Sunday, March 13, 2011

Editorial Content & Structure... & Nuclear Accidents

When most of us read an article in the paper, we rarely read past the first couple of paragraphs. The old Who, What, When, Where of the story, as it were. Let's face it, most of us don't read the paper any more. And let's be even more honest; most of us don't read any more. But, putting a pin in those topics for another day, let's go back to the first premise; most of us don't read past the first few paragraphs.

And that's truly unfortunate. I've learned so much by trying to read to the end. I say try because, too often, people who write for newspapers can't really write very well and it's all I can do to listen to their dull, droning voices in my head until I get to the tedious end. But, more often than not, that's where all the information is. At least the information I want to know, and have come to suspect every time I read about this or that man-made disaster.

As-a-fer-instance; if you read the banner headline article in today's New York Times that Japan had to flood two of it's nuclear reactors with sea water to avert meltdown, but didn't read to the bottom of paragraph five of that article, you wouldn't have been teased over to page 11 to the two articles, one about the types of radiation being released, and the real Money Shot in the other article, "Nuclear Industry Braces for Increased Scrutiny After Explosion in Japan".

Even then, unless you read to the bottom of column six of that article, you wouldn't find out that, in the debate about the location and safety of other reactors with colorful histories in Japan, the very people arguing the Pro side of "should we put more and more of our energy eggs into the nuclear basket", had doctored video of a 1995 fire inside that nuclear power plant. Because that kind of information is important when you're trying to figure out if you want to get out in the street with a placard (or create a blog from the comfort of your home) and rally against a nuclear power plant being built in your back yard, or, as the case may be, along the San Andreas Fault, like the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in southern California, which, with it's beachfront/fault-line location, is susceptible to both big-ass earthquakes AND tsnunamis, just like those folks in Japan - just in case you were thinking, "Well, at least we're smarter than the Japanese when it comes to where we put our most dangerous power generating facilities".

Not really.

I say our most dangerous power generating facility because that's what it is. All you have to do is ask the residents of Chernobyl how their-up-until-now-worst-nuclear-accident-in-history is working out for them. Oh, I forgot. No on'e allowed within 30 kilometers (18.65 miles) of the plant, so you can't ask them, can you?

And credible people are saying the Japanese aren't out of the woods yet. They could end up with a 7-on-a-scale-of-7 nuclear accident on their hands. Worse than Chernobyl. But then, it won't just be on their hands. It'll be on all of our hands. To quote the other NYT page 11 article; cesium-137 has a half-life of over 30 years, and it takes about 200 years to reduce it to 1 percent of the original contamination level. Cesium-137 is the biggie, because it's soluble in water and is easily metabolized in the body, because it's chemically similar to potassium.

Too, the idea that they're using sea water to cool the reactor shouldn't be as reassuring as that may sound to you on first hearing it. Where's that water going to go? I have a little experience with this stuff. I rode a nuclear powered submarine in the 70's, and while I wasn't a Nuc - as we called those Mushroom People who worked aft of Frame Forty - we all had to learn about the nuclear plant that we were never more than a few feet away from. You cool a nuclear pile with coolant in pipes that run through the reactor compartment. That's the primary cooling loop and the coolant in those pipes is called the primary coolant. It is a closed loop system and the coolant is considered highly radioactive. Then you use a heat exchange process with a second set of pipes, filled with - you guessed it, secondary coolant - to absorb the heat from the primary coolant. In that way, you keep the nuclear pile cooled to the level of nuclear chain reaction you want to generate the heat/energy you want. A controlled nuclear reaction.

So, when you get to where you're just dumping raw sea water into an exploded nuclear vessel to keep it from being an uncontrolled nuclear reaction - commonly called a nuclear explosion - that is what is known as a Last Ditch Effort To Stave Off Disaster, and you're going to end up with a shit-ton of nuclear waste from using all the sea water you can for as long as you need to, to cool that nuclear pile down.

And you don't get that up front, when you just read the first few paragraphs. But you've probably already stopped reading and missed my point anyway, because here we are in the ninth paragraph already, well past the average reader's threshold.

But I hope I've at least been entertaining. I mean, really, at this point, that's what's important, as we all rearrange the decks chairs on this planet that resembles the Titanic more and more every time I pick up the newspaper - which I do mostly now by tapping an icon on my I Phone instead of actually reading The Paper. Except early on Sunday mornings, while the Sun is just coming up, and I do the old fashioned inky finger thing and read the papers and drink coffee until my wife is screaming, "Take me to breakfast now!" So, we get into our CO2 belching Cadillac CTS and ride off into the new day, the Sun high enough in the sky so that the beautiful hues of ochre red, violet and blue - which are nothing more than light refracted off of smog particles suspended in the lower atmosphere - are no longer visible to the naked eye, and don't make me wonder, "Wouldn't we be better off if all of our energy needs were provided by clean, green, nuclear power?"

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