Man Plans… G-d Laughs

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This old saying, which is a clever rhyme in the original Yiddish, comes to mind when considering the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan. “Many are the thoughts in the heart of man, but it is G-d’s counsel that will stand.” [Proverbs 19:21]

Ever since humanity was introduced to nuclear energy in 1945, also in Japan, we have found it both fascinating and terrifying. It is incredibly useful, incredibly powerful, and incredibly deadly. Furthermore, radiation is a mysterious, hidden killer: without testing, one cannot distinguish a person who just received a lethal dose. The Three Mile Island accident had little or no actual impact on human health, yet the public’s fears were heightened to the point that few new reactors have been built in the United States, and indeed in much of the world, ever since.

When disaster struck in Chernobyl in 1986, it was an immense tragedy, but we could shrug our shoulders at the Soviet Union’s lack of attention to safety precautions routinely used in truly first-world, capitalist and Democratic countries. I recall once learning that inexpensive flights to Israel were available on the national airline of a country that was then just emerging from the Soviet bloc. A friend from that or a neighboring country counseled against using it, warning me that “they tend to skimp on things like tires.”

What, then, are we to make of today’s crisis? The reactor was manufactured by General Electric and installed in Japan, a country renowned for its technical expertise and attention to detail. It was built with what the industry calls “Defense in Depth,” designed to avert catastrophe even with the failure of several systems. Given that it was to be installed in Japan, it was built to withstand an earthquake reaching 8.2 on the Richter scale.

As you already know, the earthquake of March 11 reached 9.0 on the scale. It is a logarithmic scale, meaning that this is not a marginal difference – the earthquake was five times more powerful than the plant was designed to withstand.

First, main power was cut off. With the arrival of the tsunami, the emergency backup generators were flooded just minutes later. Eight hours after that, battery power was exhausted – and even the final layer of protection, using turbines powered by steam from the reactor itself, requires electricity to operate.

With all of that said, Fukushima will not be another Chernobyl, and with each succeeding day the reactors cool further, and the chances of a significant impact upon the surrounding area is further reduced. Some are already calling this an impressive triumph for the nuclear industry, maintaining public safety after a natural disaster five times worse than anticipated. “If this – basically nothing – is what happens when decades-old systems are pushed five times and then some beyond their design limits, new plants much safer yet would be able to resist an asteroid strike without problems.”

This, however, requires that humanity set aside its collective fears and uncertainties. As others have already noted, concern about the nuclear reactors is robbing headlines from the immense humanitarian crisis – a death toll likely to be well over 10,000, half a million are homeless, millions without power or heat, and food supplies running low. Yet at this moment, a photograph inside a crowded refugee center at nytimes.com is capped by the following lead headline: “Peril and Confusion at Nuclear Plant.”

High-technology or not, our best protections cannot account for every possible eventuality. In the end, at every moment and in every situation, we are dependent not upon our own strengths and our own capabilities, but upon Divine guidance and protection.

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6 Responses

  1. chareidi leumi says:

    >It has been said that one who doesn’t believe that all things are gam zu le tova, is committing apikorsus.

    The Chazon Ish says that not all things are “gam zu le tova” in אמונה ובטחון:

    טעות נושנת נתאזרתת בלב רבים במושג בטחון. שם בטחון
    המשמש למדה מהוללה ועיקרית בפי החסידים, נסתובבה במושג
    חובה להאמין – בכל מקרה שפוגש האדם והעמידתו לקראת עתיד
    בלתי מוכרע ושני דרכים בעתיד, אתת טובה ולא שניה – כי בטח יהיה
    הטוב, ואם מסתפק וחושש על היפוך הטוב הוא מחוסר בטחון. ואין
    הוראה זו בבטחון נכונה, שכל שלא נתברר בנבואה גורל העתיד אין
    העתיד מוכרע, כי מי יודע משפטי ד׳ וגמולותיו ית׳.

    וממדת הבטחון להעמיד עצמו על נקודת האמונה אף בהעלותו על
    מחשבחו צד היסורים ושיהי׳ לבו ער כי לא המקרה פגעתו, שאין מקרה
    בעולם כלל רק הכל מאתו ית’

    It is clear that his POV is that bitachon means seeing all as being from Hashem – NOT to apply to everything that happens the category of “good”.

  2. sarah shapiro says:

    It has been said that one who doesn’t believe that all things are gam zu le tova, is committing apikorsus. So this is not to say that in the grand scheme of history, this event, like all events, was not meant to be.

    But if we are looking at the situation from a narrower, more mundane perspective– with eyes of flesh and blood–Rabbi Menken’s view seems unjustifiably optimistic.

    One can say only that the nature of this disaster is probably different from Chernobyl, not that it will be less harmful. The truth is that no one knows the answer, not even experts in the field.

    Chernobyl itself is an open, unanswerable question. The so-called “sarcophagus” which Russia devised, supposedly to prevent leakage, was laughable in 1986 and has proven to be–not surprisingly, given the nature of radioactivity–vulnerable to wear and tear from time and the weather.

    If fuel rods in Japan are exposed to the atmosphere, the effect on children and unborn children around the world is especially an unknown, not to mention the effect on adults, and the long-term global effect on the food chain and ground water.

  3. Yaakov Menken says:

    I admit I was expecting someone (or someoenes) else to respond to the above comments. It is radiation from the spent fuel rods that is causing concern in Japan right now. Chernobyl exploded with the reactor in full operation, and to this day there is a 30 km exclusion zone around the plant — entire villages are uninhabitable, and will be ad biyas go’el. I definitely agree that it’s way too soon to call this an “impressive triumph” for the nuclear industry, but it is certainly an interesting counter perspective to the panic expressed in most of the media.

    Further, I cannot see any sign in my post of G-d laughing at tragedy, nor that there was any hubris in the plant safety standards. On the contrary, the point was that we cannot possibly account for every eventuality, and thus need Divine protection regardless of what we believe we might have accomplished.

  4. Daniel F says:

    Rabbi Menken offers important perspective. However, I am bothered by the title of the post. Besides for the negative connotations vis a vis G-d “laughing” at such a tragedy, is the point really that their was some hubris involved in the safety standards?

  5. Yossel says:

    You’re a bit too optimistic. It appears that one reactor has lost all coolant,is in imminent threat of meltdown and is causing an evacuation of a 50 mile radius.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    All due precautions need to be taken, but their success once taken depends on the Will of G-d. It is still unclear whether the Japanese power companies went far enough with precautions or not, especially with their oldest nuclear facilities close to retirement.
    Regardless, news media whip up hysteria at the drop of a hat, for their own benefit, not necessarily ours. The hysteria itself can then be part of the news coverage.