A little context: The following piece was written to be performed in the March 26, 2011 edition of The Paper Machete, a weekly showcase for Chicago journalists, comedians, and other writers, hosted by Christopher Piatt.
The Paper Machete has posted the audio of the performance as a podcast. You can listen to it here:
The text is below for your reading pleasure. Or your reading epistemological discomfort, perhaps.
This essay also posted as a diary on Daily Kos.
I suppose every historical disaster comes with it the opportunity to burn one or more memorable quotations into our collective mind. The Hindenburg gave us, “Oh, the humanity!” More recently, the Iraq War presented us with “Mission Accomplished,” Katrina introduced “Heckuva job, Brownie” into the national discourse, and even the BP oil disaster may forever remind us of CEO Tony Hayward’s plaintive “I’d like my life back.”
And Fukushima? The story of its aftermath is still being written, but there’s already one sentence that will be lodged in my brain, at least, for a while to come.
I read it in a news story on the Guardian site on a Wednesday morning, and later that day someone used it as the title of a recommended diary on Daily Kos, so I know I’m not the only one who found it striking. It was a few days after the initial disaster, when people were starting to realize that it wasn’t just the nuclear reactors themselves that we had to worry about. There were also large numbers of spent fuel rods that needed to be kept cool.
As you probably know by now, spent fuel rods are fuel rods that have been retired from use, because they’re no longer useful as fuel, and they’re kept in pools full of special cooling water for many years. If they aren’t kept cool enough, there is the possibility that the fuel rods might go critical again, meaning that nuclear fission would begin to take place, like it does in the reactors themselves. Which could lead to very bad things, such as explosions. Something like a dirty bomb, we’re told.
In discussing what might happen to the spent fuel rods if things didn’t go well, a spokesman for Tepco â€” the Tokyo Electric Power Company â€” uttered the following memorable sentence:
“The possibility of re-criticality is not zero.”
Let me repeat that so that we can fully appreciate it: “The possibility of re-criticality is not zero.”
What’s striking about this sentence is that it doesn’t come right out and say what it means. It implies that the possibility of re-criticality is so disturbing that we can’t look at it directly; just the thought of it is itself kind of radioactive. So we need to wear special protective glasses of language before we turn our verbal gaze in that direction. We can’t say what the possibility of re-criticality is: Instead we’ll just rule out one small thing that it is not. It is not zero.
If, like me, you’re a little bit of a geek for the wonderful Greek words that define the various tropes and schemes used in rhetoric and poetry, or you just had a good classics teacher, you may recognize these linguistic protective glasses: They’re called litotes.
Technically, the term litotes refers to any kind of understatement. “New York is kind of a big city” or “The winters in Chicago can get kind of nippy” are both litotes.
In practice, however, we most often use the term litotes to refer to the specific kind of understatement where you say something by denying its opposite.
For example, “I wouldn’t mind if spring came early this year.” Or, “As the host of a weekly performance series, Christopher Piatt is not exactly a bumbling incompetent.” Or, “It would not make me tremendously sad if a pigeon flying overhead were to take direct aim at Governor Scott Walker’s open mouth.”
From a strictly logical standpoint, this may not sound like a very effective way of communicating. All I’ve done in regard to Christopher Piatt, for example, is to strike one terrible possibility off the long list of shortcomings that he might have. And yet, through long cultural practice, we instantly understand that I mean he is a terrific host. Probably.
And of course, litotes has a long history in political discourse. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell specifically complained about the overuse of the “not un” construction, as in “not unlikely” or “not unjustifiable,” and recommended that we “laugh [it] out of existence” by memorizing the sentence “A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.”
What’s particularly memorable about what I’ll call the Fukushima Litotes, or “not zero,” is the way it’s used as a last resort to avoid saying something unspeakable. And in a way, that gets at the whole issue with nuclear power: We’ve only been able to proceed with it by refusing to contemplate certain outcomes. We wear various kinds of protective glasses in order to avoid looking directly at the possibilities that are not zero.
Some of us are more comfortable than others with those possibilities. Others of us would like to be able to take those possibilities and just go ahead and make them zero.
This is the question we’re left with in the wake of Fukushima: Is nuclear power worth the risk?
