Sunday, March 13, 2011 Heroic Engineering In Japan by Dave Täht

Two days after the big quake, I am in awe of Japanese civil engineering.

I'm considerably less impressed by the quality of the press coverage.

The best source for accurate news has been (again) wikipedia's pages:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_I_Nuclear_Power_Plant

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Sendai_earthquake_and_tsunami

I was going to go into a big description of the nuclear crises in this post but the following two articles describe what seems to have really happened, really well:

http://morgsatlarge.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/why-i-am-not-worried-about-japans-nuclear-reactors/

Aside from these pieces, the nuclear-related news quality has been abysmal, and easy questions left un-asked or unexplained.

The reporters involved glom onto a big number, filter it through their preconceptions and re-report it blindly, and then go back to reporting on fashion and sports, or whatever they do normally.

Take the widely reported radiation at 1000 times normal factoid. Please. Read this, about the Incalculable danger. Get a little educated about short term radiological byproducts. Pass that piece along to an irresponsible reporter or two. You'll sleep better.

While the hydrogen explosion was worrying, it takes time to cool a reactor down, and at least one will be ruined permanently by seawater, I think that the imminent crisis has been averted, by amazing engineering, planning and forethought, AND action. Not that it helps calm the pansies of the press.

To me the big question is: How THE HELL - in 1967 - do you design something so good, that: after lasting 10 years beyond your intended design life - can also withstand a quake 7x the size of what you designed it for? Followed by a tsunami? Whose hand can I shake? Who gets a medal? Are any of those engineers from the 60s still alive? I mean, WOW. They did that design, at least in part, with slide rules.

STILL, to me, the nuclear news is dwarfed by this:

In Japan, after the biggest quake they've ever had: Millions of buildings still stand. Most of the reactors still work. Not a single tunnel collapsed. The bridges out seem to be from tsunami damage. Of the five missing trains, all 5 reported in, and of the derailed train, all passengers were apparently rescued.

In fact, most normal train service resumed the next day.

F-ing heroic civil engineering all across the board, if you ask me.

The principal damage was to seacoast towns with geography that looks like tsunami funnels. And even then, there was sufficient warning for many people to get clear.

Via wikipedia:

    "One minute prior to the effects of the earthquake being felt in Tokyo, the Earthquake Early Warning system connected to about 1,000 seismometers in Japan sent out warnings on television of an impending earthquake to millions. This was possible because the damaging seismic S-waves, traveling at 4 kilometers per second, took about 90 seconds to travel the 373 km to Tokyo. The early warning is believed by the Japan Meteorological Agency to have saved many lives..."

I wonder how fast this news made it onto the cell phone network? or IRC?

Regardless, a lot of people, from 14:46 JST (quake) to 15:55 JST (tsunami), had time to get clear, and while the imagery being shown around the world is of those seatowns washed away, this disaster, without all the heroic civil engineering and planning done beforehand - could have been much, much worse.

Contrast this quake with the much milder (7.9) Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. According to Britannica

    The death toll from this shock was estimated at more than 140,000. More than half of the brick buildings and one-tenth of the reinforced concrete structures collapsed. Many hundreds of thousands of houses were either shaken down or burned.

Consider also how much we've learned since the 2004 quake in Sumatra, which killed over 230,000 people.

While 4.4 million households in northeastern Japan are without electricity, and Japan faces a near-term shortage of such...

Mere thousands, not hundreds of thousands, died.

The engineers of Japan have proven you can build a complex, high energy civilization that could take the worst Mother Nature could dish out, and survive, with style.

And I'm sure they'll take the lessons learned from this disaster, and build something even better.

Bonus link: http://www.kalzumeus.com/2011/03/13/some-perspective-on-the-japan-earthquake/ (which makes the above points even better than I could)

think this is the worst 'mother nature' can dish out?

Really?

REALLY?

Good article though.

Comment by cpm Monday, March 14, 2011