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Atomic Updates from Cringely & Palast

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Two articles drifted down my news-pipe today that caught my eye: Is anything nuclear ever really super safe small and simple? by Robert Cringely and The no-BS info on Japan’s disastrous nuclear operators by Greg Palast.

We’ll start with Palast, who was formerly employed as a “lead investigator in several government nuclear plant fraud and racketeering investigations”. He’s also the guy who proved that Bush & Co. stole the election in 2000 and who’s been working in England almost exclusively because no one will hire him in the States. In England, he works for BBC Newsnight, which is not too shabby and lends credence to his reporting. The reason he needs said credence is that he shoots early and often and is exceedingly hyperbolic. He’s often right as well, but he doesn’t make every effort to dot his i’s and cross his t’s and mixes correlation with causation and just loves circumstantial evidence.

That said, I like the guy; I’ve read some of his books, I follow his newsfeed and I like his interviews (like a recent one on the radio program, This Is Hell!). But the blog post linked above doesn’t actually prove what it purports to prove: that corruption led to shoddy construction and poor generator maintenance in Japan. It seems like Palast was employed exclusively in the States when he was inspecting nuclear plants, but he applies his conclusions to “[t]he industry”.

He goes on to claim that the fact that the “Emergency Diesel Generators […] didn’t work in an emergency is like a fire department telling us they couldn’t save a building because “it was on fire.”” While a cute comment—Palast’s specialty—it’s not strictly true, as the post linked yesterday described such plants as having multiple fallback scenarios, of which the first line of diesel generators is only one. Is it possible that the generators didn’t run because they weren’t maintained properly? Of course it is. Is it possible that they didn’t work because of the earthquake/tsunami? Also a plausible explanation. Does Palast offer anything other than an assertion that corruption and idiocy were to blame? No. At this early stage, there’s no point in speculation except to draw attention. The correlations throughout the article are not evidence in any way. For example, look at how Palast tries to cast aspersions on Toshiba:

“One of the reactors dancing with death at Fukushima Station 1 was built by Toshiba. Toshiba was also an architect of the emergency diesel system. […] [America’s new reactor] will be made substantially in Japan by the company that bought the US brand name, Westinghouse — Toshiba. […] I once had a Toshiba computer. […]”

Though I want to acknowledge Palast’s ideas—because he really has been right about so much in the past—these are nothing but the ravings of a madman. If Glenn Beck or Alex Jones had written this, I’d have thrown it out immediately. Palast spends the rest of the article actually talking about crookedness and faked compliance tests in the industry, but in the States, again simply assuming that what goes on there must also go on in Japan. He may be right, but he hasn’t really made a case yet. He says he’s working on an investigation, though, so time will tell.

I’ve heard from other sources that Japan’s nuclear industry is as corrupt and apt to cut corners as any other large corporate beast, but we’re trying to deal here with the proof that Palast provides (if any). What I’ve heard is also conjecture from sources that have a healthy dose of cynicism about big business, but not much more. I count myself among these people, but I’m trying to keep my big yap closed until I know more—or at least enough to feel confident enough to think I know what’s going on. The problem with a lot of the coverage I’ve read is that this level of prudence doesn’t seem to be shared and there are a lot of grainy pictures of smoky cooling towers, haz-mat suits and headlines with the word “MELTDOWN” in them—and followed by question marks to keep the lawyers at bay.

The other article is by Robert Cringely, who I was surprised to find also had experience in the nuclear industry because I’ve known him only as a tech pundit for the last 20 years or so. He’d already posted once about the reactors to note that it appeared that the delays on Japan’s part were all-out efforts to avoid having to actually kill their reactors and never be able to start them again.

It’s a very pragmatic concern that shows a lot of cool-headed judgment actually. If you have to let 1000 people possibly die of radiation poisoning in order to retain 20% of your country’s power network, would you do it? Or do you take the course that not one person may die as a direct result of either action or inaction…but that 1000s will die as a result of a 20% loss of electrical capacity, but that no one will ever be able to blame on you? There’s also the matter of the cost of rebuilding this lost energy-production capacity. How many will suffer because these dozens of billions will be spent on replacing power plants instead of hospitals? And all to replace atomic power plants that had to be shut down so hard that they will never run again? Did you do enough to save the plants and the wasted cost? It’s not like the company running the plant is the only one to benefit if it’s not destroyed: the people and businesses getting their power from that plant also benefit.

A pragmatist would have weighed all of these concerns before pulling the kill switch on those plants; only a sentimentalist with no responsibilities could say—immediately—that a handful of human lives is worth more than a whole country. These questions are not as easy to answer as the media and other armchair analysts make them out to be.

But let’s get back to Cringely’s second article, which deals with comparisons to Chernobyl, of which there have been so many—and why not, they’re both about nukular plants, right? But I digress. Cringely contacted an old compatriot who’d actually worked on containing Chernobyl:

“These Japanese reactors are old and fairly well understood while Chernobyl was brand new. These Japanese reactors had already been in service for 16 years when Chernobyl melted down. In comparative terms there is no comparison — Chernobyl was vastly worse.”

I wasn’t aware that these plants were so old, actually. Cringely goes on:

“These Japanese nuclear accidents come down to the simple fact that nobody back in the 1960s designed nuclear plants to run for 40 years then go through an 8.9 earthquake.”

Given their age and relative resilience in the face of catastrophe, it’s hard to countenance shouts of corruption and incompetence within days of the accidents. As mentioned above, it may turn out that incompetence and corruption did make the problem worse, but why assume that when the plants withstood an earthquake 5 times stronger than their designs foresaw? It’s like the guy who complained about the iPad 2's battery life because it exceeded its specifications by less than the iPad 1 did.

Cringely, unlike Palast, is quite bullish on the Toshiba technology, called 4S (Super Safe Small and Simple), which are factory-produced and small. There have been regulatory issues so far but those will probably be swept aside in an effort to replace lost capacity. Of course, that will just give conspiracy-mongers more material from which to theorize that the nuclear power companies actually caused the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, only so they could sell their next-generation power plants.

Who’s right? I don’t know. Cringely sounds more reasonable than Palast and has at least a few citations rather a mix-and-match of hyperbole and allegations. The point is, if you’re making gross generalizations about Japanese culture or business practice, you’re probably wrong. Unless you’re an expert, which you’re probably not.

So, I don’t know either, but I know that I’m going to wait until the dust has settled a bit and we know how much and which damage was actually caused before joining in any finger-pointing.