Narita is Tokyo's key international airport, and travelers on United to places in Asia are accustomed to transiting through it. It got shook by the earthquake, and was on the edge of the tsunami zone, so it was a bit of a miracle that it was operating when I flew through on Monday, just a few days after the disaster.
You gotta love the resilience and tenacity of the Japanese. The place was running as if normally, with ceiling tiles hanging loose and the Red carpet Club closed due to damage from the shake. The TVs were set to NHK for news in English, mostly about the nuclear radiation leaks and the no-fly zones around the reactors. Narita is outside those zones, but is situated between the reactors and Tokyo, and who knows, a wind shift could close it. Since I am flying back via Narita, this is dear to my heart right now.
I also had to fly into NYC right after 9/11. Shuttle out of DC was empty - three others besides myself. Service was impeccable! Not surprisingly, the flight from Seattle into Narita was only half-full, as many fliers abandoned ship. Service on United on my outbound was also remarkably friendly! Was it a Seattle crew, or a half-empty cabin? I normally fly international out of SFO, and have run into one shriveled bitty of a head stewardess who has umpteen years of seniority and gets to pick her routes. She is a terror, both for her crew of stews & the hapless bunch in her cabin, normally first class. I cannot envision what she looked like as a 20-something in the days when the stews were young and cute. So perhaps Seattle crews are up & coming, and hustle more; or maybe just nice folks up there; or a half-empty cabin.
The reaction of the Japanese make one reflect on the American reaction to Katrina, but I recall a much more impressive feat: the speed with which Verizon restored phone service to Wall Street after 9/11. Their switching center with myriads of snaking copper and fiber to the nerve centers of finance was in the rubble next to one of the WTC skyscrapers. Yet in just 4 days service was restored. I shared a board at the time with a vice-chairman of Verizon who was the man on point. He was near retirement, and this was his crowning achievement. I think Katrina was not a reflection on the resilience and tenacity of the American people so much as a reflection of a fairly dysfunctional and corrupt city government in New Orleans. We still have the can-do attitude.
Looming over my return is the cloud of radiative stuff leaking from the broken reactors. Interesting how the triple-redundant cooling systems actually worked, but were designed so poorly the human reaction failed. As I understand it:
- First the grid failed, but the backup diesel came on as planned
- Then the tsunami washed over the diesel generators, and the backup batteries came on as planned,
- Then the batteries turned out to lack sufficient power, and because the grid and generators were not coming back, teams rushed in new batteries, only to find they had the plugs wrong. Murphy's Law. (Indeed, it was first formulated around plugs.) In this case, the blame may fall less on the plugs than a flaw in the sockets, as apparently they had been put at a basement level and were now beneath the water - and they lacked the power to pump the water out!
Now the cooling failed and the reactors heated up, creating more steam than water, which exposed the tops of the rods, causing some nasty stuff to be released into the steam. Still all contained but they vented the steam. The explosions seem to be from a buildup of hydrogen, also a consequence of exposed cores and super-heated steam.
UPDATE: ok, the containment vessels should minimize the emissions, so why the sudden increased panic today? It may come from yet another design flaw, and one so glaring it challenges the senses: the spent fuel rods are on the same cooling system but outside the containment vessels. If they burn the stuff goes directly into the air. This is the real ticking radioactive time bomb.
So a black swan event defeated a triple redundant system due to design failure. How do you plan for a black swan?
The reactors were so-called Gen II, which rely on power for cooling (pumps, etc.). A Gen III design which uses a passive cooling process (think: water above the reactor so it can spill down without pumps; convection used to recycle steam back up and cool it into water, replenishing the source.) Our NRC has held up a Gen III design for seven years so far, and the emotive response of politicians now threatens to slow it to death.
Here is where the American resilience may buckle: I expect reactors (including Gen III and the even better Thorium Salt designs) to be built over in Aisa, despite the disaster, as they really need to get off imported sources such as natural gas. I worry that over here, however, our political system will show the dysfunctionality of New Orleans and not the can-do attitude of Verizon, and of the Japanese.