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More Dogs on Main

Tom Clyde, Record columnist

The images coming out of northern Japan are just impossible to process. I look at the mounds of muck, and there are identifiable objects there: pieces of houses doors and windows cars, furniture, and other everyday items. But they are so randomly smashed up that while the parts are identifiable, the whole of the scene is incomprehensible. None of it makes sense.

Videos show the tsunami moving onshore, packing not just the wall of water, but also tons of mud pulled off the ocean floor, boats, and then the rubble of anything it pounded on its way inland. It’s amazing that anybody stood still long enough to take a movie of it before running for their lives.

Some of the scenes look like somebody went nuts playing with PhotoShop. There are boats parked on the roofs of four-story buildings, and seemingly intact buildings standing on their roofs. There are still stories of heroic survival now and then. But the process of picking up the pieces and attempting to find something that approximates normal seems insurmountable.

My grand-niece, who is going to college in Hawaii, was told to grab her stuff and get to high ground because of the tsunami coming their way. She wasn’t completely sure what a tsunami was. At least we have warning. It wasn’t all that long ago that an earthquake half a world away would send a wave that swallowed up coastal towns without any warning at all.

And then, when it looked like maybe the worst was over, the nuclear reactor problems started up. Nobody is even mentioning the earthquake any more. Aftershocks in the 6.0 magnitude are happening fairly often, but who cares about a major earthquake and another possible tsunami when the power plants appear to be melting down. On the news, they keep trying to be reassuring by saying that it’s nowhere near as bad as Chernobyl at least not yet. People have evacuated for a radius of 90 miles.

Fortunately, nuclear accidents have been so rare that we don’t have a vocabulary to describe the scale of the problem. There are various categories of hurricanes. We have the Richter scale for approximating earthquake forces. People in the tornado belt have a yardstick of some kind. But when it comes to nuclear power plants, there are only two conditions "OK" or "Oh s#*t." That it’s not as bad as Chernobyl is rather cold comfort. Chernobyl left behind 400 square miles that are still uninhabitable. Coming in second to that isn’t all that hard.

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I remember being in elementary school when we had the "duck and cover" drills. Our teachers were telling us that when the Rooskis dropped the atomic bomb on Salt Lake, we would be perfectly safe if we just crawled under our desks. These drills were accompanied by movies showing simulated atomic-bomb blasts. I remember being a little skeptical that three-quarters of an inch of particle board with a little wood-grain Formica on the top was going to stop anything. On the other hand, I was sure I would be absolutely safe in the back corner of our basement in a room that had been built for coal storage. In Japan, there are a lot of people who lack even the luxury of a school desk to hide under right now.

You can plan for it, and practice your duck-and-cover technique, but every now and then Mother Nature reminds us who is in charge around here. Unlike the U.S., where we don’t have long records, particularly in the West, Japan has detailed records going back several hundred years. This is the biggest quake recorded, followed by the biggest tsunami. You can only plan for those things you can reasonably anticipate.

The power plants are about 40 years old and have survived smaller quakes without problems. How large a quake do you design for? Is "not quite as bad as Chernobyl" an acceptable design specification? Or is nuclear power just too risky to ever be a reasonable option? The U.S. now gets about 20 percent of its electricity from 104 nuclear plants. Millions of Americans live near them. The French produce about 80 percent of their power with nuclear energy. The pro-nuclear people point out that, overall, the safety record is excellent. Except when it isn’t, and then it is very bad. The odds are in our favor, but the stakes are uncomfortably high.

It may be months getting things stabilized in Japan, and years for reconstruction. In the meantime, the whole debate on nuclear power will rage on. Coal is dirty and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. Renewables are an insignificant part of the total energy supply. Carbon or plutonium? Got candles?

Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column for nearly 25 years.