Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 14 March 2011

Many issues raised by Japan's earthquake

The catastrophic effects of last week's earthquake in Japan has highlighted the need in every country for disaster preparedness, reaffirmed the dangers of tsunamis, and brought back deep concerns about nuclear safety.


The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan last Friday has highlighted many important issues for every country.

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 Haiti, which killed an estimated 223,000 people and made two million homeless.  Earthquakes also occurred in Chile and China (April), Sumatra (April and October, accompanied by a tsunami that killed hundreds) and Iran (December).

This year, earthquakes have already damaged Christchurch in New Zealand, and now we have the Japanese tragedy.  Besides earthquakes, there have been extensive floods in many parts of the world, including Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Venezuela and Colombia.

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. 

Japan is reputed to be the world's best prepared country to face earthquakes. The buildings are built to withstand them, and there is coastal protection against tsunamis.  People are well trained on what to do when an earthquake occurs.

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 Malaysia, may not be directly in an earthquake-prone zone, but are nevertheless in the pathway of tsunamis triggered by earthquakes originating in oceans.

Malaysia and other Asian countries were affected by the giant tsunami from the earthquake off Northwest Sumatra six years ago. 

The events in Japan last week showed that giant tsunamis are not rare.  Southeast Asian countries should always be on the alert and have contingency plans because more earthquakes off Sumatra have been predicted. 

Similarly, further earthquakes off the coast of Japan are expected, and the tsunamis they generate could have bigger effects on other countries than the one last week.

The third issue may be the most important:  the safety of nuclear power.  Even before Japan could rescue or take care of all the people trapped in the tsunami's aftermath, attention quickly shifted to the effects on its nuclear power plants.

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 (United States) and Chernobyl (Russia), had  caused a sharp decline in the building of new nuclear plants worldwide.

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 Malaysia announced an intention to introduce nuclear power.

Japan itself relies heavily on nuclear power which is the source for one third the country's electricity.  Since earthquakes are common, Japanese nuclear plants were   designed to withstand them, but last week's events show that a major quake can cause an emergency situation.

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.