Last year there was an earthquake in this area. Well, an earth jiggle, barely detectable.


Secretary Sue felt it in the borough building. She mentioned it, and the Municipal Moose considered having her drug tested (or so he said later). Asked to describe the experience, Sue Roboski claimed she could not recall it because “I was too high.”


That was all good fun, kidding about the tremor months later. Even so, there was the serious side, for borough manager Dick Kallenborn said that he blamed at least some of the rash of water line ruptures on the jolting the pipes received.


What would a serious quake do to our infrastructure? And how well would our buildings withstand one?


Gas lines, water mains, sewer laterals, the treatment plant and its tanks, the water reservoir tanks, the batch tower at Glass Place, the smokestacks? We don’t have skyscrapers, but it wouldn’t be impossible for some two- and three-story buildings to be damaged and rendered unsafe. We are not sitting atop a major fault, so we don’t worry about experiencing a major earthquake, let alone a tsunami. Or damage to a nuclear plant—?


Some of us remember Three Mile Island, though, and we have heard horrific stories about Chernobyl. We remember being worried about the former, and thinking the Russians must have been quite careless and used poor design if a real meltdown could happen at the latter.


To think Japan, of all countries, would have a number of nuclear power plants! Our country, which has not been on the receiving end of nuclear bombs, is among the more averse to nuclear energy; but Japan has embraced the technology. Go figure.


Like many other technologies, nuclear power has evolved over the years. Three-Mile Island’s threatened meltdown was 30 years ago. I’d guess that the term “meltdown” entered the language then, to describe an emotional loss of control. ( And some of us began to understand the concept of “the nuclear family” not as the idea of a family with strong interpersonal relationships but as the reality of families blowing up in all directions, or becoming toxic.)


The Fukushima Daiichi facility’s problems are sure to impact the design of future nuclear plants, their siting, and possibly the rate at which nuclear energy is deployed.


Passive cooling systems are on the drawing boards and are likely to make it into production sooner than they would have without a Fukushima crisis lending urgency.


Passive cooling doesn’t rely on a power source to keep cooling water flowing over hot fuel rods. Last Friday the emergency diesel generators failed at the Daiichi facility, as such equipment can do when it has been shaken like a tambourine. Passive cooling is based on heat flow patterns from convection and gravity.


Older USA nuclear plants don’t have such cooling. Some of those plants have reached their original shut-down dates and are operating under extensions, while using old cooling technology. Chances are, when they apply for further extensions, they will have to show that they have installed passive cooling, or they will be required to install it to be allowed to continue in operation.


France has undersea nuclear reactors, and claims that those are, or will become, earthquake and tsunami proof.


Another way to prevent meltdowns involves using thorium. In that scenario, thorium is used instead of uranium. Thorium is a naturally occurring metal, more abundant by far than uranium, and leaves behind less radioactive waste—which would remain radioactive only about 500 years (a deeply comforting thought for Methuselah, had he but known).  Also, thorium fission doesn’t produce plutonium.


There could be new interest in ADS, or the Accelerator Driven System, which eliminates uranium and plutonium from the design of nuclear energy plants. Particle acceleration involves shooting protons at lead targets to release neutrons and trigger the thorium fuel cycle. Turn off the particle bombardment, and fission is shut down. No worries about meltdowns or constant cooling to prevent them. Orderly shutdown would be almost as easy at a nuclear plant as at this computer.


Pending this very week before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee is President Obama’s budget proposal for loan guarantees for construction of 20 nuclear plants. The $36 billion will be one issue; the siting will be another, I imagine, given the heightened awareness level of the possible effect of natural disasters on nuclear facilities.


It will be interesting to watch the political and technological and energy industry “fall-out” in the wake of this latest demonstration of how unforeseen circumstances rewrite worst-case scenarios.


When Mother Nature acts like Mommie Dearest on steroids, we are reminded not to mess with her too casually. Wire hangers are a minor issue compared with hot fuel rods.