LIves on the line

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Can it just be me? Am I the only one noticing that at the very moment here in the United States we're trying to finish the job of killing off our unions for good, workers in Japan are risking their lives to save their people? It's not plant owners there in radiation suits pouring seawater onto fuel rods in a desperate hope to avoid complete meltdown. It's workers. And not the workers who make the big salaries, either.

Anyhow, days after the earthquake and tsunami, Japan's crisis has become an infrastructure crisis. And that means it'll be solved, to whatever degree it can be solved, by the people who show up to work on those systems every day of their lives.

So instead of racing to conclusions about nuclear power  -- the same conclusions we were reaching about oil when the rig was spewing oil into the gulf? then forgot about an hour after the leak was plugged? -- let's take just a moment to focus on the 50 people still working in hellish conditions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

They've put out a fire this morning; they've managed three explosions, one of uncertain origin. They're now enduring radiation significant enough that the government is encouraging people to leave the area within 30 km if they can, and seal themselves in their homes if they cannot.

And those 50 people are still working at the plant, trying to cool melting nuclear fuel assemblies under completely impossible conditions, pumping seawater into melting nuclear plants with firefighting equipment. I don't know what will ultimately happen to those workers, but I feel pretty certain they know they may be laying their lives down to save others.

What I want people to remember is that those people making that unimaginable sacrifice take that risk every day. And in Japan, in the U.S., in Europe, everywhere we have power grids and water pipes and wastewater treatment plants, people work on those systems every hour of every living day, and every day they show up knowing that that could be the day they take the risk.

Then when there's a nuclear catastrophe guys are putting on radiation suits and we all put our hands to our throats and marvel at their courage, but they showed up the day before and the year before that, and they were ready. When there's a sewage spill guys race to the scene, wade around in very unpleasant stuff, chasing the spill with hoses and haybales, cleaning the stormwater ravines and creeks the spill soiled until they're cleaner than they were before the spill. And maybe there's a picture of it in the paper the next day, but more likely we just grumble about having to detour around a rodding truck in the middle of the road cleaning out the pipe.

And then they're done, and the toilets flush again or the lights still come on, and if the power company needs to build a new plant we complain about that, or if the water department raises rates we complain about that. And meanwhile thousands of people go out ever single day and solve all these problems we like to pretend don't exist -- and by solving them make our lives convenient enough that we can pretend those problems don't exist.

About power I have no answers. Today I don't like nuclear power -- but I don't like oil power much either, especially when it costs lives to get it and pours unchecked into the oceans when we screw it up. And I'm certainly no fan of coal miners leveling mountains and dumping the tops in valleys, polluting the air with emissions and the valleys with tailings and the entire planet with highly fallible ash lagoons. I'm all for wind and solar and conservation, but we're going to have to do better than that.

So again, I have no answers. But at a time like this it's at least worth taking a moment to say thank God for the people who take care of all these systems, at the greatest risks imaginable. And, as we should do every day, start rethinking how we pay them -- and all the people doing the jobs we can't live without.

Posted by Scott Huler

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Wires, pipes, roads, and water support the lives we lead, but the average person doesn't know where they go or even how they work. Our systems of infrastructure are not only shrouded in mystery, many are woefully out of date. In On the Grid, Scott Huler takes the time to understand the systems that sustain our way of life, starting from his own quarter of an acre in North Carolina and traveling as far as Ancient Rome.

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