One of the most frequently asked questions after the show- adult or children’s script – is Where is the nearest nuclear power plant to LA?
On our way to San Diego for our last Anniversary Reading, I drove past it. After thinking so much about it, I can’t believe I didn’t plan to stop there on the way. My carmate and ensemble member Carolyn Blais was nice enough to snap some pictures on our way home. Not bad for going 75 MPH.
Stacy Jones, Publicity Director for the Fringe, and her Correspondents Team are accomplishing an amazing task: seeing lots of shows and filming short interviews with the creators directly afterwards. Our show is the second interview in this clip!
I’d heard stories, every family has the one distant cousin or favorite uncle who spoke out against the government, and I’d heard of them disappearing, or going to jail, or worse. I guess you understand more about the world the older you get, because it wasn’t much longer after that when I learned more about living near a power plant.
(coming home from school)
At the foot of the hill puffs a tractor
At the top of the hill a reactor
With Chornobyl we are strong
Our motherland can do no wrong.
Who taught you that song, Katya?
My teacher. She said that Chornobyl creates power for us to use in our homes. See?
(Runs to the light switch and turns it on and off)
We have electricity in our house because the Chornobyl power plant makes it for us.
What else did your teacher tell you?
That our motherland will become a strong force in the world because of all the power that Chornobyl creates, and we are very lucky to live so close to it.
Did your teacher say anything about safety tests?
Let me tell you more, Katya. Your teacher told you all the good things, but it wasn’t necessarily the whole story. What I want to tell you isn’t really bad, but it is a reason why we should be careful. I need to ask you not to tell anyone else about it, though. We can talk about these things to each other, with you, me and Mom, but not to anyone else, okay?
On Wednesday I attended the lecture “The Crisis at Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant” given by Caltech Professor Joseph E. Shepherd, the C. L. “Kelly” Johnson Professor of Aeronautics and Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
Shepherd first presented a thorough overview of the reactor design including the safety systems, then he sketched out the probable sequence of events and explained the physical and chemical processes that led to the explosions and fires, all from an engineering perspective. I appreciated his “just the facts” approach to a crisis that can be all too easily politicized. Those debates should also happen, but in a different arena. We need to know what happened if we as a global community are to meaningfully debate our relationship to nuclear power.
Nuclear fission generates a lot of heat; that’s why nuclear power plants work so well. In Chernobyl as in Fukishima, heat from nuclear fission in the core of the reactor boils water, which turns to steam; the steam drives several turbines, which generate electricity; the steam then condenses back into water that is returned to the core to begin the cycle again. As long as this process is maintained and temperatures are kept in check, things go along quite nicely. But if something disrupts the ability to maintain control of the temperatures, the heat makes the situation incredibly dangerous, which is why there are multiple backups and independent and diverse cooling systems. In Japan, the sheer power and magnitude of the earthquake and tsunami overwhelmed the system – the facility simply was not built to withstand such force.
I bring all of this up, however, not to explain the basics of nuclear power, but rather to describe a moment I witnessed after the lecture. After Professor Shepherd finished and had answered some public questions, the event officially ended. A small crowd, which included two engineering
students, gathered around him to ask additional questions. Engineers have an extraordinary ability to identify problems and seek out solutions for them, and I watched as these two young woman diagnosed and discussed the situation with the Professor.
The problem: the cooling system required external power. The earthquake disrupted this power. The tsunami flooded the backup generators that run when power is disrupted. The batteries that are a third layer of protection ran for 8 hours until they ran out of power.
A potential solution: run a cooling system with the energy of the reactor itself, thereby eliminating the danger of the loss of external power. Why not use the steam already present to run the cooling system?
This, said Shepherd, is what they were attempting to do at Chornobyl.
I found this whole exchange to be extremely enlightening. I was standing with the best and brightest of our nation’s minds – and they reached the Chornobyl conclusion, which at least tells me that the tests at Chornobyl weren’t completely without scientific merit. The Caltech students were brainstorming, and they had an expert to counsel them as they thought through the problem.
Shepard was able to explain to them how many variables were in play, and he generously helped them see how these variables rendered an idea intended to make the reactor more safe exceedingly unsafe. In Chornobyl, tests proceeded without the realization of how unpredictable a nuclear reactor could be.
The other thing that struck me about the lecture stemmed from Professor Shepherd’s extensive use of satellite images in the course of his presentation. We’ve all seen them: the before and after shots of Japan that lay bare the destruction wrought there. In the days following the earthquake and tsunami, I poured over them, trying to wrap my head around what had happened there. For Shepherd, the images enabled him to make reasoned assessments of the nuclear facility, and at one point he said, in an offhand aside, “Thank God for Google Earth.” This got me thinking about the increasingly open connection we have to each other. I, like so many others, watched the tsunami crash into northern Japan as it happened. I followed updates in real time. I watched news programming from Tokyo, the BBC, Public Broadcasting, and the various cable sites.
Fukushima was reported on from all angles, through all types of media.
