Of course we all listen to the reports coming in from our friends in Japan with great horror. As a human being, it is hard not to be deeply affected by the scale of the human suffering and loss induced by the earthquake, tsunami, and the subsequent dramatic destruction of some of Japan’s nuclear power plants.

As an engineer, I get a little angry at the second guessing some people are doing. Not because some of the observations are necessarily wrong, but because they are too easy. These nuclear plants are four decades old in an industry that is now five decades old. How many people in the storage industry could pick apart, even laugh at the storage designs of 40 years ago? Well, everyone except the designers of the XIV. I’m sorry, that was not fair, and not even true, but I have to tell ya I laughed my ass off when I typed it.

Last year, one of my heroes, Professor Takeo Shimizu of Japan, passed away at the age of nearly 99 years. He was one of the high priests of fireworks design and manufacture. He wrote the seminal text in the industry, “Fireworks: The Art, Science, and Technique.”

Most hobbyists and professionals have at least one copy. The book was revised several times, but much of the work within its covers was originally published 30 years ago. I have read the book more than 5 times, dog-eared many pages, and even spilled a bit of pyro composition on some. Although it is a bit worn, it is magical. It contains so much accumulated knowledge of which Dr.Shimizu played no small part, well beyond documenting the state of the art. Can you criticize the contents, the formulae, or perhaps what’s missing from the text? Sure, but you’d be an ass in doing so. It isn’t respectful, and it is too easy. Enough said.

My point is as obvious as it is true – second guessing designs, comparing a Westinghouse AP1000 passive water cooled reactor of today to one of 40 years ago is not fair. Today’s designers of nuclear power plants owe their jobs and their knowledge base to yesterday’s designers. Today’s designers were probably on average 5 years old when those Fukushima plants were built. So second guessing is too easy.

The problem we all face, in every country is that a power plant of any type is a huge, expensive asset that takes decades to pay for itself. These assets are national treasures, and are not just thrown out like yesterday’s mainframe or storage array. The cost-benefit analysis of commissioning, decommissioning, or enhancing a power plant design is a complex task with huge stakes.

Let’s not pretend that the answers are so obvious, or that designs of 50 years ago should determine our acceptance of the designs of today. Else we could end up with recriminations over our recriminations.