Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan, Earthquakes, and Radiation Fears

The stories coming out of Japan are stunning. That the one nation to have suffered the effects of the only two nuclear weapons fired in anger--in the history of the world--should now have to face this latest tragedy--also involving radiation--almost defies the laws of probability.

I think we should be cautious before everybody runs under his desk in the duck-and-cover position: in spite of the blabbing on cable news. As serious as the concerns are about the radiation--and they are legitimate--the economic and human impacts of this disaster are very likely much more serious.

I've recently uncovered a cache of my father's letters to my mother, written near the end of World War II. They were in a dusty footlocker in a crawl space over our garage.

Dad's letter's home from the end of World War II.

They are an amazing historical and personal treasure and I will write more about them in the future. But I want to make several points with regard to them and to what I have learned from them about my father's radiation exposure sixty six years ago in Japan.

Captain Ashley Chapman was on Ie Shima, about 700 miles away from Ground Zero, when the atomic bomb exploded on Nagasaki. The pilots who flew from his airfield that day could see the mushroom cloud. Within a month he was in the occupying force at Sasebo, just 40 miles across the harbor from Nagasaki.

He and his battalion rode out a typhoon that September which--one can only presume--blew the fallout around to a considerable degree.

He also toured the city of Nagasaki with his friend Capt. Herb Schiff.

My father lived to be 90 years old. Herb Schiff is still with us, living in Sarasota, where he recently celebrated his 91st birthday.

The two of them also took a train to their embarkation port when they were going home, and that train took them through Hiroshima. My father wrote my mother that he slept through that part of the trip, though others stayed awake that night and reported that the city--seen at night, through the train's dark windows--seemed to have vanished.

Dad came home. Had kids. Both of us went to college and I have a graduate degree. So Dad's DNA seems to have survived his ordeal.

None of this is meant in any way to dismiss the concerns over the radiation from the nuclear power plants in Japan. They are obviously in serious difficulty. But, with the knowledge learned through many years of research, the U.S. is taking the proper precautions for our troops over there, and the international community will make all the same preventative measures available to Japanese citizens.

Thus, we need to temper our concerns about this with a dose of common sense.

However: the economic and humanitarian concerns are very serious--for Japan and the world. The earthquake--now calculated to have been a 9 on the Richter scale--has created the biggest devastation in Japan since World War II.

Nothing can mitigate the loss for the victims of this tragedy. But the destruction can be repaired. And though both the Japanese stock market and the American stock market have taken a hit over this, they will come back. Rebuilding will mean a huge investment in Japan and some of that money will be invested in and by American companies with the expertise to help. Think about investing in one or two of them while the market is down. It will help the companies, the economy, and it might bring you dividends, as well.

Finally, on a personal note, the Japanese earthquake has made me think seriously about my own very casual preparations for an earthquake disaster in California. I have not taken this seriously enough--as I did not in Florida, before Hurricane Charlie slammed through in 2004.

Every citizen in a potential disaster area--and the San Francisco Bay Area qualifies big time in the earthquake department--needs to have a substantial earthquake kit on hand. Fresh water, canned goods, a land line telephone, a hand crank radio, candles, matches, paper products, soap, and a good first aid kit, all should all be stored in a safe, easily accessible place.

Disaster relief will come. But, as I learned in Florida, it won't come immediately.

So, I'm going to do a better job of getting my earthquake kit ready for the future, in the firm hope that I will never need to use it.

The radiation--if it does blow across the Pacific Ocean toward California--is of much less concern to me. Driving on the freeway is probably more hazardous to my health.

As is--potentially--an earthquake, for those of us who live on the San Andreas Fault. A 9.0 on the Richter Scale is a shaking of the earth of unimaginable magnitude. Except now it is imaginable. Because we've seen it in Japan.

Add to Google Reader or Homepage

Subscribe to Robin Chapman News


Devon C. said...

And now the entire world is re-thinking their support of nuclear energy because of the natural disaster. Some think that Japanese failed because their nuclear plants were vulnerable to such a huge earthquake and tsunami! The audacity to think man can really overcome God's nature is so naive. Recently I read that some of the most modern nuclear energy plants have cooling systems that don't rely on electricity.

Robin Chapman said...

It does seem odd that a nation as advanced as Japan, where earthquakes are so common, didn't have a better plan in place for this.

Anonymous said...

That is a somewhat precarious comparison as you are comparing apples and oranges. The atomic weapons dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Big Boy and Fat Man – released fairly small amounts of radioactive material compared to what a modern power plant will release when a meltdown has occurred, especially one the size of Fukushima. For example, the accident at Chernobyl allegedly released 400 times more radioactive material than the Hiroshima atomic bomb used in WWII. Moreover, the Chernobyl power plant had a 4,000 MW capacity and Fukushima up to 7,500 MW according to media reports. Also remember that the atomic bombs were detonated at altitude which made the nuclear fallout dilute and disperse over a larger area because of wind currents...which likely reduced the impact on human life. Fortunately, a large area around the Fukushima plant has been evacuated.

This is a devastating occurrence and my heart goes out to the people of Japan. Hopefully, the cooling system will be up and running again soon.

Robin Chapman said...

So far, the Fukushima plant has not released radiation at a level even remotely comparable to Chernobyl, so it would be precarious to make that comparison with Fukushima.

Anonymous said...

No one suggested that such levels were released. The Chernobyl example was used to demonstrate to you that the ACTUAL radioactive material released by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs were considerably lower then the POTENTIAL radioactive material that would be released should it come to level 7 INES disaster at Fukushima. As of now, Fukushima - a still ongoing disaster - remains a level 4/5 INES accident.

Robin Chapman said...

Ah, so then it also has the POTENTIAL to be not as bad. Excellent.

peretzklein said...

I like your optimism, Robin. It's refreshing.

Robin Chapman said...

My uncle, Dr. Tom Parkinson, who designed and supervised the nuclear reactor at Virginia Tech was a nuclear physicist who taught nuclear engineering for many year. During the years I was in Washington he was a helpful source on stories about nuclear power, the impacts of radiation, studies on the results of the two bombs dropped in Japan and many other things. I learned a great deal from him and one of the most important things I learned is that people often get hysterical at even the mention of things nuclear and that looking at the information intelligently makes much more sense.
Wednesday's USA Today had an excellent piece on the things learned about radiation based on studies done at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Chernobyl, and I would urge anyone interested to Google the piece and read it.