Quote of the day from the piece From Hiroshima to Fukushima.

“The problem is not that another backup generator is needed, or that the safety rules aren’t tight enough, or that the pit for the nuclear waste is in the wrong geological location, or that controls on proliferation are lax.

It is that a stumbling, imperfect, probably imperfectable creature like ourselves is unfit to wield the stellar fire released by the split or fused atom.”

-Jonathon Schell


NYT/The Nation, March 16, 2011

Category: Energy, Philosophy, Psychology

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

34 Responses to “Stumbling, Imperfectable Creature Like Ourselves”

  1. BennyProfane says:

    Remember the China Syndrome? Today it’s the Homer Simpson Syndrome.

  2. Julia Chestnut says:


    I also can’t believe how little the U.S. is even making supportive noises towards Japan. The toll here is going to be massive: why the hell aren’t we sending more help? It’s pretty crappy to say “yeah, Americans need to get 50 miles away from that reactor” instead of — “what can we do to protect the people we need to send in to help the Japanese citizenry survive this? What supplies do you need? Where do we park the hospital ship?”

    Horrible. Wrong headed and horrible.

  3. Lugnut says:

    Unprompted leadership doesn’t come readily to the One.

  4. franklin411 says:

    One could make the same statement about Twinkies, or sex, or cars, or wine, or anything.

    Here’s how we approach the question of nuclear power:

    Q1. Are you willing to give up your iPad, your iPhone, your iMicrowave, your iCouch?
    A1. No, No, No, No. In fact, I want them bigger, better, faster, more powerful.

    Q2. That means you need tons of energy now and plenty more later. Do you care if it’s dirty energy? Do you mind becoming a sun-baked cow pattie 50 years from now?
    Q2. I hate sweating. Turn up the AC! But I also hate sunburn. What to do?

    Q3. Well if you refuse to consume less energy, and you don’t want to die a horrible twitching death later due to global warming, then are you fine with the only practical existing clean energy solution–nuclear power?
    Q3. No! Nuke bad! I saw this documentary once showing a case where they set off a nuclear bomb next to an ant colony and these giant ants rampaged through the country. Horrible!

    Q4. You’re an idiot.
    A4. How about cold fusion? I heard they invented that in Idaho in 1989 but the big energy companies won’t let us have it. Hey, my iPad is running out of iPower, and I want to read this article on The Nation about how bad everyone else is. Let me hop into my Suburban and get the charger. Have you heard that gas is $4 a gallon now? I don’t know why prices keep rising like this!


    BR: So if you really screw up a twinkie, a huge area becomes totally unihabitable for eons?

  5. Petey Wheatstraw says:

    “The problem is not that another backup generator is needed, or that the safety rules aren’t tight enough, or that the pit for the nuclear waste is in the wrong geological location, or that controls on proliferation are lax.”

    Fitness and imperfections of the naked ape aside, and seeing as we already wield the power, those things are exactly “the problem,” and they are easily enough fixed (not that there won’t always be risk and forever poisonous waste and byproducts).

    Where did all of the grown-ups go?

  6. DebbieSmith says:

    Here is an article that outlines Japan’s nuclear industry, the country’s plans for growing reliance on uranium as a fuel source and how this could impact the world’s energy markets over the long term:


  7. Transor Z says:

    @Julia Chestnut:

    Agree 100%. Why is an international fleet of cargo helicopters not ferrying seawater over the site 24/7? Talk about lack of enlightened self-interest.

    Find 100 helicopter pilots of retirement age, single and without dependents, and pay a large cash lump sum.

  8. wally says:

    This is how we learn: by stumbling forward. It has been true of every technology.
    Whether man is “fit” has nothing to do with it. There has not yet been a philosopher who put in play a better way to house people or feed them or otherwise improve their lives.

  9. WFTA says:

    Right on, Julia!

    An enormous human disaster and we are mostly worried about how our Duke Energy stock is doing.

    Isn’t this the guy that wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull? Screw him.

