children's movie My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro) is based in a similar hilly region to the north of the Tama Hills. This movie reflects the rural area west of Tokyo in the post war childhood of the famous animator Hayao Miyazaki, and is among the most beautiful movie I have ever seen.

    (from the Japanese Tonari no Totoro trailer)

    There is a project in Japan, called the Totoro Forest Project, to preserve just a tiny reminder of this old, traditional world:

    (Totoro no Mori Project trailer)

    So very Japanese...to preserve a small square of forest (with a Shinto Shrine at the center) as a reminder of their past.

    The transition from the beautiful rural past of My Neighbor Totoro and the urban sprawl of Whisper of the Heart, can be found in the somewhat strange and mythical Pompoko, an almost racy story of an imagined resistance movement by the Tanuki (a Japanese animal somewhat like a raccoon) trying to stop the development of the Tama Hills.

    (the Japanese trailer for Pompoko...the title refers to the sound the fat Tanuki make when slapping their bellies after a good party)

    They lost and the Tama Hills became the West Tokyo "Concrete Roads" of Whisper of the Heart.

    This sequence of only thinly connected movies from the famous Studio Ghibli in many ways captures the essence of Japan. Its worship of Nature (literally in the form of the Shinto religion where trees and mountains can be sacred and famous warriors become gods), it's rise to an economic superpower in the aftermath of its failure to become a military superpower, and the conflict between the sacred rural past and the superpower of today.

    And through all three movies is an innocence that seems to cling to Japan everywhere I looked and yet seems to be belied by the militarism that still lives on in its right wing political movements. Like any nation, any culture, Japan has its contradictions.

    I have never been to the north of Japan. I lived in Kyoto which is far from the epicenter and far from the coast. To me Kyoto was one of the most amazing cities I have ever been...perhaps tied with Barcelona and Florence. Sendai is a city I know of because there are frequently scientific conferences there, but I have never been to one. The only scientific conference I have been to in Japan was in a suburb of Osaka.

    I have been to Tokyo a few times. In fact when I first visited I stayed with a friend's family way, way, way out in a suburb...I don't know which one but it could have been somewhere in West Tokyo. It was more rural, less built up. Closer to a city like Los Angeles rather than the urban canyons of NYC or central Tokyo. The train ride into Tokyo proper was a long one. Tokyo and its suburbs depend on their trains, so you can imagine what it is like when an earthquake like this one knocks out train service. When I was stranded in Manhattan on 9/11 with my step-daughter in Brooklyn, at least I knew a long walk across a bridge would get me home. Maybe 5 miles. If you are from West Tokyo and commute to Tokyo proper you can be some 15 miles away...a much longer walk.

    I have quite a fondness for Japan. It is a conservative, uptight, sexist nation overall, but beyond these flaws it is a wonderful place which often takes an appreciation for aesthetics that I miss living in NYC which seems to almost never value aesthetics. Subtle things strike you and stay with you. The Nightingale Floors in Kyoto's Nijo-jo (roughly "Second Ave. Castle"). Nijo-jo was the castle of the Tokugawa Shoguns and was built to intimidate. But within it had a subtle, beautiful defense. Beautiful, darkly stained wooden floors that were put together just right to make a slight chirping sound whenever someone walked along it. So at night, an assassin could never walk without being heard. Beautiful and practical at the same time. That is Japan.

    If you have never been in an earthquake, it is really hard to describe it to you. I grew up in Southern California so I grew up with the instinct of being up, out of bed, and in a doorway before I am even awake. To me a weak to moderate (up to, more or less, a magnitude 5) is kind of enjoyable. Sometimes it is a gentle, rolling motion which translates to a slow swaying if you are in a tall building. I remember one magnitude 5 quake when I lived in Santa Monica in a tall building where the entire building gently swayed and everything was silent except the metallic sound of hangers in the closet and the slosh of water in the toilet. It was actually serene, gentle. It is a great memory.

    Then there are the bigger ones. I experienced the Sylmar quake as a kid and was terrified. We had to evacuate because we lived near the outflow of a dam that had cracked in the quake. The tap water was muddy for days afterwards and we had to drink bottled water.

    I experienced the Northridge quake as an adult and was about as terrified. I think I screamed both times. Not sure though because first of all it wasn't a conscious thing. It was simply a lizard-brain, woken out of a sound sleep with no clue what was going on kind of scream. Second of all, the noise of the quake was so loud, you could have put all the amps from a Heavy Metal band next to my head, turned them up to 11, and I wouldn't have noticed. In the Northridge quake I was living in a room with wooden closet doors. The sound of those doors shaking was almost deafening! And there were huge flashes of light outside that made no sense to me until hours later I realized they were transformers on power lines blowing. My earthquake instincts cut in and I was up, out of bed and...FLAT ON MY FACE before I was awake. I think it was the pain of my knee slamming into the floor as I fell that woke me as much as anything else. In this quake I couldn't move. The shaking was that strong. I just had to ride the thing out and hope the hillside didn't fall or something.

