Hourly Japan ‘s tragedy grows almost beyond comprehension (3/16 Update: The head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said this afternoon that releases of radiation at Fukushima have been “extremely high” and that “could impact the ability to take corrective measures.”). There is universal empathy over the pain and
suffering being experienced, fear about impacts on Japan’s and the world’s
economy, and anxiety about releases of radiation. For those of us living in seismically
active coastal earthquake zones (me), or anyone living in the airshed of an
active nuclear facility (most of us), or
living downwind (the West Coast of the US and Canada), concerns are multiplied.
We must use this teachable moment to comprehensively
plan for climate change, energy availability and transformational natural
disasters. These multi-dimensional factors present non-linear problems bound up
together, a “wicked problem.”
The urban need for effective resilience planning has never
been more urgent or daunting. The Sendai Earthquake shattered existing risk models
with a 9.0 initial offshore earthquake, spawning a colossal tsunami from the
epicenter toward shore, resulting in a humanitarian crisis underpinned by now-uncontrolled
nuclear radiation releases.
Loss of life is rampant, and amongst survivors physical and
psychological suffering is acute.
Infrastructure, communications, trains, subways, roads,
energy, soil, air, water, and food are all impacted in terms of delivery, quality
and supply. People are wisely cloistered indoors, but getting basic supplies
will become the next concern for survival even before the radiation leaks subside.
In terms of global economic fallout, supply chains are getting hit, (microcontrollers,
airplanes, and the automotive and electronics sectors,
impacting global trade at least for the year.
Trend: World supply of renewables are being recalculated and
Nuclear has lost its dubious “renewable” status
permanently. Anything that makes land and resources unusable and dangerous for
years should not qualify as a first solution. But with coal use likely peaking
as an energy source and because its threat to climate, we are forced to consider nuclear
as an energy option.
Trend: Need for New Nuclear Power Plant Criteria
Earthquake, and Cat 3 to 5 hurricane and typhoon zones
should be taken off the global list of available nuclear energy generation sites. Nuclear needs a complete re-examination in
terms of lifecycle energy costs (how much energy is used in mining uranium and
other material) as well as lifecycle radiation risks.
Trend: Nuclear won’t be Dismissed Outright
Considering the increase in the cities of the developing world
(China, India) and their need for energy–it will be almost impossible to
dismiss nuclear as an energy source, unless some very massive leapfrog
technology comes along. We’re stuck with most of the nuclear plants we have,
at least for now. Plants should be
scrutinized, even temporarily or permanently closed if they can’t be run with “Post-Fukushima” confidence. Germany is doing just
that to its older nuclear plants. The EU is stress testing more than 100 of its nuclear plants, according to the American Public Media show Marketplace.
France, the world’s leading nuclear economy, doesn’t get major
temblors or tropical storms. China, on the
other hand, has massive fault zones. Southeast China, like the southeast US,
also hosts its version of Hurricane Alley in its Pearl River Delta region.
China has 13 plants up and running with 20 in planning stages, many in severe
typhoon and earthquake risk areas (3/16 Update: China announced it was at least for now suspending the 37 nuclear plants it had in construction or planning stages.)
The challenge for urban planning agencies in the
Pacific Rim: cities are more likely to be coastal, putting them at heightened
risks for Pacific earthquake zones as well as climate change risks. The rising average
ocean levels resulting from melting polar ice caps will only make tsunamis
and flood events worse. The West Coast of the US dodged a bullet when the tsunami from Japan hit at
low tide: still, California alone had more than $30 million in tsunami damage
Sea level rises will exacerbate the damage caused by tsunamis, and will also increase
sea water intrusion into drinking water supplies and fresh water ecosystems. About 1.6 million households in Japan were without water as of 3/18.
Distributed Energy, Communications, Transportation and Radiation
Energy: Solar, biogas and fuel cell technologies will gain as
they can be used on or near where they generate energy, providing energy
supplies even after disasters take down the power grid. Distributed forms of
energy require only local transmission lines, which can be repaired quickly.
Wind energy relies more on national grid energy transmission networks (though as
the most affordable major renewable energy supply, wind demands a share of the energy pie). Because
of transmission risks, coal plants will decline, even if “clean coal” is
perfected, let alone invented. Electricity supply is spotty from Tokyo north. Tokyo faces six months of brownouts, or reduced power because of the nuclear crisis (nuclear provides the nation with 30% of its total electric power).
Communications: Cellular telephone service in Japan was severely disrupted,
not so for land lines and internet communications. The recommendation according
to the US Department of State: “Where
possible, you may be able to contact family members using text messages or
social media such as Facebook or Twitter.” Of course that means email, chat,
Skype, Vonage, etc. work in Japan, too.
Mobility: Trains and subways are back up in the Tokyo Metro, after being mostly down for a few
days, as they are the lifeblood of urban Japanese life. The northeast region,
however, is physically cut off from the urban spine of Tokyo. My Japan
sources, Eric and Ken, tell me the regions should be able to be linked with
cycling, if the right bikes are used (mountain or cruiser tires). I got around
after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989
with an old Fisher (pre “Gary”), and was even regularly able to clamber with
that bike down a post-earthquake four-foot San Andreas Fault road drop on State
Highway One, on cliffs above the Pacific. Though Highway One north was not reopened to
cars for over a year, it still provided cyclists safe passage between West
Radiation: When the French, the planet’s reigning nuclear
experts, tell their people to flee Tokyo and then the US warships evacuate,
you know things are critical. Tuesday nuclear plant overflights for aircraft were
banned and, more disturbingly, operators may have been forced by events to abandon nuclear plant control rooms.
Besides the immediate risks to health, the big unknown risks
jeopardize land, infrastructure and food. How will Japan safely assess radiation
levels and then make a go/ no go decision for what’s inhabitable or edible? How
will that information be conveyed to the international community? Already the
US has made multiple requests that Japan release more data on its basic air radiation levels. (Update: in the first break of policy with Japan, the US today, 3/16, has set an evacuation zone of 50 miles for US citizens versus a Japanese zone of 12 miles.)
Imagine the complexity of trying to obtain,
analyze and effectively communicate radiation levels in soil, water, food and
Overall, Japan has remained stoic, calm, and orderly for which its
leaders and people should be greatly commended. There have been no reports of looting or price gouging. Now may we all breathe carefully, take
stock of the lessons that emerge, and plan for a world of new forces and
We should take heed from Japan. Its situation at present may
seem unbelievably hellish, but it could demonstrate for the world how to face
not only natural disasters that rightfully grab headlines, but also how to deal
with the forces that will always lurk in the background: climate change and
energy supply volatility.
Image: Associated Press via The CityFix
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to
the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and