I have several friends in Japan, all US citizens, and one of the things I noticed in the days after the Fukushima disaster began was the difference in tone between the news articles they were posting on Facebook, compared to the articles my friends in the US were posting. In general, my friends in Japan wanted to promote the perspective that things were going to be okay; that we shouldn’t overreact or become hysterical or exaggerate the bad things might happen as a result of Fukushima. Early on, one of them politely begged his friends in the US to stop making references to Chernobyl.
My friends in the US, on the other hand, were more likely to post speculations about worst-case scenarios.
It’s understandable that my friends in Japan didn’t want to panic unnecessarily. But it’s also reasonable to wonder if the differences in my friends’ perspectives were a reflection of the difference in what the authorities in Japan were saying versus what the news media in the west have been saying. As Rachel Maddow has pointed out on her show, governments and nuclear power companies have a long history of downplaying and sometimes lying about the severity of the situation when things go wrong with nuclear power, from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl. And the Japanese government and Tepco obviously have every reason to want to minimize the appearance of having, to put it bluntly, screwed up â€” in addition to not wanting to cause panic in the streets.
So which perspective should we embrace?
After the last couple of weeks, many of us now know much more than we ever expected to about fuel rods, cladding, containment vessels, radioactive isotopes, and so forth. But ultimately, no matter how smart we are, we are all at the mercy of people who are smarter than we are. People who have invested years of their lives to study and think about subjects we haven’t. Very few of us are capable of understanding the subtleties of nuclear physics and medicine and how the insides of our computers work and everything else there is to know in our complicated age. So we’re forced to rely on what we’re told by experts. And when the anointed experts disagree among themselves, as they will, then we have the difficult task of deciding which experts to listen to.
Which leads us to what I think of as the great crisis of the 21st century: epistemology.
Epistemology, of course, is the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature and origin of human knowledge. Epistemology asks the question, “How do we know what we know?”
In the Internet age, we live in an oversaturated overabundance of information. We marinate ourselves in information. The problem is no longer getting information; it’s figuring out which information we can trust. Which sources of information are credible. And by extension, when that information is too complex for us to understand, which experts we can rely on to interpret that information for us.
As Laurie Anderson puts it in her piece “Only an Expert“:
Only an expert can deal with the problem
Because half the problem is seeing the problem.
… So if there is no expert dealing with the problem
It’s really actually twice the problem.
Because only an expert can deal with the problem.
And so the experts are beginning to debate the future of nuclear power while the workers at Fukushima are still trying to get the situation there under control. And the rest of us watching at home will simply have to pick a horse.
Example: A left-wing environmental journalist I respect named George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, argues that we shouldn’t let Fukushima steer us away from nuclear power, because the alternative is burning more fossil fuels â€” such as coal. He argues that the costs of fossil fuels in terms of carbon, climate change, mountaintop removal, and other environmental damage are actually worse than the possible damage from all nuclear disasters put together. Quote:
“While nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong. The only safe coal-fired plant is one which has broken down past the point of repair.”
… and although I’ve been a “no nukes” type since I was a teenager listening to Dan Fogelberg, I wonder if maybe he’s got a point.
But then Laurence Lewis, writing for Daily Kos, points out that in order for us to build enough nuclear power plants to seriously curb climate change, we would need to build 21 nuclear power plants every year for the next 50 years, and those plants would require 10 dumps the size of Yucca Mountain in order to store all the nuclear waste they’d generate. Yucca Mountain itself, of course, is still so controversial it will probably never happen, and its estimated price tag is $90 billion dollars. Ten Yucca Mountains would cost $900 billion.
The possibility of building ten Yucca Mountains may not be zero, but it might as well be.
So in this particular battle of the experts, I have to give the match to Laurence Lewis. But that’s just me taking my best epistemological guess â€” based on my limited understanding of what people I think of as smarter than me are saying.
In some ways I might as well be a citizen of ancient Rome, watching two different augurs scrutinizing the same pair of chicken entrails, trying to decide which one has the more knowing gaze, seems to knit his brow with a little bit more acuity.
And unfortunately, Fukushima has proven that when the experts are wrong, the stakes are high.
The experts who built the Fukushima plant tested it to make sure it could withstand an earthquake of up to 7.9 in magnitude. The actual earthquake that struck in March was a 9.0. But even worse, the generators that powered the plant and its cooling system were wiped out because they were built on low ground. They were supposed to be protected by a seawall that was designed to withstand a tsunami up to 19 feet high. The actual wave that hit Fukushima was 46 feet high, more than twice the height of the restraining wall.
