Engineers save millions of lives in Japan

From Dave Ewing via Roberto Montagna:

The headline you won’t be reading: “Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes”. But it’s the truth.

The loss of life in Japan is tragic, but it would have been far worse without good engineering.

Update: As Tim points out in the comments below,The New York Times did publish a story headlined Japan’s Strict Building Codes Saved Lives. This is to be commended since it’s natural to only see the people who died and not the people who did not. Along these lines, I wonder how many people did not die mining coal to generate the electricity that nuclear power has provided Japan.

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8 thoughts on “Engineers save millions of lives in Japan

  1. Tim: Glad to hear about the NYT piece. Thanks for the link.

    I don’t think technical people are under appreciated; I think prevention is under appreciated. It’s hard to notice a patient not develop an infection or notice a bridge not collapse.

  2. When I was an undergraduate, a professor at my school wrote a book called How We Know What Isn’t So and I flipped through it at the bookstore. It speaks directly to your remark, and I’ve never forgotten it. One of his points is that nobody keeps track of counterfactual events (non-streaky scoring patterns in sports, inhomogeneity of spatial processes in cancer-cluster identification, etc.) and thus it is incredibly difficult to impress upon people the importance of this. “But what are the odds we’ll have a magnitude-9 quake?” Sure, the odds are small, but underestimating them could have horrible costs.

    “Overengineering” saves lives. Onerous requirements that reduce profits for builders can also reduce loss of lives in a disaster. Comparing the effects of this quake (or the recent huge quake in Chile) to the aftermath of the much smaller, but much more deadly, quake in Haiti, it is mind-boggling to me when people of a certain bent rail against “oppressive” building codes — not least because I live in California, where something like the Sendai quake might well happen in the foreseeable future. Do folks not understand that a race to the bottom is sometimes a very bad thing?

    I’ve been spending a lot of time with Gammas lately, though, so perhaps it’s just me.

  3. There are a couple ways of looking at things like this: what is likely to happen and what could happen. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve shifted more of my attention from the former to the latter. One reason is that we often have a much better idea of what’s possible than what’s probable.

    It’s a trade-off. There are opportunity costs to being too cautious. I guess I’d advocate humility more than caution per se. Sometimes you not only don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t even know enough to estimate probabilities within an order of magnitude. That’s when you have to over-engineer.

  4. Excellent point about coal vs. nuclear, as well. It will be instructive (I hope!) to compare post-hoc the costs of an explosion and breach in Japan (nearly the worst-case scenario) vs. the callous disregard for labor and safety laws in the coal industry here.

  5. Japan’s nuclear is 49GW. Coal power requires 2.2Mt/GWyr. (both facts from China produced 3,050 Mt in 2007, with 6,027 deaths in 2004, although that could be as high as 20,000 according to wikipedia… lets say around 2 deaths per Mt though.

    So Japan’s nuclear program saves 200 deaths/year if they were to import Chinese coal.

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