= CELL PHONES DIDN’T WORK IN JAPAN’S BLIGHTED AREAS =
In the wake of Japan’s tragic earthquake and tsunami, communication was essential. How many people died with fully-charged, sophisticated pocket-radios in their hands, trying desperately to send a text message that said “Help! I am buried at _____”? How many more will perish, when calamity strikes, time and time again around the world, because victims find themselves trapped in a disaster area where the cell system has gone down?
Are you satisfied with a system that not only can let you down in an emergency, but that is absolutely guaranteed to fail, at some time of dire crisis, when you need it most? If you aren’t satisfied with that prospect, what do you plan to do about it?
For fifteen years I hectored contacts at Defense, FEMA, Homeland Security and other agencies, urging them to at least study possible fixes to this brittle situation. One solution that I’ve pushed would cost almost nothing and might be (almost) trivial to implement. Simply require that all cell phones be equipped to pass along text messages on a peer-to peer (P2P-packet) basis, all the way to the edge of the afflicted zone, whereupon they can be sent on their way.
Predictably, the cell-companies hate the idea, but only for emotional reasons, since it has been shown that actual implementation would be easy. Nor need there be even a slight diminishing of revenue! (Phones that pass P2P texts can be pre programmed to report these transactions, for billing purposes!) Such a capability might even expand the company’s claimed area of coverage, since many “shadowed” or “last mile” regions could thereupon engage in texting.
Let’s be plain here. After refusing to even investigate this possibility, the companies and agencies who have refused to even look into such an obvious fix are culpable. The next time disaster victims suffer or die because they cannot use their phones to call for help, the word to describe these each of lazy executives will be “murderer.”
=== JAPAN’S NUCLEAR CRISIS… AND YUCCA MOUNTAIN ==
I consider myself to be one of the “techno-hippies,” like Stewart Brand, who have been pushing the “new nuclear renaissance,” I am not unaware of the drawbacks! But we believe the newest fission power designs are light years ahead of the kind of boiling water reactor that broke down in Japan, quake and tsunami ravaged northeast. With climate change, pollution, energy shortages and dependence upon unsavory petro-princes all in mind, these new designs still seem worth careful prototyping. Indeed, more than ever, so that the crotchety designs of 50 years ago can be retired.
Statistics are telling. The number of people who have died, per megawatt-hour of power produced by each type of energy system, are by far highest for coal and oil… and by far lowest for nuclear power. Lower even than solar. By an order of magnitude.
Nevertheless, the terrifying situation in Japan is riveting and compels an open mind to new thoughts. Some lessons leap out at us.
First, the horrific behavior of the Tokyo Power company, both before and during the crisis, is an archetype of what can go wrong when a single, monolithic institution is both in charge of critical infrastructure and responsible for its own accountability. This crisis was avoidable. Even in the face of nature’s unprecedented fury.
But the lies and shortcuts taken before the calamity pale next to those uttered during the aftermath. The lessons are clear:
* We should never, ever allow a single agency or company the power to issue reassuring “truths” without competing sources of verification and scrutiny. A demure, respectful society like Japan appears to be particularly prone to this failure mode. In contrast, these independent sources exist along the west coast of the US, in about a dozen of the finest universities on the planet… and hence, efforts by Fox News to drum up panic over a “Japanese radioactivity cloud” failed. (See this further example of top-notch journalism.)
* Likewise, any new nuclear endeavors… indeed all risky-bold new endeavors of any kind… should be surveiled and monitored by multiple independent groups that include the most devoted enemies of the program! True, these are the most irksome people to have around, when you are trying to get things done. But they are also the ones most likely to leap upon any potential failure mode and make absolutely sure that it is attended-to. Critics are the only known antibodies against the self-deception of bright guys, who all too easily assume they have got everything sussed.
Here are the twin principles of error-avoiding transparency:
1) Paranoid critics should be given full access to all information and full-voice to all of their concerns. They should then be part of the routine inspectorate that pokes at every complacency.
2) Once their concerns have been dealt with, those same critics must not be allowed to decide whether we move forward.
* Reiterating that point. While improving transparency and caution, we must return to being a people that willingly takes on bold endeavors and difficult challenges. A plague of timidity will not help us triumph over the problems that we face. However it is rationalized, by dunces at both ends of the spectrum, cynical anti-ambition propaganda is a poison that may kill all hope.
* Clearly, the spent fuel rods that spend five years cooling down in pools next to today’s light-water nuclear reactors are more dangerous than most of us were led to believe. Hence, it is time to re-open the matter of Yucca Mountain. The U.S. needs a semi-permanent nuclear waste facility and the excuses given, for delaying this, are simply dumb. (For people who don’t give a damn about the world a century from now to howl about some hypothetical leak that might occur in 10,000 years is utter hypocrisy.
How about betting on our children? I am 99% certain that the cannisters stored in Yucca Mountain won’t have to last 10,000 years!. They will be withdrawn in less than a century, like deposits in a bank! By descendants who are far more advanced that us and who see those rare elements as unmatched resources for fabulous projects! Why is no one able to even mention this most-likely outcome?
Promise the State of Nevada a 5% royalty on everything and anything ever withdrawn from the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Resource Bank and Reserve. If they really can think in terms of deep time, they should leap at the investment.
We must be better prepared next time. For there will be a next time…