  10. AHodge says:

    poetic but not defining
    the problem is not unknowable systems
    you could say the same thing about oil drilling or the economy
    the prob is leaving the self interested positive thinking expert in charge, rather than someone who can see flaws
    you need nukes that can completely shut down walk away in a half hr or half day. rods that go to their own corner. fail safe. if you cant design that or its too expensive move on.

    none of your poets supposed fixes qualify.
    but he is poetic about the risks of running it inherently unstable in the engineering sense.
    with constant feedback needed and cooling flows just right.
    we have chernoble three mile and all the other close calls, half of which you prob didnt hear about

  11. IS_LM says:

    Julia usually has thoughtful posts. @10.24 isn’t among them. Have a look at this <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/world/asia/16charity.html"piece.

    “The only things Japan has really asked for at this point is some specialized search-and-rescue teams with dogs, some specialized medical help and some communications equipment, as well as the bulk shipment of goods, which is largely about country-to-country assistance,” said Saundra Schimmelpfennig, a former international aid worker who writes the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough, aimed at educating donors about providing support for emergencies and development abroad.

    “Charities are aggressively soliciting donations around this disaster, and I don’t believe these donations necessarily are going to be used for relief or recovery in Japan because they aren’t needed for that,” Mr. Karnofsky said. “The Japanese government has made it clear it has the resources it needs for this disaster.”

    As for Lugnut, perhaps Obama could lie us into invading Japan, citing the WMD precedent of GWB.

  12. VennData says:

    Jonathon Schell, spoken like a true Luddite.

    The private Public combination has allowed a handful of negative events of the generations. How can we improve on that using science? By not allowing it? demonizing it? No more research, more science, more respect for science as a culture. American Idol, Fox News …Anti scientists, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee will not move the knowledge forward.

    You know what to do.

  13. franklin411 says:

    Totally agree. Japan is a sovereign nation and we can’t send them anything that they haven’t asked for/refuse to accept. The Japanese government seems to want to minimize the crisis, so perhaps they’re afraid that asking for our help will send their citizens into a panic. Whatever the cause, it’s not our fault that they don’t want our help.


  14. AHodge says:

    so now you have control rooms that look like 20 airliner cockpits with guages dials controls staffed by 20 techs trained by programs advertised on TV? profane is right it is the Homer Simpson syndrome

  15. IS_LM says:

    Sorry that I failed to close that link. Here it is done proper-like. (I hope.)

  16. mathman says:

    BennyProfane: that’s hilarious! Thanks.

    i too have to politely (and with reservations) disagree with the author of the quote. It seems that we’d (have) be(en) fine if they’d (have) err(ed) on the side of caution when building these nuclear power plants and not cheap out to save a few shekels now and HOPE that nothing happens in the future. As we humans keep making the same mistakes over and over again, it seems that we’re doomed to fail as a species precisely because we don’t learn from our many mistakes (environmental, economic, social, political, design wise, etc.) because we’re stubborn, pride-riddled, cheap, ignorant, careless, heartless, and pretty close to soulless any more. We lost our way l0ng ago and we’re so deep into the forest of ignorance now that we have no idea where we are or how to emerge into a bright, sustainable, cooperative and peaceful future. We can’t agree on anything meaningful and we’re all pulling in our own direction rather than giving to the global good – so we can all be provided for.

  17. socaljoe says:

    Oil spills, pipeline explosions, and mining accidents have shown that we are no more capable of dealing with atoms in their un-split state. Generating energy for our modern lifestyle, in all of its forms, has risks… get used to it and do the best you can to prevent and deal with it.

  18. jack says:

    would agree that the leadership vacuum seems to be more in japan than here. they are a proud people. i am making a vast generalization here, but it is not in their nature to ask for help. and we can’t force it on them. they say they can handle it themselves, but i am pretty sure they are not in reality in this regard.

  19. DMR says:

    The US reaction is completely bogus. It betrays the general culture we have here: CYA. If we act all grave and concerned and give a hysterical warning, that means that we will be absolved of blame when the congressional inquiry happens.

