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Engineering for Tsunamis

Posted 09-16-12 at 11:05 AM by Vito, ADDer
I tend to get hyperfocused on my work...often to the exclusion of all else. Thus, while I was aware of the Tohoku earthquake and resultant tsunami when they occurred in 2011, March, I didn't actively seek out more information about them at that time. It usually requires an effort to keep myself from being bombarded by the distractions they call "news", and that was no exception.

Besides, "news" reports that are concurrent with the events they report are notorious for inaccuracy. To wit:
  1. Death tolls reported at the time of the quake/tsunami far exceeded what they actually turned out to be...by a factor of 2 to 3, depending on who you listened to at the time.
  2. News about the truly destructive and deadly tragedy (the tsunami) was almost immediately eclipsed by the problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant complex, which was actually far less destructive, but which was much easier to hype into newsworthy fear mongering. That task is always capably managed by the news media, who stand ever-ready to go whoring themselves for ratings in pandering to the irrational terror of all things nuclear by a scientifically illiterate public. [...er, for the sake of those who get their "science" from actors, politicians, and other idiots, perhaps I should say "nucular"...or however that mindless mispronunciation is supposed to be spelled...]
Anyhow, I waited until I had some time to get a real picture of what happened, later, when it would be easier to separate fact from fiction in the available data—that is, to separate actual information from noise.

That time came recently, and I was stunned. With all the hoopla and hubbub that I heard on the news about the so-called "nuclear disaster", nothing that happened at the Fukushima nuclear complex even came close to the actual damage and loss of life caused by the tsunami. It was an unprecedented natural disaster—and part of the tragedy is that (with one exception—the village of Fudai), no one anticipated it.

Another part of the tragedy of the tsunami is that it fanned the flames of anti-nuclear hysteria out of all proportion to the actual danger. The fact is that the nuclear plant's safety mechanisms worked exactly as they should have. The reactors shut down properly. The problem was that the cooling pumps (which must continue to operate after shutdown to bring the reactor core temperature down to a safe level) couldn't operate due to seawater damage to the emergency generators that power the pumps. The barrier wall that was designed to protect the equipment from flooding was ~20 inches too short.

That's not a failure of nuclear engineering. In fact, it's not really a failure of any engineering. The Tohoku earthquake (9.1 Richter) was the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and the fourth largest ever recorded anywhere on the planet. There was no precedent for it in Japan. It's easy to say now, "Well, the wall should have been higher." Right. If the engineers who designed it knew that, they would have designed it that way. But they didn't. Hindsight is always 20-20.

I have some experience with that problem. I worked in environmental science for 16 years, during which time I designed many pollution control systems and facilities for stormwater and industrial wastewater management. In civil engineering projects like those, the design parameters accommodate things like "the 50-year storm, the 100-year storm, the 200-year storm"...etc. As you might guess, those are storms whose rainfall volumes and flow rates typically occur once every 50 years, 100 years, 200 years...etc. A 50-year storm is a whopper, and a 100-year storm is much bigger. It's the same with earthquakes...except that there was no precedent for such a quake in Japan. Now there is.

I suspect that what happened in the design of the Fukushima plant's flood prevention facilities is that someone looked at the historical data for tsunami flooding at that site, found the maximum (which was probably only an "estimated maximum"...keeping such accurate records is a relatively recent thing), and then multiplied it by some factor like 1.5 or 2 to provide a margin for safety. That's good engineering practice, but in this case, it just wasn't good enough. Live and learn. You can bet that the flood prevention facilities will be redesigned with a much bigger safety factor for the future.

In the meantime, Japan seems to have survived the tsunami, and the irrational public backlash of anti-nuclear hysteria. Apparently, they're more rational than the people in certain other nations, who long ago succumbed to the myth that "nuclear is evil". It's not evil. It's the safest form of large-scale electric power generation ever devised. It just requires people not to be stupid.

Perhaps that explains why so many people fear it.
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