Seismic shift

by andrew.mcnulty / 26 March, 2011
Japan's nuclear fallout requires us to weigh the risks to humanity.


Of the myriad ways there are to look at the devastation wreaked upon Japan, surely the least helpful is the view of Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who was quoted as saying that the event was punishment for Japan's egoism.

The 9.0 magnitude earthquake, one of the 10 biggest in the world since records began, was not punishment from heaven. It was not a deliberate act. It was a shocking, immense and spontaneous movement of tectonic plates releasing a power so great that the world tilted on its axis.

What unfolded in the minutes after the earthquake will be imprinted forever in the minds of those who witnessed it. Japan was more prepared for seismic activity than any other country in the world and yet its defences were completely inadequate for the terrible tsunami that struck. By the time it receded, possibly tens of thousands of people were dead and the landscape of those northeastern coastal settlements was unrecognisable. The uncontrolled release of radioactivity from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant simply compounded the horror and spread fear to the country's heart - Tokyo.

Japan had been plunged into a nightmare. And around the world the Sendai earthquake had created a seismic shift in thinking about the risks of nuclear power. The precautionary principle should, without question, apply. Those countries that already have nuclear power are undertaking reviews to ensure their fail-safe protections are just that: safe.

But horrific as events are at Fukushima, the hard reality is that clean alternatives are not yet developed enough to replace nuclear, and fossil fuels are not the answer. Such fuels are hazardous to human health, to the environment and to the Earth's atmosphere.

The American Lung Association says in a new report that coal-fired power stations produce more hazardous air pollution than any other industrial source and that particle pollution from power plants kills 13,000 people a year. Nor is it true to argue that only nuclear power produces long-term deleterious effects. Gas, oil and coal-fired plants are huge emitters of carbon dioxide. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates half of all new CO2 emissions will remain in the atmosphere for centuries, and about 20% will be there for millennia. Already concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are at record levels, and rising. To simply replace nuclear energy with that produced by fossil fuels would be to risk reaching a sudden tipping point where heating of the planet simply accelerates.

While that possibility is usually all too easy to ignore, the evidence of what happens in a momentous natural disaster is right before us. The Japanese economy, already under-performing and heavily weighed down by public debt, has suffered a body blow. Sharemarkets around the world have lost value as investors try to work out the ramifications of what all this will mean to the world's third-largest economy.

But beyond all else, this has been a human tragedy on an unimaginable scale. The developed world has come to think of humanitarian disasters as being Third World events, not because people in the West are callous or indifferent, but because there has been an assumption that developed countries largely have the resources to respond to their own natural disasters in a timely fashion. First, New Orleans, and now Sendai, have shown such assumptions are wrong.

Japan has overcome great adversity before. It rose from the abject, broken and demoralised state it was brought to at the end of the World War II to look for a time as though it would become the world's most powerful economy. Its well-educated and hard-working population and co-operative society, and the capacity of Japanese industry to invent and refine technology to bring consumer products to the world, have helped it rebuild once. It can do it again.

But there will be a legacy from this catastrophe that may never heal for those who have lived through it. Some have lost every person they ever loved and everything they ever owned. They have borne witness to their own apocalypse.

The Land of the Rising Sun has been cast in great shadow. Not because Japanese people are greedy and heaven is vengeful, but because it is the fate of Japan to lie on the boundaries of two tectonic plates. No wonder, then, that as these terrible events unfolded, New Zealand watched with such horror, and such empathy. We understand.
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