Global Trends by Martin Khor
Monday 14 March 2011
Many issues raised by
The catastrophic effects of last week's earthquake
The devastating earthquake and tsunami in
First and foremost is the increased worldwide frequency and intensity of natural calamities and the need for countries to prepare themselves to minimise the damage and properly manage the disasters when they occur.
Indeed, disaster preparedness must now be given the highest priority, as more disasters appear likely, and it is difficult to predict in what form and in which country they will occur.
If last year was bad enough, this year may see equally serious natural calamities, as indicated by last week's events.
In 2010, there was the disastrous earthquake in
This year, earthquakes have already damaged
In 2010, worldwide economic losses from natural catastrophes and man-made disasters were estimated at US$222 billion, more than triple the $63 billion in 2009, and 260,000 people died, the highest since 1976.
Even then, this earthquake of 8.9 magnitude had such a terrible effect, especially the tsunami that wiped out a few small towns entirely, while severely damaging many others. The scale of damage and loss of lives is still being uncovered.
The possible occurrence and devastating effects
of tsunamis is last week's second lesson. Many countries, like
The events in
Similarly, further earthquakes off the coast of
The third issue may be the most important: the
safety of nuclear power. Even before
An emergency situation developed in five reactors in two of the plants. The earthquake caused electricity to shut down, and in 11 of the nuclear plants the emergency cooling systems worked.
But in plants, the emergency diesel generators stopped working an hour after the earthquake, possibly because they were knocked out by the tsunami.
This affected the cooling system. If the cooling is sufficiently reduced and the water in a reactor heats up and boils away, it could lead to a situation of the nuclear fuel melting, releasing the uranium fragments inside.
So far a meltdown has not happened, and the authorities have assured that there is no unsafe release of radioactivity.
But an explosion on Saturday at one of the reactors heightened worldwide concerns. According to reports, fortunately this did not rupture the all-important containment unit.
Many thousands of people living within 20 kilometers of the affected plant have been evacuated as a precaution.
The full extent of the damage, and whether the cooling system can be restored in time at all the nuclear plants to prevent the situation from worsening, will be better known this week as events continue to unfold.
But this brings back to the forefront the question
of safety of nuclear power. Safety concerns, especially after the nuclear
accidents in Three Mile Island (
However, recent years saw a revival of interest in nuclear power because of the priority placed on alternatives to oil for energy security and for climate change mitigation.
Some countries that had planned to phase out nuclear
power decided to extend its use, while other countries including
Even if there is no catastrophic meltdown in the plants, there was considerable risk of significant radioactive leakage into the environment. The bad publicity from this incident is likely to cause public reaction and a reassessment of the costs and benefits of nuclear power.