In contrast, the Soviet Union was able to downplay the international
ramifications of the 1986 Chornobyl disaster for two days until Sweden reported the increased radioactivity. The official Soviet response was
sluggish; it was only when the severity of the situation could not be denied that the extent of the disaster began to be revealed. News trickled out of the region, often with conflicting stories, and in many ways, this not knowing amplified the fear attached to the disaster. The sort of secrecy
that dominated the Cold War no longer seems possible. With these sorts of disasters – incidents which truly affect the entire globe – transparency is a very reassuring thing.
Karen Jean Martinson is a Scholar, Director and Dramaturg.
When Cindy first approached me about contributing to this project, I was pretty sure I knew about as much about Chornobyl as the next person, which is to say, next to nothing. Okay, so maybe (as our recent foray to The Grove demonstrates) a little more than the next person, but still nothing to hang my hat on. My journey in educating myself of the subject has been heartbreaking, rage-inducing, and really illuminating; not just about the situation at Chornobyl, but the human condition in general.
The recent events in Japan have put my Chornobyl education into very sharp focus: you know that place where you know just enough to be really frightened, but not quite enough to actually know what you’re frightened of? I’m a pretty resourceful person, and I want to know all the facts, so I thought I’d share some of the results of my research into what’s actually going on at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant. In moments of international crisis like this – misinformation can spread as fast (or faster if it’s particularly sensational) than the real story, and for non-experts, such as myself, it can be frustratingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.
NPR has been interviewing experts of every stripe for days. They have accumulated all their stories, interviews and commentary into this primer.
Mother Jones, a political news periodical, has gotten a lot of attention lately for it’s investigative pieces that seek to explicate complicated current events (the protests and instability in Egypt and Libya, the demonstrations and political maneuvering in Wisconsin, the budget debate in Washington, etc.) for the layman. They have a really excellent piece that makes the very complicated subject of nuclear science easier to grasp, and they’re updating it regularly as news from Japan comes in.
One of my favorite daily reads is the tech blog Gizmodo. They have a pretty well-documented interest in Chornobyl and in nuclear power in general, and they have a comprehensive breakdown of events as well. This article also has a whole mess of links, to Boing-Boing, the BBC, Salon, Al Jazeera, The Atlantic and more! It’s a black-hole time-suck of really good science lessons.
A significant link on the Gizmodo page is to this Salon article, which thoroughly debunks a viral blog post that you may have seen by a Dr. Josef Oehmen at MIT. MIT is currently hosting this blog post, they have not taken it down, but I would say read it with a grain of salt (or at least read it with this Salon piece.)
On the subject of misinformation, this map has been going around (before you look at it, know that it’s a hoax – I’m only including it so you’ll know what it looks like in case someone sends it to you or you see it come up in your research):
It purports to be an estimated trajectory of nuclear fallout from the Fukushima plant released by Australian Radiation Services and has their logo, but they don’t claim it and the map isn’t hosted or displayed anywhere on their website. (Another key factor that reveals this to be less than savory, is in the legend. A real fallout map wouldn’t be measured in RADs. RAD is a medical term that stands for Radiation Absorbed Dose, meaning how much radiation is absorbed by an individual, not how much material is in the air or how radioactive it is. http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/radiation/health-effects/measuring-radiation.html) I would be very skeptical about any source of information that includes this map.
For me, knowledge is the best antidote to fear. These are uncertain times in general, and after the tragic events in Japan over the last few days it is even more important to make sure we have as much knowledge and awareness as possible.
I have a lot of thoughts about what is currently happening in Japan. In the wake of a natural disaster, an even larger disaster is slowly beginning to form. As I’m writing the fire in the 4th reactor has been extinguished and there is so much more happening and to be done.
My news feed on facebook has been inundated by the news of the disaster. Comparing it to Chernobyl. The word has seemed to magically reappear in our consciousness as a people. Chernobyl. 25 years ago in just a little over a month now. This project which once felt so obscure has been forced into the limelight and pushed back into our social conscious. In a way I’m thankful for that. Not for the disaster and for the lingering impacts, but that people are talking about it.
People didn’t talk about Chernobyl in the immediate aftermath. There wasn’t a large international dialogue about what should be done or what the potential lasting impacts will be. While it is extremely unfortunate that most of the Japanese cannot watch the news due to power outages and other issues, it is incredible how much I am seeing about Japan and Chernobyl right now.
Someone asked me what my opinion was about Japan and the impending nuclear disaster. I wasn’t sure what they were really asking about. Was it my opinion on nuclear energy? I don’t talk about that. Was it my opinion on how it’s being handled? Maybe. The person clarified their question, asking me if I thought Japan was going to be the “next chernobyl”. What a loaded thought.
In some ways what is happening now will never be Chernobyl. Technology is more advanced and we are in the USSR in 1986. Will the environmental and social impacts be as bad? Preliminary calculations have suggested it may be or it may not be.
For now, the world watches and waits.
For now, I read my facebook feed and am happy Chernobyl is being spoken about. I just wish it was under much better circumstances.