After the Japanese Tsunami: Industrial society, resilience, and the nuclear question

Stuart Parkinson, SGR, takes an initial look at the lessons from the Japanese tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear emergency. He argues that if societies are to be more ‘resilient’ to environmental risks, then major socio-economic and technological changes are critical.

Article for SGR website, 17 March 2011
 

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have demonstrated that even the most industrially advanced nations can be very vulnerable to major environmental hazards. These events show that poor choices about which infrastructure to build can have catastrophic consequences – what some academics refer to as a lack of ‘resilience’. There are lessons here for Japan, the UK and beyond – in terms of how environmental risks can best be managed, including the question of whether nuclear power should continue to be part of the energy mix.

 

Extreme flooding

Japanese engineers have become very good at erecting earthquake-resistant buildings. A nation in one of the most seismically active regions on the planet could not have become the industrial leader it is without such skills being central to its construction industry. And the evidence currently available indicates that, despite the March 11th earthquake being largest in Japan’s recent history, much of the infrastructure stood up well to the initial quake.

Nevertheless, we have a death toll estimated (at the time of writing) to be around 15,000 with about half a million people homeless, major shortages of water, food and power, and (consequently) an economic crisis. We also have about 70,000 people being evacuated due to a nuclear emergency – but more about that below.

The major cause of all these problems was not the earthquake itself, but the resulting tsunami that inundated the well-populated north eastern coast. Despite earthquake resistant buildings and high sea walls – the latter extending along 40% of Japan’s 22,000 mile coastline – many coastal towns and villages were wiped from the map.

There is obviously an immediate humanitarian crisis, which hundreds of thousands of relief workers are attending to – and our thoughts are, of course, with them. In the longer term, however, Japan will need to consider how it rebuilds and how it prepares for future seismic threats. Obviously, a detailed review needs to be conducted, but it does seem that over-reliance on a single technical option – extensive sea walls – will be a significant factor. A greater focus on socio-economic changes – mainly reducing population levels in coastal areas, as well as increased evacuation education and drills – is likely to be a major part of the solution. No one suggests such changes will be easy, but in the wake of the disaster attitudes may well change.

Are there lessons here for the UK? In the first instance, it reminds us of the terrible consequences major flooding can have. Although the UK does not face anything like the tsunami threat that Japan does, the risks are nevertheless increasing as the sea levels rise due to climate change and house-building continues on flood-plains. The government has only just completed a major flood preparedness exercise to try to learn lessons following the failures in the emergency response to the 2007 floods. This is very welcome. Yet at the same time it has announced major cuts in the flood defence budget, and seems to have little interest in curbing irresponsible house-building. It seems that technological options, such as basic flood defences, and socio-economic changes, such as different housing patterns, are both being missed here. One option that is consistently neglected is the potential to bring back into use the hundreds of thousands of properties across the country that currently lie empty – this could help deal with housing shortages while removing the pressure to build in vulnerable areas.

 

The nuclear question

The aspect of the disaster that has come to dominate the media coverage is the emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.

The crisis is unfolding as I write but some aspects seem clear:

  • Of the six reactors at the Daiichi site, three were operating at the time of the earthquake and three were already shut down.
  • When the earthquake struck, the three in operation shut down automatically. However, mainly due to the effects of the tsunami, main and backup systems used to cool these reactors – and nuclear material at the other reactors – began to fail. Numerous attempts have been made to provide emergency cooling, but this has not stopped nuclear fuel from overheating, causing several explosions and fires, a possible breach of the containment vessel of at least one of the reactors, and large releases of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Partial meltdown of at least two of the operational reactor cores is likely.
  • About 70,000 people have been evacuated from a 20 km exclusion zone set up around the plant, and a further 140,000 people, living between 20 and 30 km from the plant have been told to stay indoors. Iodine tablets have been distributed to help counter some potential health effects.
  • Many of the nuclear workers dealing with the emergency are likely to have received extremely high doses of radiation.

While it is obviously the tsunami that has been the overwhelming reason for the death toll and damage, the need to evacuate and/or control the movements of hundreds of thousands of people within a disaster zone – thus diverting precious resources away from the relief effort – is clearly multiplying Japan’s problems considerably. Indeed, the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing situation – specifically the potential of a major release of radioactive material – is causing considerable disruption. Health effects have yet to be assessed, but the economic impacts are already considerable.

It is tempting – as many political and industry commentators are doing – to argue that the Fukushima nuclear emergency has negligible implications for the UK because we are not in a major earthquake/ tsunami zone. However, the potential of a serious unanticipated emergency at a British nuclear power station remains all too real for reasons that have been discussed numerous times in the past. Not least is the terrorist threat to nuclear power, which remains serious. Arguably the power stations have now become much more attractive targets, given the widespread fear evoked in Japan. The risk of a serious flooding incident at a UK power station is growing as sea levels rise, and all our current and proposed nuclear power plants are in coastal areas. The nuclear industry will doubtless argue that such risks have been anticipated and can be dealt with, but the Fukushima emergency shows just how difficult it is to plan for every eventually. Designing in further safeguards in the wake of this accident will add to the already rapidly rising costs of nuclear power.

Proposals are now in the pipeline to build eight or more new nuclear power stations in the UK – each one designed to operate for 50-60 years, and store highly radioactive waste onsite, probably for another 50 years. 100 years is a very long time to predict and manage the serious risks posed by material from a nuclear power station. Think about how different the UK was in 1911, and then consider the environmental and social risks of the next 100 years. And, of course, this does not count the 100,000 or more years that radioactive waste has to be isolated from the environment once it is ‘disposed’ underground, as current government policy dictates. Nor does it include the increased risks of nuclear weapons proliferation as the UK joins others in selling the civilian technology more widely. Consider further the dozens of nuclear power stations proposed or under construction across the world. Managing these risks in an advanced industrialised nation requires – at minimum – considerable technological expertise and major social organisation. In a less industrialised country, such conditions are much less in evidence.

The UK – and the world – faces major decisions on energy, especially over the next decade. We need to put in place the measures to cut carbon emissions rapidly in order to tackle climate change. Oil prices are high and likely to remain so as resources become depleted and concentrated in unstable countries. These two factors have led to a global expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures – and promises of a ‘nuclear renaissance’. The latter has already been in doubt because of rapidly rising costs. The Fukushima accident will – at the very least – lead to those costs rising further as safety measures are upgraded. (A major review of the adequacy of evacuation plans for the UK’s nuclear power stations will also be needed.) Private investors are also likely to demand governments to take an even greater share of the financial risks.

But if we were planning for a more ‘resilient’ society – one able to cope well with major and often unpredictable risks – the vulnerabilities of nuclear power that have (again) been exposed by Fukushima accident should cause us to think again. We should now be much more willing to consider socio-economic change – the priority being energy conservation – together with a much increased role for efficient use of renewable resources. For the UK, and the world, this is the option that shines out as the one to pursue.

 

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility.

 

Information on the unfolding events has been sourced mainly from BBC News,1 The Guardian2 and the International Atomic Energy Agency3

1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12307698

2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/japan-earthquake-and-tsunami

3. http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/tsunamiupdate01.html

This article will be updated, including more detailed references, at a later date.