Image via Wikipedia
It is hard to wrap my brain around the scale of the human tragedy in Japan. This is especially so coming on the heels of a spate of such large-scale disasters including Katrina, Pakistan, Haiti, the Gulf Oil Spill, and so many others that slip our minds once the news cycle turns. So I tend to think about things that maybe I can get my head around, such as nuclear power, methods to improve disaster response, funding for earthquake, volcano, and tsunami monitoring (don't get me started), and so on.
Like many, I'm fairly conflicted about nuclear power. While I usually hate couching things in an wishy-washy anodyne "middle" ground (it's often just a lazy copout), I think it's neither as safe as its proponents would like us to think, nor as easy to avoid as its detractors would like. I don't believe there is any way to realistically satisfy the anticipated energy demands of the United States without the use of nuclear power. At the same time, I have grave reservations about whether we're making appropriate forward progress toward a cleaner energy future. And it's abundantly clear we're not doing a jood job at all figuring out how to manage and store waste products.
Awhile back Jon Udell wrote about how our conceptions of energy usage are poor, or really, non-existent. What does it mean that a device will use 9 Watts an hour?
What I find most striking about the energy literacy talks that Saul’s been giving lately is his ability to move fluidly between the personal quantities of energy we experience directly, the city-scale quantities we experience indirectly, and the global quantities that most of us can scarcely imagine. [...] I want to focus on how mental power tools like WolframAlpha, by making computable knowledge easier to access and manipulate, can augment our ability to think computationally. If we’re going to reason democratically about the energy, climate, and economic challenges we face, we’re going to need those power tools to be available broadly and used well.
A related topic is the problem of understanding radiation dosages and their implications. There was a non-trivial amount of panic and anxiety about what a nuclear plant "meltdown" in Japan could mean for the United States. As someone in my Twitter stream noted, umm, we set off atomic bombs in Japan ourselves and the U.S. is still here. Randall Munroe, the guy who writes the (truly superb) XKCD comic provided an excellent public service in creating a one screen graphic to try to explain various radiation doses, how much typical sources of radiation emit, and how these quantities relate to one another. He said:
I’m not an expert in radiation and I’m sure I’ve got a lot of mistakes in here, but there’s so much wild misinformation out there that I figured a broad comparison of different types of dosages might be good anyway. I don’t include too much about the Fukushima reactor because the situation seems to be changing by the hour, but I hope the chart provides some helpful context.
Note that the mere act of sleeping next to someone results in half as much radiation exposure as living within 50 miles of a nuclear plant for one year. He's placed the chart in the public domain. It's fascinating. Check it out.