Any child will tell you that it’s a lot more fun to play than to clean up. Many of the great misunderstandings in the world can be traced to this elemental truth. You know this already if you have a roommate. Engineering a beautiful system can be fun. Sometimes, though, like a building-block tower, things come crashing down. And even if you don’t want to clean them up, you might have to, or all hell will break loose.
Last week, the anniversary of 9/11 dominated the headlines, reminding us not only of the shock of the terrorist attacks, but also of our long and arduous recovery from them. Indeed, news often comes with a bang, followed by a lot of scurrying and then a long, slow unfolding of reactions and consequences. Such has been the case with another terrifying, though now nearly forgotten, news event: the Tohoku earthquake of March 2011 off the coast of Japan. The earthquake and its tsunami caused catastrophic damage in the northeast of the country, including thousands of deaths. Among other things, it provoked a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. For the past two years, engineers have quietly, and with some degree of desperation, been attempting to contain the damage and bring the crippled plant under control. Their immediate solution relies on a complex of nearly 1,000 36-foot-tall tanks to keep radiated water—hundreds of tons of it—from leaking into the groundwater and the ocean.
At some point last spring, while our thoughts were elsewhere, a scrawny, hungry rat chewed through a wire at the Fukushima plant—an impulsive decision that cost him his life. The death of a rodent is not something that would normally be of any concern. In fact, in some quarters, it can be a cause for celebration. In this case, though, the animal’s final act caused a short circuit that blocked out the power supply, thereby disabling the cooling system and threatening a further spread of lethal radioactivity. The rodent problem in the world of electric utilities is well known: On our side of the ocean, squirrels are often the culprits. In a recent New York Times essay, Jon Mooallem counts 50 documented squirrel-induced power outages in 24 U.S. states since Memorial Day. Fortunately, in the Fukushima incident, power was restored before the breakdown led to any front-page headlines. But, undoubtedly, that particular rat left behind a swarm of hungry, bereaved kin, and unfortunately the electrical system at Fukushima Daiichi is not the plant’s only vulnerable component. Recently there have been several leaks of contaminated water, including 300 tons of the stuff laced with radioactive strontium that oozed out of one of those containment tanks in August into the Pacific Ocean—yes, our Pacific Ocean. It turns out, the tanks’ rubber sealing and their ability to withstand radiation had not been tested. Someone didn’t run all the checks.
Without going into the engineering side of things (that is what Pratt is for) or recounting any more of the many micro-mishaps that have been occurring over the past few months at Fukushima Daiichi, it should be noted that that the system in question is a stopgap measure (what I’m calling “scurrying”), not a permanent solution. Even if these new leaks can be contained, there still remains the problem of ensuring the plant’s long-term safety and preventing further spills of lethal wastewater that will eventually lap, say, the shores of California.
In spite of the effort involved in creating them, our most massive and intricate constructions can be destroyed with the merest of nudges. As always, Dostoevsky comes to mind. The rat-like narrator of his famous “Notes from Underground” challenges rationality (and by association, before it even existed, nuclear engineering) by asserting his free will and his right to be illogical in the face of any and all arguments. He does this not by philosophizing eloquently from a podium, but by seething and grumbling in his habitat under the floorboards— “the underground”—of the grandiose edifice of human civilization. There he gnaws away, as rats do, at the foundations, until he gets a throbbing toothache, and yet he gnaws onward through the pain. He luxuriates in his suffering, proclaiming the right to do whatever illogical, antisocial thing he wants to do, saying: “Whether it’s good or bad, it’s sometimes also very pleasant to demolish something.” Ultimately, this tiny, lone creature will bring the house down.
Sometimes, the biggest news is not on the front page, not the explosions, not the shrill debates and posturings of world leaders nor even the twerking of a lapsed Disney star. Sometimes the really scary stuff is the slow drip—the quiet forces of erosion, the indecipherable munching sound, undetectable even by the most sensitive seismographs—in the background of the trivial stuff we think is important, somewhere far away, on the other side of the world.
Carol Apollonio is a professor of the practice in Slavic and Eurasian studies. Her column runs every other Tuesday. Send Professor Apollonio a message on Twitter @flath3.