An Engineering Miracle

Monday, March 14, 2011

Out-of-town guests over the weekend and a minor emergency overnight have kept me mostly away from the news and a good night's sleep. (Fortunately, everything is fine.) Nevertheless, the tragic events in Japan have been inescapable. On that score, John Cook passes along the observation that engineering and high construction standards probably saved millions of lives from the earthquakes there. As he put it, "[I]t's natural to only see the people who died and not the people who did not."

This observation is quite similar to one I once made regarding a Greyhound bus crash:

But this wasn't dumb luck! This was an example of human genius in action, but the clue was mentioned only in passing: The bus "broke through the railing of a bridge." That railing impeded the bus enough to save all on board, and the engineers who designed it never came up. Were it not for the men who thought about how to make that highway as safe as it turned out to be, that bus would have plunged into the river and we'd have been reading about fatalities.
In closing, I'll note that I don't agree with the near-universal assumption that the government should dictate construction standards (or the similar idea that people would not adopt such standards on their own). This means that my headline -- had I thought of making the point so creatively -- would have been simpler than Dave Ewing's: "Engineers Save Millions in Japan."

-- CAV


mtnrunner2 said...

Funny thing, but NPR posted a headline like "Strict Japanese Building Codes Saved Lives" or some such and I had the same reaction. As if coercion was our savior, rather than good engineering.

What about the fact that building codes give cheap slumlords the appearance of having good buildings, when they are just barely getting by, whereas builders who go out of their way to be safe are damned by the faint praise of passing a building inspection? What about the corruption it breeds, as does every case of outlawing something people should be able to do? What about the fact that government has no right to fund the inspectors with my money? What about treating people as guilty until proven innocent? What about the cost in terms of directing money into "officially approved" techniques instead of techniques that might not meet codes, but be functionally better?

Coercion is not practical or moral.

kelleyn said...

I'm impressed that the embattled nuclear power plants have held up so well. Yes, the engineers are struggling with them, but if I took the leftist caricatures of nuclear power at face value I'd expect them to have cracked the planet in half by now.

I hope the attempts by politicians and the media to cash in on this and demonize a much needed form of energy are not successful. The protests are already starting, and Alex Epstein has already found some excellent rebuttals to the madness.

Gus Van Horn said...

Both of you make good points, Jeff in the direction of questioning further whether the codes really help at all, and kellyn regarding the completely unfounded hysteria regarding the nuclear plants. (And thanks for providing those links!) I'd found a somewhat detailed blog posting on the latter that I was tempted to comment on, but I wasn't sure about part of his analysis, so I left that aside.

But, yes, the design of those plants is fundamentally different than the one in Chernobyl, so a repeat is physically impossible.

Mike said...

Kelleyn: "Yes, the engineers are struggling with them, but if I took the leftist caricatures of nuclear power at face value I'd expect them to have cracked the planet in half by now." Yep, and because of the press of events it's hard to get good information even from people who know what's what. The best one I've found is this:

It also has a good overview of the plant design here, though it turned out within a day to have been rather too sanguine about the consequences of the earthquake and tsunami:

The commenters are a mixed lot: A number of nuclear engineers and scientists add corrections while finding it mostly accurate, and a small number of vocal antinukes flood the comments with hysterical cries of doom and conspiracy based on often uncited wild stories (six workers killed in explosions when the information coming out of Japan gives three people injured with bruises, I believe was one example, or the claim that the Ronald Reagan had been moved out of the plume after its pilots rceived a "lifetime" dose of ionizing radiation, when the captain was quoted in the news articles as saying it was the equivalent of a month's exposure to background radiation).

And that's at a technical site with as accurate information as you can piece together on this side of the Pacific--the only TV news I've seen is CNN, and while I imagine it's better than average, it's still enough to make one tear out handfuls of hair. They did at least get a real nuclear engineer, and most shocking of all a photogenic one with a good voice, but they often cut him off. Eventually they cut away from him to Bill Nye the Science Guy, after which I just shut off the TV; one of the commenters at that site watched further and wrote that the Guy showed his qualifications by saying the cesium was in the radioactive emissions because it's used as a reactor moderator. Gee, how about putting on Professor Frink next time, guys?

Gus Van Horn said...


You prompted me to revisit the blog posting I alluded to earlier. (It was by one Josef Oehmen of MIT.) It has been replaced by the following message and a link.

"This post has moved. It is now hosted and maintained by the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Members of the NSE community have edited the original post and will be monitoring and posting comments, updates, and new information."

At the MIT site, the revised post starts off with the following:

"Note that the title of the original blog does not reflect the views of the authors of the site. The authors have been monitoring the situation, and are presenting facts on the situation as they develop. The original article was adopted as the authors believed it provided a good starting point to provide a summary background on the events at the Fukushima plant."

I haven't read the entire edited version of the post, but I suspect that it's in good hands now.