japan's two catastrophes

bergens tidende, 24 march 2011

Two catastrophes have hit Japan over the past fortnight. The first was the earthquake and tsunami that struck on 11 March, devastating parts of north-east coast of the island of Honshu, destroying communities, leaving thousands dead, tens of thousands more homeless and creating a crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. It is a catastrophe in the face of which Japan has shown remarkable resilience and in the course of which its technology and organization has proved highly effective.

The second catastrophe is the one to be found in the Western media. In this catastrophe a proud, modern high-tech country has been humbled by the irresistible force of nature, a nation lies gripped by fear and on the edge of collapse, reduced to begging for aid from foreign countries. Most of all, it is a catastrophe dominated not by the earthquake or the tsunami but by an apocalyptic drama at the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The hysteria surrounding Western discussion of Fukushima was perhaps best expressed by the highly-regarded, award-winning BBC correspondent Matt Frei (normally the corporation’s Washington correspondent but now one of many covering the Japan crisis). He began a report on Fukushima by talking of the ‘stoic determination of the shuffling Tokyo commuters who wonder if the breeze on their cheek could amount to a kiss of death courtesy of Caesium 137.’ He concluded it by comparing the drama at Fukushima to ‘a disaster movie where the future of civilization hinges upon a simple cooling operation, except that it’s not a movie and it’s not the simple.’ Meltdown, it seems, has taken place not just in the reactor cores but in commentators’ ability to put the disaster into perspective.

Meltdown of critical faculties has been fuelled by the memory of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. No discussion of Fukushima seems complete without the obligatory mention of the big C. Yet, for all the drama at Fukushima, there is no comparison with what happened in Chernobyl.

Chernobyl was built to an antiquated and dangerous Soviet design in which there was no containment vessel for the reactor, a hazardous cooling system that perversely ensured that the hotter the core the greater its reactivity, and a large amount of carbon in the core that fuelled a fire that projected radioactive material up into the upper atmosphere allowing it to be carried across much of Europe. At Fukushima the radioactive fuel is inside a thick steel vessel, itself within a containment structure that is specifically designed to prevent release of core materials even during a natural disaster such as this. Nor is there carbon in the reactors; even if a large amount of radioactive material were to leak from the plant, it would affect only the local area. Yet brute fear has blinded journalists and politicians to rational argument. It has seemed over the past fortnight almost as if everyone has been waiting for the apocalypse to happen.

Fukushima has come to dominate coverage of the Japanese disaster partly because of the role that radiation occupies in our culture. The idea of a silent, invisible enemy that, unlike an earthquake or tsunami, does not confront us from the outside but corrodes our bodies from the inside, has helped create an irrational, almost medieval, fear of anything nuclear.

But Fukushima has dominated coverage for another reason too: its devastation has come symbolize the moral lesson of the disaster. ‘We cannot master nature, nature rules us’, as the German Greens’ parliamentary leader Renate Kuenast put it. For many what the disaster has revealed is the folly of human hubris, the recklessness of imagining that we could confront the power of nature. And nothing seems more to express that recklessness than the attempt to harness nuclear power. As the writer Anne Applebaum asked in the Washington Post, ‘If the technologically brilliant Japanese can’t build a completely safe reactor, who can?’

In fact, the real lesson of the disaster is not the problem of overweening human ambition, but the importance of human resourcefulness and ingenuity. For if one story of the past fortnight has been that of the tragedy of lost lives and wrecked communities, a second has, paradoxically, been about Japan’s astonishing success in coping with a disaster of this magnitude.

Measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, the quake – the fifth largest ever recorded – was 39,000 times more powerful than the atom bomb that devastated Hiroshima. It was powerful enough to have shifted the Earth’s axis by 17 centimetres. And yet the quake itself did relatively little damage. It was the tsunami that followed that was devastating, pulverizing whole towns in its path. The quake was a thousand times more powerful than the one that devastated Haiti. Some 250,000 people perished in that disaster. So far in Japan there have been around 9000 dead and 14,000 missing. That figure will undoubtedly rise. And every person who has died, every family left homeless, every community torn apart should tug at our hearts. But we should also be grateful that a combination of individual heroism and collective planning has made the catastrophe far less catastrophic than it might have been.

