Preparedness versus apocalyptic anticipation

Preparedness is based on what you know of the risks realized in what you spend to prepare for them. For common risks, you can buy insurance although many don’t see the need to spend money on flood or hurricane insurance as they don’t think the risk is worth the cost. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan reflect an example of an event that was outside of the expected – geologists didn’t think that fault could cause that big of an earthquake based on their experiences and studies – so preparations for that in terms of building guidelines and contingency plans came up a bit short. Still, what was done in terms of preparation is paying its dividends. For a perspective, see the WSJ A Long, Painful Reckoning with survival stories, inside the reactors, quake effects, and a report on the task at hand for rescue workers.

Disaster preparation isn’t the only area where such a balancing of what is known is compared to risks. The military force is another such assessment. Soldiers Told To Be More Like Marines is about the adage that the army is always ready to fight the last war. Planning for the future is another effort to determine what is a reasonable expense.

for the foreseeable future, the nation will not need a large army, equipped with heavy weapons. Special operations forces and some light infantry is OK, but any plans for lots of armored units slugging it out with similar foes is, well, no longer on the menu. The army thus becomes an expeditionary force, to be sent overseas for emergencies America can’t avoid. But not to stay and get involved with another Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Fukushima situation is providing an post hoc look at disaster preparedness. The Register has a rundown: Fukushima on Thursday: Prospects starting to look good. It provides a good summary of what has happened, why the amelioration efforts have been difficult due to tsunami and explosion damage, worker radiation exposure, and trends.

This situation does constitute a break in primary containment and has led to heightened radiation levels nearby, but there is no sign of massive damage to the cores or release of long-lived radioisotopes in significant quantities. The radiation near the reactors is mainly emitted by fast-decaying isotopes in the steam which decay away within seconds or minutes of being created. TEPCO admits that portions of fuel rod continue to be uncovered at times, but residual heating levels in the fuel are now hugely lower than they were in the days immediately after the quake and the rods’ heat-conducting alloy cladding helps transfer heat from the exposed portions to the water. … In summary it is looking more and more probable that the death and injury toll from the Fukushima quake strike will be limited to the one worker killed in a crane accident and others hurt by the quake and subsequent explosions at the site, perhaps with some very minimal long-term radiation effects among site workers

Then you have the FUD mongering: EE Times – Plutonium, fuel rod reactions stoke nuclear tensions — Canada Free Press sarcasm – Getting out of Dodge before the plume hits “The scare tactics employed by the world’s largest bureaucracy, the scandal-ridden United Nations, make Frankenstein look like a choir boy.” — a similar note at Q&O Japan’s nuclear problem and panic as policy “take a look at ABC News’ coverage of the nuclear problem in Japan. I don’t know about you, but it seems tinged with emotional sensationalism to me. That’s not to say the problem isn’t obviously serious, but it has that emotional element to it that, well, isn’t very objective. It also implies that the result is likely to be from a doomsday scenario.” — PhysOrg says Risks from radiation low in Japan but panic high

Retired nuclear power plants: testaments to human hubris? is another good rundown on how ideological attitudes tend to flavor perceptions.

Audacity – which is a better word than hubris – is one of the qualities that makes humans special and that allowed us to do many things that other animals couldn’t have done. We’re the species of explorers, discoverers, inventors, and some of us are heroes. The humans could have been satisfied with eating bananas in the tropics throughout their lives. By this algorithm, they could have avoided Dan’s accusations involving “hubris”. But they decided to do other things, too. Sorry, Dan, but curiosity, courage, dreams, and creativity are what our species is all about. Try to join another species if you have fundamental problems with this quality.

The sensible humans will surely learn some lessons – general ones as well as very special, engineering lessons – but I surely do hope that the lesson that we should abandon all of our ambitions and audacity won’t be one of them!

Audacity vs hubris seems to be a good paradigm for looking at the recent disasters.

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