    How many people even bothered to read the revised report that was started during the Bush administration and released during the Obama administration? The consensus was against mass evacuations during a nuclear fallout. The best place is to be indoors, preferably in your basement.

    What the Japanese have done is to evacuate the people nearest to the reactor while avoiding massive evacuations from city centers. It seems like the right thing to do.

    What do we do? We sell them a reactor with a faulty design. Then, jealous of the fact that they didn’t riot like we did with Katrina, we want to give them bad advice. Great job.

    Here are some other facts to consider for the luddites out there:
    I fly on average 40 weeks in a year. Monday out, Thursday back. On average 2 segments each way. That’s about 160 flights, averaging 2 hours each – 320 flying hours. That qualifies me to be classified as a radiation worker according to the peculiarly written US standards. We receive radiation from the sky as well as from the ground. The reason why the core of the earth is molten (and the fact that it doesn’t freeze all the way down to -200 at night) is due to the fact that we receive more warmth from the earth’s radioactive decay than from the sun’s radiation. The true test of radiation is not that there is exposure: It is a combination of the rate of exposure (usually expressed in Seiverts per hour) and how long you have been exposed.

  20. JimRino says:

    We’ve had a solution to this since the 1940′s: Thorium Reactors.
    Yet, the Nuclear industry refuses to invest in Thorium.

    Where’s the Risk Management: Uranium Reactors have a catastrophic failure mode. Why is it the role of government and citizens, to do what the CEO should do, and protect the company and the nation from Catastrophic Risk!

    Solar and Wind have no catastrophic failure modes, and Clearly are Cheaper then Nuclear.

    Global Warming from coal-oil-natural gas, same Failure Mode, Planetary Failure, Ignored by the industry CEO’s. It’s time there be an across the board firing of these CEO’s.


    BR: I mentioned this huge Wired article on Thorium some time ago in one of our link fests:

    Uranium Is So Last Century — Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke

  21. louis says:


    “I also can’t believe how little the U.S. is even making supportive noises towards Japan. The toll here is going to be massive: why the hell aren’t we sending more help? ”

    Agree Julia but we have seen how we deal with this stuff, How we treated 9-11 responders, Katrina, BP, the homes of our citizen’s. If it was Football season I doubt we would make a comment. It’s pretty normal. The President will be watching from Rio. Don’t worry.

  22. Lugnut says:

    “As for Lugnut, perhaps Obama could lie us into invading Japan, citing the WMD precedent of GWB.”

    Ooooh burn! Nah we wouldn’t invade, we’d just dither over whether the UN should institute a no fly zone over it. That Bush boomerang has quite a few nicks in it. No need to throw it quite so often. Dubya’s been clearing brush and sipping Arnold Palmers for 2 years now.

    Back on topic: from my stupid American POV being force fed lousy coverage from our channel networks, I think Japanese culture is prone to mask the true need and willingness to ask for help. Doesn’t mean it isn’t needed or that they have all the resources they need. Nor should it prevent us from being more outgoing in atempting to help one of our closest allies over the last 50 years. Just my $.02

  23. Sarge says:

    @Julia Chestnut – The Americans are there. We’ve sent ten ships, a number of search and rescue teams and money through the Red Cross and Salvation Army. The problem is that the scope of the disaster is huge and the aid takes time to reach into the entire area. Japan is not a third world country. They are almost as rich as we are and certainly capable of handling their own disasters and asking for whatever help they might need.

    I would not politely disagree with Jonathon Schell, I would vehemently disagree. His is a medieval attitude. We make progress through trial and error. It is the human way.

  24. 873450 says:

    Anyone notice it was Germany and France, two west european socialistic democracies heavily reliant on nuclear power, that were the first national governments advising their citizens to GTFO of Japan?

  25. franklin411 says:

    I think the Japanese can have virtually anything they ask us to give them. Aid not requested cannot be foisted on any sovereign nation.

  26. Julia Chestnut says:

    Guys, I’m not saying we should be giving money to charities. I am not at all sure that does a lot of good in most places, and I doubt that people need piles of our old clothes.