    Big quakes go on for a long time, or at least seem to...and you NEVER know if it is going to get stronger or weaker at any moment. Then, finally, gradually, the earth settles down. The Northridge quake had an extra twist in that it started to quiet, then came right back full force. I remember the growing relief as it had started subsiding...and then the renewed terror when the earthquake slammed back into action. But it finally ended.

    Then...for the rest of the day there were aftershocks. About half way through the day I was so sick of aftershocks when one of the strongest ones hit I was sitting on the toilet...and I just said "fuck it" and stayed right where I was doing my business. To hell with the earth if it wanted to shake.

    That quake was just shy of a magnitude 7. Los Angeles was, more or less, back in business (with lots of cleaning up and some areas still knocked out) within a few days. Even the collapsed freeways were put back in business with amazing rapidity. That was just shy of a magnitude 7...Even WITH that experience I can barely imagine what a magnitude 9 would feel like. I mean, shit. Almost beyond belief.

    Japan got hit with a magnitude 9. That is roughly 1000 times the energy represented by the Northridge quake. And then came the tsunami. That is something I have never experienced other than, along with the rest of the world, watching with horror the Indonesian tsunami wipe out entire villages in a slow, irresistible flow.

    Those who watched the footage of the helicopter over the ocean as the tsunami came in towards Japan heard the Japanese pilot repeating something over and over..."Oukii na tsunami...oukii na tsunami..." He was saying "BIG TSUNAMI!...BIG TSUNAMI!.

    Then at the end of that footage you see, in silence, jaw dropping devastation...every piece of footage I saw of that tsunami I kept thinking, "I hope everyone got the hell out of there in time..."

    But in one prefecture, probably 10,000 washed away. That will probably be the highest fraction of deaths, but...I had hoped the death toll wouldn't be above a few thousand. It will almost certainly be over 10,000...

    Words failed me when I watched the footage of the Indonesian tsunami, which hit a much wider area of land and killed far, far more...maybe close to a quarter of a million, though accurate numbers may never be known. The Japanese tsunami was a mammoth 30 ft high in some areas, and basically erased entire towns. The one lucky thing about it was that most of its energy was directed AWAY from Japan, which is why it hit Hawaii and California. Had most of the energy been directed the other way, more of Japan would have been devastated.

    Each time I have stood in the heart of Tokyo, far, far more than when I stand in Manhattan, I am struck by the sheer economic power and activity humming around me. That economic force has been hit a severe blow. Many of its factories, ports and airports shut down after the earthquake. And between the multiple nuclear plant disasters and the multiple refinery fires, its energy generation ability has taken a heavy hit as well. I think it can recover, but it already had signs of stress and weakness all through its economy. It is just possible that it will never be quite the same. And that will have echoes throughout the world economy.

    Japan is in a tough spot when it comes to energy. Their superpower economy requires a HUGE amount of energy...and they have almost no resources of their own. They don't have a vast desert for optimal solar. They don't have vast steppelands or plains for optimal wind power. They don't have oil or much coal. Of course they have some wind, solar, geothermal and perhaps particularly tidal potential, but little of it has been seriously utilized and even if it was, it may well not really fulfill its needs adequately. I mean the United States has it all. We are STUPID for not developing like crazy our vast wind potential (some of the best in the world), our vast solar potential (some of the best outside of the Sahara), our respectable geothermal and, perhaps most of all, methane production from the vast amount of waste (like trash and pig shit) we produce. In one of Al Franken's books (Lying Liars, I think) there is a horrific description of the pig industry in the United States. These factory farms produce such huge amounts of pig shit that they are collected into vast ponds. And as those ponds of pig shit decay, forming methane (a much, much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide), pressure can build up like in your gut after too much great Mexican Food and beer. And it produces pig shut geysers, as Al Franken describes it.

    I read that and thought to myself, therein lies a vast wealth of energy to power America. America could power itself extensively with pig shit...as well as its wind and solar potential.

    But Japan is limited in all of these. They can do more than they have from domestic sources, but not to the level that their economy requires. America COULD do it. Japan probably cannot. So they have to rely on imported fossil fuels and nuke energy produced from imported fuel. Both are expensive for them and are dangerous.

    Last summer I was at a conference in Heidelberg, Germany. The conference was at the European Molecular Biology Lab up in the hills above Heidelberg. From one of the institute's windows was a panoramic view of central Germany. And there, way off in the distance, was unmistakably an enormous nuclear power plant. I have to admit, my first reaction (perhaps my XY nature) was "Whoa, that is SOOOO COOL!" It was so far away and yet dominated the landscape.

