I’ve always thought that I’ll start taking the idea of a looming technological singularity more seriously once humanity manages to master plumbing. I seems to me that the single most annoying issues in life still come from defective plumbing, from toilets to heart attacks. It may have been with us since the Romans but we’re still not good at it. Expensive house problems are typically of the type, the roof leaks, a pipe leaks (or is clogged), or, walls are wet.
Well now we have another corroboration for my thesis. It is so astonishing I would not have thought it could unfold in this way. It is the Japanese nuclear crisis. What went wrong, essentially boils down to pipes that won’t pump water and valves that won’t open, to liquids and ventilation flowing the wrong way, or not flowing at all. On top of that there still are serious issues with not knowing how much water there is in some concrete pools and how hot it is. The plumbing failed and can’t be fixed in time.
There is actually a wider range of things that leave me speechless about the Fukushima crisis. Set aside the question whether one could have predicted that backup generators situated in the basement of a reactor won’t be useful in case of a tsunami. Set aside the question whether a tsunami could have been anticipated for a plant at the ocean’s edge in the country that invented the word “tsunami”. Set aside the wisdom of having automatic earthquake shutdowns for a reactor without ensuring that the backup systems will work. Set aside the problem that even engineering, never mind finance, seems to still have with correlated failures (when backups, or redundancy, or diversification, every once in a while collapse in synchronicity). Set aside the idea that things such as nuclear plants ought to be inherently safe so that one could walk away from them completely, shut all active control systems off, and at worst they’d self destruct – but nothing else. All the above are hindsight and spilled milk to some extent although it is hard to swallow that they were not taken seriously beforehand.
No: the most stunning feature of this crisis, to me, is how little useful improvisation there was after the accident had degenerated into an emergency, and how little technology was used at all. These reactors did not go out of control instantly, as did the Chernobyl reactor (Ironically the Chernobyl experiment was carried out to ensure that enough cooling capacity was available in case of emergency shutdown, but a<60 second experimental shutdown of the cooling system led to catastrophic failure). No, in Fukushima for days nothing too bad happened, radiation levels were initially benign, and improvisation in cooling and control apparatus was still possible. But all we heard was that gauges went offline, that no one knew about temperatures and radiation levels in key areas, and that even mundane optical tasks such as checking water levels were impossible. Or so it seems. And while the regular and backup cooling were disabled, where were creative and easy to think of improvisations? Nothing useful happened until not one, but four reactors had severe and catastrophic issues, including reactors that had been shut down long before the earthquake.
In the country of electronics and robotics, it was not possible to install on the fly some $20 web cam with a battery to check water levels? Remote logging battery-powered thermometers? It was not possible to airlift in some heavy generators? The fire engines that were later used could not have been used from day one to prevent the catastrophic explosions that made the radiation issue so much more severe later on? Dragging mains power to the site took a week? And once radiation went out of control, humans had to be endangered? We hear of military drones every week and there are robots for everything from vacuuming to drive a car through the country, but here there were no robots to crawl close to the plants to visually inspect them? Never mind robots: no remote-controlled army tanks exist that could drag a fire hose near these cooling ponds? No iPhone controlled RC helicopter toys could have been used to check conditions on site? I mean, one could have even spanned a cable between two cranes on either side of a reactor and dragged a hose, or a camera, over the reactors.
So in the end it doesn’t even take sophisticated doubts about impending machine rule and technological singularity. Never mind the possibility of episodic solar storms that fry everything that’s electrical. For now, we’re still at the issue that world’s most advanced nations don’t really master plumbing, and are unable to repair said plumbing fast enough to maintain smooth function of essential systems in case of accident. All fancy toys were useless. Humans had to be sent in to get irradiated.
Update: Slate has an article on the ins and outs of robots in nuclear emergencies. I still don’t understand why the (limited) existing worldwide know how is only now starting to being used. France apparently had robots ready for this kind of task for many years.