Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why Amy, you're positively glowing!

In a flash of original micro-journalistic reporting - for which she is so justly famous - Mary Lahammer tweets yesterday:

Why yes, Senator Koch, Japan is in the Eastern Hemisphere; we're in the Western Hemisphere. That fact alone makes it completely different. When it's day here, it's night there! The inapplicability of Japan's nuclear troubles to reactors here could hardly be more obvious! They're the difference between night and day.

We will give the state senator and leader of the Senate - our own Mrs. Malaprop - the benefit of the doubt and believe that she meant "geologically." As if that really made much difference.

People who have been following the expanding nuclear catastrophe in Japan know the problem with the reactors is not the earthquake per se. It's the fact that backup pumps to circulate water to cool the reactors after they shut down have failed. Let me ask you a few questions.
Have your ever had a power failure at home?  
Does your snow blower or lawn mower start up the first time, every time? 
Have you ever had a flashlight, cell phone, or radio quit operating because the batteries went dead?
 Although these are mundane examples, they are exactly the kind of issues that the engineers in Japan are dealing with now. Only they don't have the luxury of waiting for the power to come back on, taking the mower or the blower to the hardware store, or sending out for fresh batteries.

They are, in other words, screwed.

Last Thursday, could these same engineers have conceived of a scenario from which they could not recover? Of course not. This is, of course, the Black Swan, and I don't mean Natalie Portman:

The [Black Swan] theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:
  1. The disproportionate role of high-impact, hard to predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance and technology
  2. The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities)
  3. The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs
Who does #3, especially, remind you of?

Parenthetically (and pathetically, too!), some of you may remember that King Banaian tried to pin the I-35W bridge failure on the Black Swan. That was a frame up, of course, in view of the mounting evidence of the weakness of the bridge available to the MnDOT before the collapse.

(Gee, I wonder how now Rep. Banaian voted on the nuclear power moratorium? I guess I missed his stirring speech about the Black Swan on the floor of the House.)

But nuclear accidents do fit well within the Black Swan modality. Small - vanishingly small - probability of occurrence, but so catastrophic when they do that the only way to avoid the risk is not engage in the behavior at all. Note, too, that vanishingly small doesn't mean almost never; the current reactor meltdowns in Japan (because that is what is happening) is the third nuclear event world wide in thirty years. And only one out of three had anything to do with "geography."

There are so many ways that a commercial-sized nuclear reactor can go wrong that we literally have not thought of yet. It is titanic hubris to believe otherwise. It would also be titanically foolish to accept the blandishments of a word mangler like Amy Koch for the safety of nuclear power.

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