    But there are some things that a government can do that ordinary people can’t. And it seems to me that the Japanese may be in one of those situations. The Red Cross – now those folks can move mountains. But I feel frustrated with the entire tenor of the reporting on this, and the seeming lack of concern for the scale of the destruction.

    What I’m hearing is that there are significant problems caused by hoarding and the utter destruction of all infrastructure going into the areas where the recovery effort needs to focus. It really doesn’t matter that you are a first-world nation when this kind of thing happens – I’m afraid people are going to die of exposure and dehydration in a first world country. Japan won’t ask – they are “accepting help.” That means that you have to be more proactive about how you approach them.

    And let’s say that they have refused our help and are telling the tons of people we have on the ground in Japan to stay on the bases. Let’s say that they are worried about losing face. Does that excuse the tone of the statements coming out of the U.S. government? The carping sorts of things that are going on? It’s not going to improve their stance, but worsen it.

    This is a historic and important ally. And they are people. I just can’t see the response, and I find it shameful.

  27. IS_LM says:

    This is a historic and important ally.

    Agreed. But what are governments, NGOs, and individuals to do if the sovereign government of Japan has not asked for the help?

  28. IS_LM says:

    Bush boomerang has quite a few nicks in it. No need to throw it quite so often.

    Given the “quality” of those eight years, the “Bush boomerang” continues to sail effortlessly through the air.

  29. Transor Z says:

    FWIW, my amateur armchair decoding of what I’ve seen so far:

    1) U.S. contradicting Japanese gov’t official line defining danger zone radius:
    As clumsy, insensitive and overbearing as the U.S. has proven itself to be in foreign policy over the years, I choose to believe that the Japanese gov’t was given advance notice of the NRC statements and the opportunity to revise its definition out to 80 km/50 miles. I have a basic respect for State Dept. workers like those on station in Japan and they know very well how important face is in the culture there. In sum, the common-sense prudent interpretation of the decision to break with Tokyo’s official line is that it was pretty damned ominous. For whatever reason, perhaps the population density/geography and desire to avert panic, the Japanese gov’t opted to not revise their position ahead of the NRC chair’s testimony to congress and official announcements. The issue of radiation is far more sensitive in Japan and fraught with history and is, in fact, seminal to postwar Japan. It makes our cultural experience with Three Mile Island and Rocky Flats (anyone remember that old old gem? if not, google it) trivial.

    2) China’s gov’t saying that they demand accurate and timely updates on the status of the reactors: American MSM continues to feed solipsism with the moronic focus on California. But a few billion people on China’s east coast are a hell of a lot closer to Fukushima Daiichi than SoCal. I found that statement from China to be very ominous. There’s no love lost between those two nations. Again, the history thing.

  30. Thor says:

    Julia – we are helping quite a bit. You may not see it in the MSM, but my niece is in the air force and is stationed in Northern Japan (not horribly close to the coast). All the US bases in Japan are doing everything they can to help, including opening up many bases for temporary shelter.

  31. Julia Chestnut says:

    Thank you, Thor. I know how extremely efficient our troops are at these things, and I am so glad to hear that they are helping out. It does make me feel better. It would make sense, in the great scheme of things, if we’re doing as much as we can while keeping it as low profile as possible in order not to cause embarrassment.

    I hope that your niece will be safe. I am grateful for her work.

  32. V says:

    The same was probably said when cavemen rubbed two sticks together and somebody burned down a forest?

  33. V says:

    Another point on Thorium research.
    Funny how we can find $800B and trillions in subsidies on short notice for bankers, while everything else (ie. energy research) that might yield a tangible benefit has to wait?

  34. Lugnut says:

    Oh Snap!!


    If this is true, this is Epic Facepalm time. I’m not a fan of Obama, but I dearly hope this is not true. Hoping this is not a misplaced interpretation of context, or errant translation. Cause if it is…. Oooooh Brother. Will be interesting to see if this story has any legs