Yes, THAT Butterfly Effect…

My childhood image of Japan is forever tied to the giant monster movies of the 60’s and 70’s, chief of which was Godzilla. Sure, everyone remembers Godzilla, rising menacingly out of Tokyo Bay, but there were many other less memorable characters. New villains were regularly marched onto the screen so that Godzilla had something to stomp on, but only one character kept coming back. A giant butterfly. OK technically (I’m told) a moth… which explains the name, Mothra… but it sure looked like a butterfly to me. While other giant monsters usually appeared so that they could destroy Japan, Mothra was played Japan’s defender. The first time I first heard the term “Butterfly effect” (a small change in one place can have a big effect far, far away) I instantly thought of Mothra. For giant changes I thought you needed a giant butterfly. Appropriate, when you think of the events in Japan today.

Not surprisingly, the radiation leak in Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor is driving change around the world.  China, Venezuela and other countries are frantically buying iodine salt, which may prevent some symptoms of radiation sickness (if taken before exposure). Korea installed radiation detection equipment to catch anyone carrying contamination from Japan. Germany is considering a nuclear-free energy policy. Look at some of the other issues in play: will atomic power lose all support as a “Green” technology, can China and India continue their roles in globalization without an aggressive nuclear policy, if nuclear is further de-emphasized how will existing electrical capacity be replaced? No pun intended, but these are truly seismic issues that will take years to resolve and could change again if there is another incident.

The big issues will percolate for years, but smaller issues… the ones that will have the most obvious  impact on you…  are moving much faster. Let’s go back to the radiation detectors in Korea. This looks like something entirely new, which is understandable. Someone (we may never know who) took the initiative, got the equipment, and put a process in place overnight. But what level of radiation is being monitored, what can the detector track, and how accurate are the readings? Over the last decade US airports have unified their security policies, and other countries are following the US template. Just a few weeks ago domestic airports were focused full body scanners and privacy issues. Now every regulator and airport manager must be thinking about radiation contamination. Airports with heavy international traffic or that are located near Japanese communities are going to feel a lot of pressure to at least think about radiation issues. It’s probably not needed, and new procedures won’t endanger anyone, but any new rules or scans will make congested airports even more difficult to deal with. We really are asking a lot from airport personnel; I don’t know if they have room on their plate for any more responsibilities.

One other area that some of you should consider is the distribution of nuclear reactors. China has 13 reactors with 27 under construction; India has 20 reactors with 9 under construction. That means the two top outsourcing countries in the world are also the countries with the most aggressive nuclear power policies. Does it matter to you? Should this be part of your risk assessment when you renew or add new offshore sites? What are the risks? All of Japan is inside the Pacific Seismic Belt, the “Ring of Fire”; this is the most active earthquake zone in the world. The Earthquake/Tsunami/Reactor combination in Japan is much less likely anywhere else. Should you look at the age of the plant, the design of the reactor, or the firm that built it as the real risk factor? This certainly raises the level of complexity for choosing a site! Anyway, we’re all going to be following the events in Japan to see how this turns out and… that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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