Saturday, March 26, 2011

nippon sensei

--climate happenings are at blisterdata--

(revised 3-27)

Two weeks ago, on Friday, March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake, as it is now known, spread from an epicenter offshore towards the northeast coast of Honshu island. With a magnitude of 9.0, the quake was one of the most massive ever recorded. Only three quakes had ever been discernibly stronger: the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean measuring 9.1; the 1964 earthquake in Alaska measuring 9.2; and the 1960 earthquake in Chile measuring 9.5. While the Tohoku epicenter was 30 km under the ocean floor, it was also quite close to the shore, 72 km from the coast. It caused a giant tsunami, with waves up to 23 m high that swept up to 10 km inland. The double-whammy of quake and wave hit the Fukushima I nuclear power plants, located at the ocean's edge, 200 km north of Tokyo. Consequences are dead, hurt, and homeless people, local destruction, and ongoing radioactive contamination from the plants that suffered meltdown and breach. The nuclear accident is an ongoing crisis. The tsunami-earthquake is over and done with. It appears more than 10,000 people have died and more than 15,000 people are missing.

Let's think of the earthquake/tsunami first. Not counting the as yet unknown toll of radiation victims, quake-related casualties may settle at around 25,000. The human cost is higher than at the stronger quakes in the Alaskan wilderness (143) and sparsely populated southern Chilean shore (2,500-6,000). It is an order of magnitude lower than that of the comparable Indian Ocean tsunami (230,000) and the weaker (7.0) 2010 Haiti earthquake (220,000). In the bleak rankings of deadliest earthquakes, Haiti figures on seventh place, and the Tohoku quake barely makes it to rank fifty. This is thought-provoking -- and encouraging. Japan was hit by an extremely hard punch and yet suffered astoundingly slight damage in proportion. A casualty rate of about 25,000 in a country of 127 million people is still 25,000 too many, for every single death is sorrow and tragedy, but is also very, very lucky. That more than just plain luck was involved becomes evident as soon as one remembers that not a single skyscraper fell over. This is what you get with a strong government that strictly enforces regulations based on scientific consensus, regardless of what they may cost to capitalists and real estate developers.

Plus, Japan is a country crisscrossed by train lines, many of them of the high speed variety, which means 300 km/h are standard. In the 45-year history of bullet trains carrying more than 7 billion passengers, there have been one or two earthquake-related derailments, but not a single casuality. It remains to be seen if or how the Tohoku quake will alter this. News right after the quake told of four vanished trains; later news reported that five missing trains had reappeared and that one train had derailed. All of this still awaits confirmation but ridership casualties had apparently been minimal. There is no other country in the world as committed to a postcarbon transit system as Japan. After suffering through one of the worst seismic punches in recorded history (in the afternoon, at peak traffic times) with such results, it is clear that the transit technology works.

It remains to be seen what to make of the nuclear accident. I am not sure we can meet all our postcarbon energy needs without relying on nuclear power at all. At the same time, the accident was possibly worse than the Japanese government lets on. Independent analyses by the Atomic Energy Commission, at any rate, are quite ominous. Some analysts, such as C Busby (U of Ulster), conclude that contamination from the Fukushima-Daiichi site is equal to that of Chernobyl.

The nukes were old and made in USA by a company (GE) that sold the technology even though engineers resigned in protest over design flaws they identified as safety risks from the outset. The nukes were officially certified to withstand a severe quake, but then it turned out the paper work was fraudulent, and the actual certification was for weaker impacts. So the accident happened for technological and regulatory reasons. Would not better designs and stricter oversight suggest themselves as solutions?

Japan is rightly called one of the most advanced nations on the planet. It has prevailed in a disaster of monstrous proportions better than most other nations could have (remember how it took five days for the US government to react to Katrina hitting New Orleans?). Japan's architecture and transit technology pass the test and point to a future of civil evolution. As runaway changes begin, and sustainability starts looking like a distant ideal, resilience is a more attainable pragmatic objective. Here Japan serves as our teacher.

The nuclear accident remains a question. Can we make it through the climate crunch by renewables alone? Can we decouple ourselves from fossil fuels at the same time we give up on nuclear power?

Lester Brown suggests an answer in Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to save civilization (New York: Norton 2010), 113 and 111:

"Wind is the centerpiece of the Plan B energy economy. It is abundant, low cost, and widely distributed; it scales up easily and can be developed quickly. Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but the Earth's wind resources cannot be depleted."

And this: "In the United States, three states--North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas--have enough harnessable wind energy to run the entire economy."

Sixty-nine months left.

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