Controlling unstable reactions

You don’t have to be a keen observer of global politics to understand the last month of international events has been one for the history books.

A recording-breaking 9.0 Japanese earthquake killed thousands and forced the relocation of hundreds of thousands. It’s destabilized a nuclear power plant, causing the worst release of radioactive material since Chernobyl. Even yet to be felt are the aftershocks to the world’s shaken economy. Japan was the planet’s second largest economy until just last year when it was eclipsed by the rising red star. The order to the world’s largest economies is now the U.S., China, Japan and then Germany.

At the same time this once in 100-plus-year natural and man made catastrophe is unfolding, another drama upon the world stage in the Middle East is being played out.

The relatively sudden democratic revolt in Egypt and Tunisia unseated decades-old authoritarian rule. The face of politics in Egypt, the most influential and populous nation in the region, is undergoing great change. The fallout from that unprecedented event has not yet been calculated.

The issues in Egypt and Tunisia, though extraordinary, seem to have dwindled lately as the more violent oppressors in the region have stolen the headlines. The spirit of revolution has been pulled from these initial uprisings through other country’s borders, drawn in by rampant poverty and public oppression. One of the strongest attractions for these revolutionary ideals has been the brutal and corrupt governments of Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. (Three third-world Islamic nations incompetently run by kings and dictators.) So while western countries struggled to compute the long-term political arithmetic and what it might mean to their interests, violent actions taken by Libya against its own people prompted an immediate and equally violent reaction from the United States and its allies.

Even before Egypt’s government was toppled by reformers and inspired the Libyan uprisings there had long been brewing discontentment and its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, has long been an embarrassment to all other heads of states in the area. Gadhafi’s insane rants, attention grabbing dress and compulsive behavior has long filled newspapers with his celebrity-like antics. Just imagine him as the Charlie Sheen of the Islamic world’s leaders. Except his disputes don’t lead to incidents of domestic violence or get TV shows canceled, they’ve led to acts of international terrorism and war. Such was the case of Pan Am Flight 103 which was blown up by extremists backed by Gadhafi in 1988 killing 243 people. And to an extent Gadhafi is the reason we are bombing the county now.

After losing nearly his entire country to protesters, as one city after another began supporting the popular uprising, Gadhafi decided to take it back. How? Lots of tanks, bombs, bullets and planes. The protesters then turned themselves into armed rebels but they are not match for even Gadhafi’s two decade old military equipment. Within a few days the military advances by the superior armed Gadhafi forces devastated his own population centers to the point the U.N. successfully passed a resolution authorizing international military intervention to protect civilians from onslaught.

Though there’s hardly any relation between the Japanese earthquake and the events in Libya, there may be one I happened to notice.

At this moment Japan continues its failed attempts to contain the meltdown of several radioactive sites at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant including nuclear fuel storage locations and its four nuclear reactors.

Nuclear fuel is an interesting notion. Basically the idea is to generate a reaction between different radioactive metals that release lots of heat energy. This heat boils water into highly pressurized steam that turns an electrical turbine which then creates usable electricity. Easy enough to understand, but the most important part of nuclear energy is being able to consistently control that reaction exactly.

If things get too hot, for example, they have the potential to melt some of the toughest metals and release the most deadly levels of radiation. So at all steps of the process engineers have developed safety measures to ensure the fuel’s temperature never gets to the point they can’t bring it back down. A meltdown is when this heat is generated faster by the nuclear fuel than can be cooled by operators.

As the United States, France and England’s warplanes strike at targets across another sovereign nation, I can’t help but think of the concept of a nuclear reaction. In a sense the political action by those countries is as inherently unstable because it depends on keeping constant control in order to produce safe results. The idea is we are capable of controlling the reaction; that the situation won’t over heat and meltdown. I imagine maybe Vietnam was our military and political Chernobyl.

In a sense this last few weeks we’ve been exposed to the worst kind of reminder of how little control we have over the world while at the same time we’ve witnessed steps to assert such control.

While I can certainly see the advantages of nuclear power and international intervention, we should keep in mind just what can happen when the back up generators fail.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesuntyler.

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