Disaster Management Proves All To Be All Too Human : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture The unfolding nuclear calamity in Japan is just another reminder that, no matter how prepared we think we are, humans are fallible creatures guaranteed to make mistakes that we don't foresee.
NPR logo Disaster Management Proves All To Be All Too Human

Disaster Management Proves All To Be All Too Human

I grew up in the early '50s when The Three Stooges were featured as "short subjects" at the Westville Theater Saturday Matinee. We went each week for a Roy Rogers or a Doris Day feature movie and a lot of popcorn.

Over the decades, The Three Stooges have come to serve as my metaphor for humans dealing with absurd crises, of their own making, with escalating incompetence.

The Three Stooges haunted me, as I watched BP first blow itself up in the Gulf and then report oil "leaks" of 1,000 barrels a day, then 5,000, then 25,000, then 70,000. Then there was the controlled burn, the shutoff valve, the two million gallons of "dispersants," the containment dome, the "junk shot" of shredded tires and golf balls, the tube-insertion, the "top kill," the "static kill." There was the admission that alarm bells had been turned off to allow the crew to sleep. There was the emergency plan that listed the walrus as in need of protection in the Gulf in the event of an accident. Fingers pointed in all directions — to Halliburton, Transocean, Anadarko, the government.

Moe, Larry and Curly were alive and well.

A year later, The Three Stooges are back for another matinee run, this time in Japan.

We're only a week into it, but already we have reactors blowing up, "leaks" of radioactive material, pumps not pumping or running out of fuel, water poised to be dumped from helicopters, and evidence of short-circuited safety regulations.

I've found the NPR website to be the most in-depth source of information available on this terrifying situation, and was particularly gratified yesterday to see a piece from one of my heroes, Jonathan Schell, whose 1982 book on the nuclear arms race, The Fate of the Earth, was hailed by The New York Times as "an event of profound historical moment."

I encourage you to read his full posting, but here are his concluding paragraphs, where I've highlighted one sentence:

In Japan, the nuclear power industry has a record of garden-variety cover-ups, ducking safety regulations, hiding safety violations and other problems. But which large bureaucratic organization does not? And if these happen in Japan, as orderly and efficient a country as exists on earth, in which country will they not? When the bureaucracy is the parking violations bureau or the sanitation department, ordinary mistakes lead to ordinary mishaps. But when the basic power of the universe is involved, they court catastrophe.

The problem is not that another backup generator is needed, or that the safety rules aren't tight enough, or that the pit for the nuclear waste is in the wrong geological location, or that controls on proliferation are lax. It is that a stumbling, imperfect, probably imperfectable creature like ourselves is unfit to wield the stellar fire released by the split or fused atom. When nature strikes, why should humankind compound the trouble? The earth is provided with enough primordial forces of destruction without our help in introducing more. We should leave those to Mother Nature.

Some have suggested that in light of the new developments we should abandon nuclear power. I have a different proposal, perhaps more in keeping with the peculiar nature of the peril. Let us pause and study the matter. For how long? Plutonium, a component of nuclear waste, has a half-life of 24,000 years, meaning that half of it is transformed into other elements through radioactive decay. This suggests a time-scale. We will not be precipitous if we study the matter for only half of that half-life, 12,000 years. In the interval, we can make a search for safe new energy sources, among other useful endeavors. Then perhaps we'll be wise enough to make good use of the split atom.