The Stupid Human Factor

My GPS is a miracle of 21st Century technology. Linking to satellites in geosynchronous orbit, the GPS uses timing down to a milisecond.

When I turn it on it displays a message– Do not program the GPS while driving the car. Duh.

It’s not that we’re that stupid, it’s that when there’s a temptation to get it done fast, human nature leads us to figure we can get away with it. And we do. Until we don’t.

The same goes for corruption. Ever since I was a kid punching a power press in a factory, and the boss came around in a panic turning the safety shields back into the proper position– instead of pushed to the side so we could work faster– I am unsurprised by expedience. OSHA didn’t have teeth even then, but the prospect of a fine made more of an impression than protecting workers from losing fingers. Of course, after the inspection, he turned the shields back to where they were out of the way.

Raw Story posts this item from today’s Ashahi Shimbun…

A subcontractor at Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant told workers to lie about possible high radiation exposure in an apparent effort to keep its contract, reports said Saturday.

An executive at construction firm Build-Up in December told about 10 of its workers to cover their dosimeters, used to measure cumulative radiation exposure, with lead casings when working in areas with high radiation, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and other media said.

The action was apparently designed to under-report their exposure to allow the company to continue working at the site of the worst nuclear disaster in a generation, media reports said.

If we build more of these nuclear plants, we are creating a permanent hazard for future generations. Will human nature evolve fast enough to carry this burden?

It Could Never Happen Here, Right?

An inquiry by the Japanese parliament has concluded that the Fukushima nuclear disaster was largely man-made.

The parliamentary report, based on more than 900 hours of hearings and interviews with 1,167 people, suggests that reactor No. 1, in particular, may have suffered quake damage — including the possibility that pipes burst from the shaking, leading to a loss of cooling even before the tsunami hit the plant about 30 minutes after the initial quake. It emphasized that a full assessment would require better access to the inner workings of the reactors, which could take years.

“However, it is impossible to limit the direct cause of the accident to the tsunami without substantive evidence. The commission believes that this is an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected (the tsunami),” the report said, “and not on the more foreseeable quake.”

I can’t help noticing that ‘tsunami’ is a Japanese word.

As in the US, the Japanese people are paying for privatized profit and socialized risk. The unavoidable suffering of the earthquake disaster was multiplied by human folly– hubris, collusion, denial, complacency and greed. These are universals of human nature.

Before the world builds more nuclear power plants, consider the lessons of Japan.

Nuclear Risk in Japan

Japan is on track to re-start two nuclear plants despite warnings…

Seismic modeling by Japan’s nuclear regulator did not properly take into account active fault lines near the Ohi plant, Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist at Kobe University, told reporters.

“The stress tests and new safety guidelines for restarting nuclear power plants both allow for accidents at plants to occur,” Ishibashi told reporters. “Instead of making standards more strict, they both represent a severe setback in safety standards.”

Experts advising Japan’s nuclear industry had underestimated the seismic threat, Mitsuhisa Watanabe, a tectonic geomorphology professor at Tokyo University, said at the same news conference.

“The expertise and neutrality of experts advising Japan’s Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency are highly questionable,” Watanabe said.

After an earthquake in 2007 caused radiation leaks at reactors north of Tokyo, Ishibashi said Japan was at risk of a nuclear disaster following a large earthquake, a warning that proved prescient after Fukushima.

The neutrality of nuclear industry experts is highly questionable everywhere. The damaged nuclear plants at Fukushima are still hot, and the danger continues. As Germany moves to other energy sources, Japan has a chance to change course. In the best case, the world will move beyond large, centralized polluting power sources and wasteful consumption before the next inevitable tectonic shift.

Roomba Vacuums Nuclear Waste?

The New York Times has a long but fascinating article today about how the nuclear industry and political allies took control of the public perception of nuclear power in Japan. One strategy was to censor school textbooks of any scientific or historical information that might raise doubts. Another was to hire young women to represent the industry, providing a visual reassurance to women who had a special interest in the health and safety of their children.

It’s often been asked why Japan is sending men into the hot zone, under conditions so dire that older men are volunteering for what many see as a suicide mission. Why is the world leader in robotics sacrificing human beings this way? Yesterday’s robot fail was posted here, and there is, ironically, a local connection to New England…

Japan, after all, is the world’s leader in robotics. It has the world’s largest force of mechanized workers. Its humanoid robots can walk and run on two feet, sing and dance, and even play the violin. But where were the emergency robots at Fukushima?

The answer is that the operators and nuclear regulators, believing that accidents would never occur, steadfastly opposed the introduction of what they regarded as unnecessary technology.

“The plant operators said that robots, which would premise an accident, were not needed,” said Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, 77, an engineer and a former president of the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious academic institution. “Instead, introducing them would inspire fear, they said. That’s why they said that robots couldn’t be introduced.”

