One week ago a major earthquake in Japan set off a chain reaction of natural and man made disasters that as of this writing has yet to be concluded. The quake was centered off the west coast of Japan and aside from the quake damage to nearby cities and towns also created a tsunami that inundated nearby cities and sent waves that struck Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States.
At the time of the tsunami we were staying in Morro Bay at an altitude of about 25 ft above sea level. Mark has this routine in the morning where he wakes up, performs his morning workout, and checks the news online for recent headlines. At the time he logged in it was about 8:25am. The news about the quake were the main headlines with the sub-line discussing a tsunami due to hit the area at 8:30am! Well that is one way to get a good jolt of adrenalin in the morning! Further research provided details that the tsunami was expected to peak at 5ft and areas of danger had been evacuated about 3 hours earlier. So we were safe.
The tsunami did damage some boats and docks in the Morro Bay harbor and caused significant damage further north along the coast and along the coasts of Hawaii. Tuning into a local news station we watched their reports from Avila Beach as the waters would recede hundreds of feet out to sea and then slowly come back in to the high water mark. The tsunami damage to United States was rather limited and quickly became overshadowed by news of the tsunami and quake damage in Japan. Aerial shots from Japan showed the destructive wave sweeping across villages, cities, and farmland literally wiping them from existence.
It was early afternoon by the time news reports began discussing potential damage and problems to a number of nuclear power plants in Japan. Like most humans we have been pre-conditioned to absolutely fear radiation and anything nuclear. Major media outlets simply reported the issues and then moved on to other topics regarding the earthquake and tsunami. For Mark though he recognized right away that the nuclear power plant issues were the most pressing.
In our travels we have visited a number of nuclear sites in the United States. First there was the Nuclear Test Museum in Las Vegas, then there was the area around Arco Idaho that is home to Idaho National Laboratories, followed by the National Museum of Nuclear Science in Albuqeurque, the area around the Trinity Test site in White Sands, and the Titan Missile Museum in Tucson. What we have learned from all these experiences is that nuclear whatever (weapons, energy, and medicines) is extremely powerful and extremely dangerous. The other message we have gathered is that even with all the skills and expertise of our scientists and engineers they can not and have not thought or prepared for every contingency. Looking at the history of nuclear whatever there are a number of instances where the dangers were considered small or the risks were considered remote and unfortunately a bunch of crap hit the fan and someone else was left dealing with the outcome.
Fast forward back to Japan and the reported problems with the nuclear plants. During the winter the major jet stream path travels across Siberia, over Japan, sweeping up towards Alaska, and then drops down to the US West Coast. Should any materials get into the jet stream it would be transported the 6000 miles in about 36 hours. Looking at the Chernobyl disaster harmful materials were spread upto 1600 miles from the site due to the smoke carrying the materials high up into the air. The big question for Mark was how much radioactive material was being released and how far will it end up traveling. The argument that Chernobyl was worse, the party line being spewed in the news, is obviously false; so how much and how far?
Going back to our various museum visits we knew secondhand that governments and nuclear industry officials tended to downplay the risks with a “nothing to see here” attitude. Only later did people learn through “scientific studies” that the radiation actually went further than planned. In the current crisis the Japanese were taking this route through Saturday issuing press releases that explained the problem while they publicly stated that everything was well within their grasp.
So lets get this straight a 9.0 earthquake had struck the region knocking out everything, a tsunami then inundated the plant and surrounding countryside, and the Japanese are acting as though there are no issues. Going into Saturday evening the major news outlets were just now getting on the story with news that the Japanese government was evacuating the population around the plant.
Why is any of this a big deal to us? Because unlike most normal people we have a home that can be moved. In 4 days we can be relocated an additional 3000 miles east and into a region that is not under the main jet stream path. As it was planned we were going to travel 200 miles north to Santa Cruz placing us directly into the winter Jet Stream route. The simple question we needed answered was “is there any risk to us here”?
Now most people and scientists would later say no we are safe 5000 miles from Japan but back on Saturday and Sunday the news outlets were reporting that “plumes of radiation” would eventually reach the west coast. What the “F” does that mean? Are we going to die? Should we be heading to Florida? Nope no real useful news coming out of the major media outlets.
By Monday two of the reactor outer containment buildings had blown up and the evacuation area had been extended. Major media outlets were reporting “apocalyptic” outcomes and that the EPA was moving additional radiation detection equipment to the west coast. Okay we are not feeling calm now!
By Tuesday Mark had had enough. He spent several hours reading and researching on radiation and risks, looking at fallout maps from pacific nuclear bomb tests, and other stupidity from the 50’s-80’s. The basic findings came to this: as long as the spent fuel rods do not catch fire there is no risk to the west coast. By Thursday news networks were still reporting that a plume was heading to the west coast.
Here it is Friday and we are not glowing. The situation in Japan has not really improved but thankfully the reactors have not blasted material into the jet stream either. Only time will tell were this all ends up but for now we just want to say “F^@$ You Major Media” for ruining our week and adding undo stress to our lives.