Here in Illinois, where we have a number of reactors with the exact same design as the ones in Fukushima, our experts have told us that our nuclear power plants have been “built to withstand the worst quake likely in [our] area.” Of course, the experts in Japan thought that, too.
According to the Chicago Tribune (link above), some scientists think “there is a 25 percent to 40 percent chance of a magnitude 6.0 quake again during the next half-century.” But if our nuclear plants can only withstand a quake of 7.9 and the actual quake we get is, say, an 8.5, what then?
No one can say precisely how likely it is that we will experience a quake that is greater than 7.9 in Illinois. But armed with the mystic powers of litotes, we can say what that likelihood is not. In fact, we can identify what it is not by a numerical value. Anyone?
That’s right: It is “not zero.”
Of course, when we talk about unexpected disasters, it’s only fair to acknowledge that on a daily basis we live with all kinds of unimagined possibilities that sometimes prove themselves to be surprisingly not zero.
For example: In the year 1919, on an unusually warm day for January, a 50-foot tall storage tank in Boston owned by the Purity Distilling Company, and containing more than two million gallons of molasses, unexpectedly burst, in what became known â€” I kid you not â€” as the Boston Molasses Disaster.
It sounds hilarious, but the results were horrifying. The collapse released a virtual tsunami of molasses that traveled at an estimated rate of 35 miles per hour and was between 8 and 15 feet high. According to the Boston Globe, people “were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet.” A truck was actually picked up and swept into Boston Harbor.
In his book Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, author Stephen Puleo described what happened like this:
Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form â€” whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings â€” men and women â€” suffered likewise.
21 people were killed, along with several horses. Approximately 150 people were injured.
Why did this happen? Well, funnily enough, there’s a certain similarity here to what happened at Fukushima.
According to the New York Times, shortly after government regulators approved a 10-year extension for the oldest reactor at the Fukushima plant, “its operator admitted that it had failed to inspect 33 pieces of equipment related to the plant’s cooling systems.”
And long before that, Mitsuhiko Tanaka â€” one of the engineers who helped build the No. 4 reactor at Fukushima â€” came forward in 1988 to say that there was a serious flaw in its containment vessel, and he’d helped to cover it up. His concerns were brushed aside.
On a similar note, Stephen Puleo notes that the Purity Distilling Company’s molasses storage tank had been constructed hastily, and the company skipped the step of filling it with water to test it for leaks. When it was first filled with molasses, it leaked so badly that neighborhood children used cans to collect its drippings. The company’s response was to paint the tank brown to try to hide the leaks.
So, somewhat like the Fukushima plant, the great molasses tank was constructed poorly and tested insufficiently. As a result, the possibility of 21 people dying in a flood of sweet sticky syrup turned out to be not zero.
And yet if you’d asked any of its victims the day before how they imagined they might die â€” if you’d said to them, What do you suppose the odds are that you will be fatally candified right here in the streets of Boston, and asked them whether that possibility was a) zero or b) not zero, it is not unlikely that a not insignificant percentage of respondents might have failed to choose “not zero.”
My takeaway from this is that there is room for us all, in our daily lives â€” whether we build nuclear power plants or not â€” to be a little bit better than we are at expecting the unexpected.
Many have commented on the bravery and heroism of the workers at Fukushima who have been struggling to contain the damage. In particular, for the past couple of days I’ve been thinking about the three workers who accidentally stepped in radioactive water. They were replacing a cable at the plant, and although they were wearing protective suits, it turned out their boots were too short to stop the water from seeping in.
In that respect it’s hard not to think of their boots as being like miniature versions of the seawall that failed to protect the Fukushima generators.
The water itself turned out to be 10,000 times more radioactive than expected. The workers were hospitalized after suffering radiation burns.
It would perhaps be not inaccurate to say that those three workers, at least, got the short end of the litotes stick. They must have hoped when they went to work that the odds of suffering severe radiation exposure were, if not zero, as close as possible.
Unfortunately, a string of failures took place, as unforeseen as a wave of molasses: First the restraining walls that were supposed to protect the generators from water failed them. Then the containment vessel housing the reactor apparently failed them. And last but not really least, their boots failed them.
And behind every one of those failures was at least one expert who made a very bad guess. Who underestimated the possibilities that were not zero.
Footnote: If you’re interested, you can find me on Twitter under my real name: Dave Awl.