We can’t put the genie back in the bottle
April 4, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

“I Dream of Jeanie,” the quirky television comedy of the 1960s, was cause for much musing.

The show starred Larry Hagman as astronaut Major Tony Nelson, who found an exotic bottle on the beach.

When he opened the bottle, he unleashed its enormous potential in the form of an attractive genie, coincidentally named Jeannie, played by Barbara Eden.

Nelson, a bachelor, took Jeannie home with him and many hilarious adventures ensued.

I confess that I was among those who spent the odd half-hour in quiet contemplation, speculating about the benefits that might accrue to the bachelor who had a live-in genie.

Despite the humor, however, one might also view “I Dream of Jeannie” as a cautionary tale that illustrates the problems that may arise once we have let the genie out of the bottle.

Once we have released that powerful force, unexpected things may happen, and we may not be able to control it.

Unfortunately, the stakes are often much higher when man dabbles with new technology.

When companies dabbled in deep sea oil drilling, they assured us that they knew what they were doing and had systems in place to prevent catastrophe.

After BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, we soon learned that the safety measures were not adequate, and it took several months of scrambling to put that genie back in the bottle.

After the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, we have seen that the safety measures in place at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant were not adequate.

We have heard that the intensity of the quake was much stronger than the reactors were designed to withstand, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the disaster occurred.

Experts there are still trying to figure out how to put that genie back in the bottle.

Meanwhile, the country has experienced rolling blackouts during which some residents have been without water and heat.

Japan’s health ministry has been compiling a list of foods that have been contaminated by radioactive material.

Levels of radioactive iodine in seawater near the crippled plant have risen to 3,300 times the normal amount.

The country’s nuclear safety agency said this is “a concern – but not necessarily an immediate threat.”

We are told that officials are still exploring a variety of new ways to contain the radioactive water that is seeping out of the plant.

That sounds like code for “They have no idea how to fix the problem, and are grasping at any idea they can think of.”

This reminds one of the reports we heard during the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has said it expects radiation levels in seawater to drop as it dilutes, and that radiation in seafood will most likely not reach levels above established limits for consumption – if Tokyo Electric Power, which owns the plant, is able to stop the discharges of contaminated water.

That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

One interesting idea that has been mentioned is to pump some of the radioactive water that is leaking out of the damaged reactors into a tanker offshore.

One hates to point out the obvious, but tankers haven’t exactly been proved invincible. One also wonders what would happen to this water after it is in the tanker.

Another creative suggestion that has been discussed to keep radioactive particles from getting into the air and water is to cover the damaged reactor buildings with a special fabric that would act as a filter.

That sounds highly speculative, at best.

Residents have been ordered to stay at least 12 miles away from the nuclear complex. I think I would want to stay a good deal farther away than that, and we could eventually run out of places to hide.

Soldiers and police wearing protective clothing have attempted limited searches into towns near the plant, looking for victims of the earthquake and tsunami, but their efforts have been hampered by elevated levels of radiation.

Regarding the contaminated food, it has been reported that most levels were below the allowable government limit, but one wonders how much of this food the government officials are willing to consume.

The damaged plant and the oil disaster may be isolated incidents, but they do illustrate a certain lack of knowledge, even on the part of the experts involved.

Still, one would caution against a radical knee-jerk reaction to these events.

In many ways, nuclear plants are safer than alternative sources of energy.

If we continue to use energy at the current rate, we will need to explore new options.

It would seem prudent, however, to carefully consider the methods of resolving problems before they happen, rather than after disaster strikes.

Failure to do so costs lives, and irreversible damage to the environment.

If we destroy this planet, our options are limited, so we would be wise to proceed with caution before we unleash the terrifying potential of new schemes.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, we may not be able to control her, and that is no laughing matter.

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