Day by Day Daily Cartoon by Chris Muir

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The limits of engineering

A while back, I posted on the utter disgust I felt towards a particular short SF story concerning its abuse of the 'big lie, little lie' technique. I am reminded of it again at the immense and rather awesome (in the original sense of the word) earthquake + tsunami in Japan.

Japan's facing some nuclear fears over partial meltdowns in its reactors. The failsafes built into the systems... well, failed, one after the other. And no wonder, because whatever else Man has achieved, he's yet to make anything that's completely Nature-proof.

Now Japan's had a raw deal in terms of the nuclear world, having been bombed not once but twice. You would think that they would be the LAST people to go to nuclear power, and indeed it took them 20 years to move from 1 to 5 reactors, and just recently they were debating whether or not to increase those numbers. I'm guessing that the answer would be a pretty emphatic NO! at this stage. You'd also think that they'd be the ones to ridiculously over-engineer fudge factors into their nuclear reactors, with firsthand knowledge of what failed containment would do. Keep that in mind.

There's a limit to what can be done with human engineering efforts. You can fudge the factors a fair amount, but you hit diminishing returns after a point, and beyond that, it's just astronomically expensive. You'd have to have a really, really good reason to expend any amounts of money after that point - something usually reserved for mission-critical applications. Something governments - and Sir Richard Branson - can and would do.

Space travel - and I'm guessing the Japanese are thinking nuclear power plants - deserve that kind of astronomical expenditure, literally. That story still strikes me as being horribly unrealistic.

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