We are all downwind from Hiroshima, now. In the case of the West Coast, we don’t know what the effect of the West winds will be, but perhaps it is poetic.
The atom, plaything of early 20th Century physics, first found its practical application with X-rays, which killed its early pioneers. Its real heyday came with the development of the Three in an old boys’ summer camp in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where I went to high school downwind from. The Three: Trinity, Little Boy, Fat Man. When Trinity went off, Robert Oppenheimer noted presciently and quoted memorably the words of Shiva from the Upanishads: Now I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.
But all remember Hiroshima, as we all remember the Ides of March.
And, if a radioactive cloud from Japan drifted back to Los Alamos who could not note the irony? After all, the attack on Pearl Harbor was launched from Hiroshima Bay, when the fleet sailed on November 28, 1941, and returned in the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
And now where are we? Chasing the world for loose nukes. Trying to keep plutonium — arguably the most toxic substance known — as the most controlled substance in history. We threaten nations (Iran) and scour the underworld of the world for uranium sales. You recall the whole “yellowcake” put-on of the Bush Administration?
But the atom has not been our friend. Since Hiroshima, atomic energy has always been a danger. Our reactors? Well, what they do is boil water, and the steam runs turbines that generate electricity: the most deadly and complex teakettle in history. Only mildly advanced in theory beyond Hero’s Engine of first Century Alexandria, Egypt.
And, for every reactor built, we commit ourselves to centuries, if not millennia of consequence or containment. (Talk about mortgaging your children’s future.)
We have hundreds of commercial reactors all over the world, not the least of which are on the Eastern Seaboard. There are two in California. There is San Onofre, which look like two enormous concrete silicone breasts pointing hopefully skyward, right on the beach as you drive Interstate 5 from San Diego to Los Angeles.
San Onofre reactors
And Diablo Canyon reactor, which has a tortuous and ongoing series of messes, fines, crises and controversies. Here’s an NRC report from 2008:
UNIT 2 MANUAL REACTOR TRIP DUE TO JELLYFISH INTRUSION
“On October 21, 2008, with both units operating at 100% power, Operators manually actuated the Unit 2 reactor protection system (RPS/reactor trip) due to high differential pressure (DP) across the circulating water pumps’ intake traveling screens. The high DP resulted from a rapid influx of jellyfish. All systems responded as designed. All control rods fully inserted. Auxiliary feedwater actuated as designed. The grid is stable with power being supplied by 230 Kv startup power. Diesel generator (DG) 2-2 and 2-3 are operable in standby. DG 2-1 is inoperable due to scheduled maintenance. The traveling screens for the safety-related auxiliary saltwater system (ASW) are not degraded and are managing the influx of jellyfish with no significantly elevated DP. Unit 2 is stable in Mode 3 at normal operating temperature and pressure.
Fortunately, the jellyfish only took the reactor offline for two days. A strange cosmic joke, that.
The world is a strange place, and unforeseen accidents can take place at any time. And all of this nonsense about probability of accidents, etcetera has thus far proven wildly off the mark. The nuclear accidents that we were assured would happen only once in a hundred thousand years have happened thrice in thirty.
The head of the Atomic Energy Commission (since devoured by the Department of Energy) testified in the early 1970s that the probability of a reactor accident was equivalent to the probability that two jumbo jets would collide over Yankee Stadium during the seventh game of the World Series.
Which, in hindsight, probably suggests that one ought not attend World Series games in Yankee Stadium.
As the Japanese earthquake caused a tsunami that caused damage and killed a man on the West Coast of the United States of America, so that tsunami created the nuclear havoc that is playing out as this is being written. That the radiation might travel the same route is enough. Whether it does or does not, we are all downwind from Hiroshima, now, and we need to start finding a different friend to trust, like, perhaps, the sun, or the heat of the Earth’s core.
Because, generally speaking, Mr. Atom has not been our friend.
And, where I sit, I am LITERALLY downwind from Hiroshima.