    In some ways nuclear power really is a super cool thing. You can actually harness the binding energy that holds together atoms and generate electricity to run your coffee maker. There is something so fundamental about that. And radioactivity is something I have dealt with, at low levels. I have worked in labs with both beta and gamma emitters. Some of the radioactive materials I used generated radioactivity so weak that your first couple of layers of skin will block them. As long as you don't get them on your hands and eat it, you are pretty safe. Some I handled required think sheets of lead to block. Of course the materials and waste from a nuclear plant generate much higher energy, though the principles are the same.

    Chernobyl is the nuclear disaster that most people think of when they think what could happen to a nuclear plant. This can be viewed as a kind of worst case scenario...and it was HORRIBLE. The official numbers of dead from Chernobyl are probably completely stupidly low. One middle of the road number was 4000 dead. I think we have no clue. The amount of initial cover up by the Soviet Union combined with the fact that so many interested parties have tried downplaying it mean it is hard to know how many of the strange cancer deaths from after Chernobyl downwind of the disaster are due to random statistics (unlikely), other toxic industries in the former Soviet Union (which were MASSIVELY toxic), or due to Chernobyl. I'd say 4000 is an underestimate but not hugely so.

    In the Western World and Japan, nuclear plants are not built like Chernobyl. Let me be blunt. In Japan, America and Western Europe we have never been dumb or desperate enough to make the huge errors of judgment that led to Chernobyl. The Soviet Union was trying to out-compete a much wealthier neighbor and so it had to try to do the same things and more with far less money. The results were messes like Chernobyl. The number of really stupid things that led to the Chernobyl disaster are just not applicable to nuke plants like those in Japan. One example: the Chernobyl plant included solid graphite to slow the nuclear reaction. Graphite can burn quite nicely. And in Chernobyl it did burn, which is one of the reasons why the radioactive cloud was so bad. No one in their right mind today would do that. There are several other major differences that all add up to the fact that the Japanese nuclear disaster is not likely to reach the level of Chernobyl...though I will point out that it is MULTIPLE reactors involved in Japan. Here's a new word problem: how many smaller Japanese nuclear disasters does it take to equal one massive and massively stupid Chernobyl disaster? I hope we don't find out.

    Let's be absolutely clear: the Japanese nuclear disaster is huge. Don't let the nuclear industry down play it. And already some people have had to be treated for radiation exposure. I also need to mention something that I have seen about the Japanese nuclear industry time and time again: they lie through their teeth. Usually they try to put the absolute best face on things and only update to a more truthful, worse view when they absolutely have to. I suspect things are worse than they report because they have never reported things to be as bad as they really are.

    This is one reason why it is hard to trust the nuclear industry. They are never honest in any nation as far as I can tell. If they want to earn our trust, STOP LYING TO US!

    But we also have to keep in mind that these nuclear plants have just been put through about the most extreme test that anything could be put through. They are designed to withstand a direct hit from a 747. But not for the fifth largest earthquake in recorded history followed by a tsunami. There is almost nothing human-built that can go through that and not have problems.

    Also something else struck me that we have to keep in mind...while we are all fixated on the exploding, partly melting-down nuclear plants we are missing something else huge. Possibly a far, far worse health and environmental disaster is occurring at the same time. The refineries and petrochemical plants that are burning are disasters possibly not so far from the level of the nuclear disaster. The smoke from those fires is going to be quite dangerous in its own right. In fact, they could be worse than radioactivity causing the same kinds of hidden, slow acting deaths from cancer and respiratory diseases, etc. I am betting there are some petroleum executives in Japan who are, in some ways, thankful for the nuclear disasters because at least it draws attention to the possibly equal disaster their industry is causing.

    That is part of the nuclear industry argument. Oil and coal cause far worse damage than the nuclear industry. Even in Japan right now, oil might be causing worse damage.

    It is unclear what Japan can do to fuel its economy given its lack of resources. Given the horrible choice between fossil fuels and nuclear energy, which is worse? America does NOT HAVE TO MAKE THIS CHOICE. We can pretty much throw out both if we are smart about it. Energy efficiency, wind, solar, methane from waste, geothermal, hydroelectric, biofuels if we do it the smart way that doesn't compete with food production, etc. We have SO MUCH POTENTIAL from each and every one of these. We don't have to make that terrible choice, whatever the nuclear advocates say. Perhaps some small contribution from nuke plants, particularly the already existing ones while we build a green energy infrastructure (pushing aside the Luddite Republicans and creating jobs in the process). But Japan just may have to continue making that choice between the melting down nuclear plants and the burning refineries spewing toxic smoke. I am glad America doesn't have to make that choice...and Republicans had better get with the program before they ruin American even more.

    We are witnessing history changing events. This year, with the Middle East uprisings and the Great Sendai Quake already to its name, may be one of the more momentous years of our lives. I hope the nuclear disaster in Japan will soon be contained and I hope Japan can recover quickly.


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