Even before the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, Mr. Yoshikawa, a robotics expert, and other researchers began building emergency robots capable of responding to a nuclear accident, eventually producing a prototype called Mooty. The robots were resistant to high levels of radiation and capable of surmounting mounds of rubble.

But the robots never made it into production, forcing Japan, in the aftermath of Fukushima, to rely on an emergency shipment of robots from iRobot, a company in Bedford, Mass., more famous for manufacturing the Roomba vacuum. On Friday, Tepco deployed the first Japanese-made robot, which was retrofitted recently to handle nuclear accidents, but workers had to retrieve it after it malfunctioned.

There’s a great deal in this article that will make Americans uneasy if we consider that the marketing and collusion of government and industry happens here as well. I think much of the disparaging of conservation, common sense and investment in safe, renewable energy is orchestrated, and Japan’s recent history illustrates how that can be done.

Read the article in the New York Times here-Safety Myth Left Japan Ripe for Nuclear Crisis

UPDATE: Japan’s nuclear cleanup could take decades. We’re gonna sell a lot of Roombas.

Robot and Drone Fail

The Japanese and Americans are world leaders in robotics and remote-controlled weapons, but the latest attempt to use this technology at Fukushima has stalled…

TOKYO (AP) — Two high-tech machines intended to help workers at Japan’s tsunami-hit nuclear plant malfunctioned Friday, including a long-awaited Japanese robot making its first attempt to take important measurements in areas too dangerous for humans.

The other machine that failed was a drone helicopter that made an emergency landing on a reactor roof at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. is trying to cool down three molten reactor cores and stop radiation leaks to end a crisis set off when the March 11 earthquake and tsunami crippled the plant. The job is expected to take several more months, and is complicated by massive amounts of radioactive water that could soon leak into the sea.

Some industry experts wonder why the general public is not convinced by assurances that the technology is safe. Most of us are not scientist, but you don’t have to be to understand Murpy’s Law.

Long Term Effects

Two million Fukushima residents will undergo radiation health checks for thirty years.

This is not because Tokyo Electric Power Company is taking corporate responsibility, or because the Japanese nanny state is solicitous of the health of citizens. This is because the Japanese people demand an honest assessment of the real damage.

Citizen groups are buying their own radiation monitors and putting the information online. A radiation map is here.

As the people lead, local authorities have followed.

Daily Yomiuri–As the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant drags on, an increasing number of concerned citizens in Tokyo and the surrounding areas have started to measure radiation levels on their own.

One local government in Saitama Prefecture has been flooded with applications from residents wanting to use its radiation-measuring instrument.

People have become anxious about so-called hot spots, in which radiation levels in isolated places are much higher than the surrounding areas. Parents with small children have been especially uneasy about the situation.

The government cannot appease them with ‘no immediate damage’ when the crisis has repeatedly outpaced efforts to control it.

Our own corporations assure us that it would be different here, but the heart of the matter is using a deadly toxin, and creating more of it the longer we rely on nuclear power. In the US, we take the risk, industry takes the profits, and the long term problems are becoming apparent today as plants like Vermont Yankee age out.

Setback at Fukushima

“Nuclear power is one hell of a way to boil water.”, said Einstein.

The latest setback facing workers and technicians who are trying to alleviate the damage is a function of how nuclear power works. Heat is the product. In this crisis there was no better alternative than to pump tons of water into the plant to cool the nuclear core. The problem of radioactive water was kicked down the road, and is proving more complicated than anticipated.

Officials at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant suspended an operation to clean contaminated water hours after it had begun because of a rapid rise in radiation.

Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), which operates the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, is investigating the cause and could not say when the clean-up will resume, company spokesman Junichi Matsumoto said.

Fresh water is being pumped in to cool damaged reactor cores, and is becoming contaminated in the process. Around 105,000 tonnes of highly radioactive water have pooled across the plant, and could overflow within a couple of weeks if action is not taken.

Water itself is hard to control. The world is in desperate need of clean energy, and current sources are all unsustainable, but nuclear is not the way. Human error and unforseen events are the rule, not the exception.

Human beings are living in the path of radioactive fallout, and human beings are doing drudge labor to literally bail out the mess. From the Daily Yomiuri

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Tokyo Electric Power Co. on Friday released a revised version of its timetable to bring the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant under control, in response to reports that workers dealing with the crisis at the plant were overexposed to radiation.

The original timetable in April was revised once before–on May 17.

Taking into consideration that several workers at the nuclear power plant may have been exposed to levels of radiation exceeding emergency dosage limits, TEPCO added “radiation control and medicine” to the timetable.

This section pledges the utility will establish a new clinic with state-of-the-art medical equipment within the grounds of the power plant and increase the number of doctors.

Slow to act. Another certainty of human nature– fear and dissembling.