In the face of almost unprecedented natural ferocity, Japan’s infrastructure seems to have held up astonishingly well. Take the rail network. One train was washed away by the tsunami. Every other train – including the bullet trains traveling in excess of 150 miles per hour – survived intact. There were no derailments, no collisions and, apart from in the one train hit by the tsunami, no loss of life. And so it was with much other Japanese infrastructure. As one Western businessman working and living in Japan put it on his blog, 'Planes stayed in the sky. Buildings stayed standing. Civil order continued uninterrupted.' He added that, 'The overwhelming response of Japanese engineering to the challenge posed by an earthquake larger than any in the last century was to function exactly as designed. Millions of people are alive right now because the system worked.'

Japan has poured more resources than any other nation into developing both the technology and the social organization necessary to combat natural disasters. It has learnt how to create superb defences against earthquakes. In time it will no doubt learn how to thwart tsunamis too.

Even Fukushima shows the worth of Japan’s system. Built to withstand a 7.9 magnitude quake, it survived intact a seismic event ten times more powerful. All the reactors went into automatic shutdown as expected. The tsunami, however, cut off power and destroyed back-up generators, making it difficult to cool the core, a necessary process as even after shutdown the core continues to generate heat for a while. Modern reactors, based on ‘passive’ cooling systems, would most likely have survived this too. In Fukushima’s case, however, it required extraordinary measures to prevent the cores from overheating. But those measures by and large worked.

There is growing concern about radiation leaking from Fukushima into the food chain and the water supply. The Japanese authorities banned the sale of certain vegetables from the Fukushima area after discovering elevated levels of radioactive caesium and iodine and advised infants in the Tokyo region to be given only bottled water. But here, too, perspective is needed.

At one point, there was around 210 becquerels of radioactive iodine per litre of Tokyo tap water - twice the recommended limit for infants, although still below the adult limit. It dropped back to safe levels the following day. But even at the ‘unsafe’ level, prolonged exposure to the water would have resulted in a radioactive dose lower than one would receive from natural background radiation in many parts of the world. According to Richard Wakeford, professor of epidemiology at Manchester University and an expert in radiation exposure, an infant who drank the contaminated Tokyo tap water for a year would receive a dose of around 0.8 mSV. That’s about one tenth of the average annual radioactive dose that people living in Cornwall, in south-east England, receive from background radiation. In some parts of India and Iran background radiation rises to 260 mSV per year, seemingly without adverse effect. Similarly, if you were to eat 1kg vegetables from the Fukushima region everyday for a month, you would receive a dose of around 20mSV of radioactive caesium - equivalent to a single full body CT scan. As the environmental physicist Jim Smith put it, the radioactive safe limit ‘is set at a low level to ensure that consumption at that level is safe over a fairly long period of time.’ Short exposure to much higher levels ‘would not present a significant health risk.’ Radioactive iodine is of more concern than other radioactive contaminants because it can be absorbed by the thyroid, especially in children, leading to higher cancer risks.  That is why precautions are wise. But panic is not.

There are certainly questions to be raised about Japan’s nuclear programme. Why build a power plant on the east coast, so close to the geological faultline? Why was there no protection from the sea? Why were routine inspections not carried out? And while in the current crisis the Japanese authorities seem to have been relatively open, the history of secrecy and cover ups within Japan’s nuclear industry has helped create neither confidence nor goodwill. But there is no evidence that Fukushima is another Chernobyl.

Chernobyl really was an expression of human hubris. The Soviet authorities believed that they had no need to install basic safety mechanisms – such as a containment vessel – in the plant, and plant operators seemed oblivious to the consequences of the tests they were running. Fukushima tells a different story. It reveals the success, not failure, of technology.

The moral, not just of Fukushima but of the Japanese disaster itself, is not that we are fated to let ‘nature rule’, still less that human hubris has brought us to the brink of civilizational disaster, but that human ingenuity and organization alone has helped prevent a far worse catastrophe. What is all too often dismissed as ‘human hubris’ is in fact the very quality required, not just to protect us from the rage of nature, but also to help create a more civilized life.