Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nuke Scare Update

At Cafe Pomegranate, on the bus, and in other places of public waiting, snatches of overheard conversation always seem to center on Japan and those collapsing nuclear power plants. People who've never previously thought about such things are speaking in low tones about containment breaches, wind patterns, and the viability of dropping seawater from helicopters. Japan's crisis is a global event. We may look back on the past week and remember these meltdown days as we recall the Cuban Missile Crisis.

OK, maybe I'm overstating matters. We don't face a determined foe willing to launch ICBMs to obliterate life on the planet. Still, we are condemned to watch helplessly as strangers dance on a volcano. What happens if they fall? At Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 50 workers stayed behind to try and salvage the plant before further explosions release lethal clouds of radioactivity. As Keith Bradsher and Hiroko Tabuchi tell it, the drama is gut-wrenching:
"They crawl through labyrinths of equipment in utter darkness pierced only by their flashlights, listening for periodic explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from crippled reactors ignites on contact with air… They are the faceless 50, the unnamed operators who stayed behind."
Before long, the narrative gets confusing. Did they stay? Were they pulled out? Are things getting better or worse? It all become a fog. This morning we're told that radiation levels are dropping. Yet the drama is not yet over.

We're also told that a plume of radioactive material is heading for the West Coast. No, this isn't some Chernobyl style face-melting nightmare, we're assured. The stuff will be diluted before it arrives. Few, if anyone, will feel the effects. Of course the Surgeon General recommended Tuesday that we stock up on potassium iodide. [She quickly clarified her remarks, speaking vaguely of "precautions" rather than dangers.]

Finally there's this video seeking to explain the disaster to Japanese children, comparing the reactor breakdowns with a little boy popping toxic poops. Really, there are few words to add - except to say that we all feel like children now (most of us, I guess). There are a few experts offering assurance that things will get better. A few others insist that things are much worse than we know. As with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the mass of people watch and wait.

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