The Real Story at North Korea’s Test Site; Cause and Effect

In  search of a story the size and taste of a Chicken McNugget, the news has  the story wrong. If you lay 5 facts out on a table, and draw an arrow through them, people will think that A implies B implies C implies D implies E…. and you’ve got what looks like “story.”

But if you lay the facts out in another order, the Chicken McNugget looks the same, but underneath the fry batter, it’s completely different. Our McNugget is:

  • A cavern in Mantapsan Mountain, created by a nuke test, collapsed.
  • Man-made tunnels also collapsed.
  • The mountain shifted.
  • There is a chimney of fractured rock, what the China authors call a “hole.” What covers the hole is in a delicate state.
  • The  mountain cannot contain further nuclear explosions.

So the Chicken McNugget headline is: (CNN) North Korea’s nuclear test caused collapse, study says. To an ambulance chaser, this could be as important as deliberately throwing banana peels on a busy sidewalk. But here it’s a mistake. When writing a story, news writers use the memory aid  “who-what-when-where-why”.  Everything’s OK except the what and why.

The CNN headline has the wrong “what”. The correct “what” is:

  • The mountain is leaking, and is finished as a test site.

Why is this an important distinction? Because all underground nuclear explosions create caverns. Most of them eventually collapse. The U.S. Nevada test site is dotted with (pics) subsidence craters, each one indicating the collapse of a cavern. The nuclear explosion did not cause the cavern to collapse. It created the cavern in the first place.

The phrase “mountain collapsed” conjures something like a coal mining disaster, so it’s an attractive headline. But with Mantapsan Mountain, the environmental danger is not the collapse, but the chimney of fractured rock, and other fractures as well. If you knock a few feet off a mountain, is that a “collapse” ? It subsided. Non volcanic mountains cannot collapse in a big way. Tunnels collapsed, killing unlucky slaves.

The writers of the China paper doubtless know this. They may have assented to the headline in response to a leading question, or simply despaired of explaining it properly to reporters.

This is the why, which builds to the ultimate reason why the site has been abandoned:

  • The rock fractured so severely not because the blast was particularly powerful, but because it wasn’t deep enough.  There wasn’t enough overburden, rock above the blast. So the rock heaved upwards many more feet than it would have if there had been more rock holding it down.

In search of drama, CNN supply a graphic in which the last North Korean test is the largest of the chart, implying that the explosion was huge. On the scale of things nuclear, the 160KT yield is actually quite small. The underground U.S. Cannikin test at Amchitka Island was roughly 50X stronger. The graphic is devoid of context.

Now if you’re a liberal arts guy, your sense of Aristotelian logic (or sophistry) has you argue, “But if there were no blast, there would have been no cavern to collapse. Therefore, the nuke is responsible.”

Although I firmly believe in the innate cussability of inanimate objects (as in “By gum, another damn infernal contraption”), this is not a useful chain of cause-and-effect.  That thinking might be useful to a trial lawyer. But what we want to know is:

  • Why did North Korea get into this situation? Why was the decision made to test at Mantapsan Mountain? Have a look at 41°16′47.87″N 129°5′10.51″E .  You can park your news truck in the lot 700 feet to the south. Be sure and tell them you’re coming.

Hint: Clues are in plain view. Once  the “why” is nailed down:

  • What are the North Koreans going to do about it? What are their alternatives for testing nukes?

To news writers who find this too daunting, try  writing up NYC crane collapses.  Easy to get to, and pretty simple; they get blown over by the wind, cables break, pedestrians get mashed, plenty of nice flashing lights, street barricades, and human interest.

These guys know the who and the what-like nobody’s business. They even know why. Don’t ask me who.

Taking a tip from  Abbott & Costello, we’ll get to the why shortly.






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