Japan: The Disaster Gap and the Price of Power

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Dominic Nahr/Magnum for TIME

I’ve been traveling and reporting for the past few days, out of email and cell phone most of the time, so I haven’t been able to blog on the terrible Japan quake and ongoing nuclear disaster. I know little of what’s going on, though an explosion just occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi 3 reactor. I’m thinking about the country I lived in for a year in 2006 and 2007, during what now seems—even more than usual—like another life altogether. I remember being awoken occasionally by the gentle swaying of a tremor, watching the bookshelves in my Tokyo apartment vibrate from some passing shudder in the Earth. It was always waiting there, the power, ready to be unleashed. Sometimes I thought the unshakable routine of a Japanese day was a way to push those fears below, and life itself in the city was a tribute to the power of denial. That’s shattered now.

I do know this: as horrific as the quake, the tsunami and the unfolding nuclear catastrophes may prove—and it could be more than any nation can bear—it could have been much, much worse. The New York Times reporters James Glanz and Norimitsui Onishi—who was the Tokyo bureau chief during my own stint there—explained this well: Japan’s strict building codes saved lives:

Hidden inside the skeletons of high-rise towers, extra steel bracing, giant rubber pads and embedded hydraulic shock absorbers make modern Japanese buildings among the sturdiest in the world during a major earthquake. And all along the Japanese coast, tsunami warning signs, towering seawalls and well-marked escape routes offer some protection from walls of water.

These precautions, along with earthquake and tsunami drills that are routine for every Japanese citizen, show why Japan is the best-prepared country in the world for the twin disasters of earthquake and tsunami — practices that undoubtedly saved lives, though the final death toll is unknown.

At Ecocentric I’ve often written about the disaster gap, the fact that the human toll of a storm or quake or flood often has less to do with the severity of the catastrophe than how prepared its victims are. No country was better prepared than Japan for what happened on March 11—both technologically and socially, as the relatively calm response to the unimaginable tragedy shows. The sheer power of the 8.9 temblor that hit northeastern Japan—and especially the tsunami that swept after it, too fast for any warning system—showed that nature can penetrate even the best preparation. But it could have been so much worse.

What made Japan different? Certainly wealth helps—Japan can afford to spend far more on its buildings than Haiti, of course, which suffered more than 200,000 deaths in an earthquake that, by comparison to what happened in March 11, was a slight shrug of the planet’s crust. But it’s not enough to be rich—the money has to be used in the right way, with the right building codes, and the public has to understand how to respond to a disaster. Japan hasn’t always been perfect in this regard—the government badly botched the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe quake, which killed some 6,000 people. But the country was about as ready as it could be, and countless people are alive today because of that fact.

If nothing else, that should be a warning to Americans. In some regions the U.S. is relatively well-prepared for a major quake, like in California, where strict building codes and recent experience with temblors means that the Golden State is about as ready as it can be for the Big One. But not everywhere—especially the Cascadia region in the Pacific Northwest—as the disaster expert Yumei Wang pointed out in Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog:

The average time between magnitude 8 and larger Cascadia earthquakes is about 240 years (see page 8, Cascadia earthquake timeline, based on Chris Goldfinger’s data, Oregon State University). The last megaquake, estimated as a magnitude 9, occurred in 1700 — that’s 311 years ago. In geologic terms, Cascadia is “9 months pregnant” and overdue.

Even though geologists identified 41 past Cascadia megaquakes, they cannot pinpoint exactly when the next Cascadia earthquake will strike. Nonetheless, engineers can design and build to withstand earthquake shaking. Now is the time to take preparations seriously, safeguard those in harm’s way, and strengthen aging critical infrastructure.

Of course, now much of the focus is on the drama at Japan’s wounded nuclear power plants, which is easily the worst atomic accident since Chernobyl. I don’t know enough yet to comment on what might be going on now in those reactors, or what’s likely to come. Those who say that the possibility of meltdowns unfolding on live TV means that the much-touted U.S. nuclear renaissance is dead are probably right—although that “renaissance” was always more myth than fact, given that no company has actually successfully tried to build a new nuclear plant in the U.S., no matter how much money Washington is ready to give them.

But all I can say—echoing Senator Mitch McConnell, of all people—is that the middle of a historic disaster is not the right time to plot U.S. energy policy. The greatest weaknesses of nuclear power are on display right now: the risk, however small, of uncontrolled catastrophe; the public fear of radiation. But it’s worth remember that every major power source we use—nuclear, oil and coal—has suffered an extreme accident over the past year. Even natural gas—suddenly found in bountiful quantities thanks to hydraulic fracturing—has met environmental obstacles. That certainly boosts the case for some renewables—as many environmentalists are already pointing out—but those forms of energy face their own challenges, both economically and politically, even among their supporters.

The bottom line is that no form of energy is without its costs, just as no city and no country is completely free of risk. The challenge, as banal as it can seem in the heart of an emergency, is to make an honest accounting of those costs and risks, and meet them head on. Though I suspect that right now many of us, like the narrator of Haruki Murakami’s first story in After the Quake, we’ll merely witness the catastrophe:

Five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at the crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways. She never said a word.

There will be time to debate soon enough. Now there’s the only time to watch, and hope.

See Ecocentric’s Krista Mahr, who is in Japan, filing a video report on the search-and-rescue in Sendai