Tuesday, March 15, 2011

So what happened to you this weekend?

This weekend was pretty eventful for me. It had it all. Natural disaster, looming industrial disaster, and a pretty Sunday afternoon.

Not that I would have known about the pretty Sunday, though. I spent most of Sunday (Saturday and Sunday for that matter) deep in the belly of George Washington. We had time sensitive work that had to move forward so it waited for no man. As it was, though I did get some chances to go outside and enjoy the day from time to time.

This weekend I had a pretty good seat for one of the worst earthquakes we've had since we started keeping track. As if the earthquake wasn't enough, the the ensuing tsunami really made headlines. And of course, this couldn't be complete without a mention of the trouble going down at Fukushima Dai'ichi power plant. It's been quite a ride.

I have a writing style that tends to feel light-hearted. I say this because I don't want to make it seem that I'm making light of the plight that the people face here. A large part of Japan is in dire straits. The tsunami has killed hundreds and there are still many more hundreds unaccounted for. This is serious and is one of those times when all of the countries in the world unite to buoy up those who were hit the hardest. Already navies and military forces have been deployed to help in the rescue and recovery effort. Humanitarian aid is coming from every corner of the globe. Japan does face a difficult road, but they will have help and they definitely have the fortitude.

This is one of those things that you remember where you were when you found out about it or when it happened. I was sitting on in our office trailer on the hangar deck of George Washington. When the ship is being worked on, the hangar deck fills up with trailers just like you would find on any construction site. As we were sitting there things began to shake. Shaking isn't that unusual. Sometimes when a forklift drives by you get a little vibration but this was like 50 forklifts driving by over and over. We looked at each other and joked: "Are they moving the trailer on us?" Then we went out onto the hangar deck and looked out those big doors that the airplanes go through. Sure enough, the land was going up and down. Oh wait, that was us. The ship was rocking several feet side to side. They weren't letting anyone off the gangway because it was turning out to be a better ride than a mechanical bull. Pretty soon the ship calmed down and they opened the gangway again.

But what about the tsunami? One of the tell-tale signs that you've got a tsunami headed your way is the tide will recede dramatically. Well, about 90 minutes after the earthquake, the tide began to recede and dropped about four feet in 10 minutes. This was cause for alarm and the gangway was closed again. People out in town were headed for higher ground and you could see ships out in the bay headed for open water. I was pretty lucky. I didn't have any family in harm's way and I felt very safe shipboard so I wasn't anxious to go anywhere. Many of my coworkers did have family in town so we tried to help them get in touch with them. Their anxiety was heightened because for several hours after the quake cell phones were not working. Internet, however, was so people were able to make contact via email. Ironically, the most reliable communication seemed to be via facebook. Fortunately, here in Yokosuka, the tsunami didn't really hit. The tide just kind of went back up to normal. Here we are protected by the Chiba peninsula so we didn't get hit.

We were lucky, but not everyone was. The media has being doing a great job of showing all the carnage and destruction that has befallen people to the north. Tsunamis are terrible forces. Japan has spent lots of money and time over the past couple of decades building sea walls specifically for withstanding this sort of thing. They have been controversial. Some people thought they were just extra public works projects. As far as I'm concerned there is only one way to survive a tsunami: get your butt out of the way. It's hard to leave your stuff, but it's the only way.

It also seems that the human race has learned a lot about how to make cities earthquake resistant. Japan is an excellent opportunity to see how a first world country handles a major earthquake. Without the tsunami, the death toll would have been a few hundred at most. That's impressive, especially considering how densely populated the cities are.

This word on earthquake readiness leads me to some comments on the Fukushima Dai'ichi power plant. If it had just been for the earthquake, this plant would not have suffered the fate it did. In case you haven't followed the news, the downfall of the plant came from the failure of the backup diesel generators that power the pumps that supply cooling to the plant. Those generators failed because they got flooded out by the tsunami. Again, if it had just been the earthquake, there most likely would not be a problem. This has rekindled the inevitable debate in the media of whether nuclear power should be used. I tire of this debate. I heard a quote on CNN from the Wall Street Journal that said we don't stop flying because of a plane crash. That's the way I feel. The world, not just the US, is dependent on nuclear power. The next inevitable debate is what we must do to ensure this doesn't happen again.

So what do you design for? We said they must survive an earthquake, so mother nature sent an earthquake and a tsunami. She will prove time and again that she can undo the works of men in a stroke when she feels like it. We study things like this in engineering school. There are methods of probability analysis where you try to understand the risks that are posed to a structure. Like a bridge for instance. It has to be strong enough to hold itself, and of course cars. What if there is a traffic jam and it is totally loaded with cars that aren't nicely spaced out in traffic? What if it's winter time and there was tons of snow on it? What if that snow storm had really high wind? How do you design it? To design it for all those loads at once, the bridge might be too heavy to even work. It would certainly increase the cost exponentially. I had an engineering teacher who put eloquently. One or two of those loads you can account for, but you can't account for all of them. If you have all of them at once it means that God is after you and there's nothing you can do about it anyway. That's how I feel about this case. People are now going to look at all nuclear plants and cry that they're all unsafe. I throw the B.S. flag on that crap. No matter how indestructible you make it, mother nature will match it.

I am a firm proponent of nuclear power. I admit we have to figure out a better way to handle the waste, but that's really the only argument the antis have. They try to use accidents like this to point out how unsafe it is, but I also throw the B.S. flag on that. They might say it will be another Chernobyl. B.S.. Not going to happen. I doubt that a Chernobyl-style accident will ever happen again. Nuclear plants can not explode like nuclear bombs. Its not the right kind of material inside there. It's physically impossible.

In the Navy we have lots of experience dealing with radiation and contamination and from what we can see we are confident that we are safe. It seems to me that things are moving toward good in Fukushima, but that's just the gospel according to Tom.

As I've said before, I'm fine and I know that many of my family are pleased to hear it. Pray for those that are on the edge of survival today. Prepare you own house to be ready for your own earthquake.


At 9:13 AM, Blogger Ashley and Dave said...

I like an engineers perspective :)

At 8:39 PM, Blogger Ben Cozzens said...

I didn't know you're in Japan. Amen brother.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Chelsea said...

Good post baby!

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Miriam said...

Interesting post - I'm going to have Dave read it. Glad you're home safe :)

At 7:52 AM, Blogger Tara said...

I am tempted to forward the link to this post to my co-workers. I think everyone would be interested in someone they are connected with that experienced the Japan earthquake/tsunami. What do you think?

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Tom said...

I don't see any problem with that. I haven't written anything I wouldn't want shared.


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