I know I already posted this in my quick links early last week, but HOLY GOD is this Kathryn Schulz piece about the already-overdue Pacific Northwest earthquake is terrific and terrifying.
Flick your right fingers outward, forcefully, so that your hand flattens back down again. When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west -- losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries. Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater. (Watch what your fingertips do when you flatten your hand.) The water will surge upward into a huge hill, then promptly collapse. One side will rush west, toward Japan. The other side will rush east, in a seven-hundred-mile liquid wall that will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthquake begins. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA's Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, "Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast."
For the vast majority of people, nuclear power is a black box technology. Radioactive stuff goes in. Electricity (and nuclear waste) comes out. Somewhere in there, we're aware that explosions and meltdowns can happen. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that set of information is enough to get by on. But, then, an emergency like this happens and, suddenly, keeping up-to-date on the news feels like you've walked in on the middle of a movie. Nobody pauses to catch you up on all the stuff you missed.
As I write this, it's still not clear how bad, or how big, the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant will be. I don't know enough to speculate on that. I'm not sure anyone does. But I can give you a clearer picture of what's inside the black box. That way, whatever happens at Fukushima, you'll understand why it's happening, and what it means.
Even with the release of steam, the pressure and temperature inside Unit 1 continued to increase. The high temperatures inside the reactor caused the protective zirconium cladding on the uranium fuel rods to react with steam inside the reactor to form zirconium oxide and hydrogen. This hydrogen leaked into the building that surrounded the reactor and ignited, damaging the surrounding building but without damaging the reactor vessel itself. Because the reactor vessel has not been compromised, the release of radiation should be minimal. It appears that a very similar situation has occurred at Unit 3 and that hydrogen is again responsible for the explosion seen there.
Of immediate concern is the prospect of a so-called "meltdown" at one or more of the Japanese reactors. But part of the problem in understanding the potential dangers is continued indiscriminate use, by experts and the media, of this inherently frightening term without explanation or perspective. There are varying degrees of melting or meltdown of the nuclear fuel rods in a given reactor; but there are also multiple safety systems, or containment barriers, in a given plant's design that are intended to keep radioactive materials from escaping into the general environment in the event of a partial or complete meltdown of the reactor core. Finally, there are the steps taken by a plant's operators to try to bring the nuclear emergency under control before these containment barriers are breached.
Had any other populous country suffered the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that shook Japan on Friday, tens of thousands of people might already be counted among the dead. So far, Japan's death toll is in the hundreds, although it is certain to rise somewhat.
Over the years, Japan has spent billions of dollars developing the most advanced technology against earthquakes and tsunamis. The Japanese, who regularly experience smaller earthquakes and have lived through major ones, know how to react to quakes and tsunamis because of regular drills -- unlike Southeast Asians, many of whom died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami because they lingered near the coast despite clear warnings to flee.
If you haven't already heard, Al-Jazeera had (and continues to have) some of the best coverage of earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Here's a clip from earlier showing the tsunami rushing through a populated area.
Contrast with CNN, which was apparently home to giggles and Godzilla jokes as the quake was being reported. In the last three or four big events in the world, Al-Jazeera has had the best coverage...is this a changing of the guard?
We did find an example of an American in Japan that made a reference that it was like a "monster movie" (which is included below) but Church handles herself completely appropriately.
Update: Mediaite found a video of the CNN broadcast in question where the anchor chuckles at something her interviewee says. And her whole tone sounds a bit more chipper than it ought to. The sing-song anchor voice might suffice when reporting non-news filler but fails when watching video of dozens of homes (possibly with people in them!) being swept along by a massive wave of water. (via @somebadideas)
The United States Geological Survey said the earthquake had a magnitude of 8.9, and occurred at about 230 miles northeast of Tokyo and at a revised depth of about 17 miles. The Japanese Meteorological Agency said the quake had a magnitude of 8.8, which would make it among the biggest in a century.
The quake occurred at 2:46 p.m. Tokyo time and hit off Honshu, Japan's most populous island. The quake was so powerful that buildings in central Tokyo, designed to withstand major earthquakes, swayed.