Kaifukuryoku (回 復力) is the Japanese word for resilience. For many in Japan, resilience has become a a way of life, a goal that has driven one of the most advanced efforts at planning for disasters in the world.
The word tsunami is also Japanese, originating in their long familiarity of living on the knife edge of disaster, wedged between volcanoes, faultlines, typhoons, and the vastness of the Pacific ocean.
Yet, the three disasters Japan is grappling with today are showing the limits of resilience and industrial societies.
Buildings in Japan are subject to incredible standards for flexibility and strength, to survive the earthquakes that threaten cities. Mt. Fuji has incredible lava channels and barriers built to protect Tokyo from an eruption. Volcano, typhoon, and earthquake monitoring systems are linked to alarms that can be activated to warn citizens to seek shelter and/or higher ground.
These all saved lives. Yet, now as Japan should be mobilizing all its resources to feed, house, and evacuate citizens who have been impacted by this terrible disaster, it is mobilizing to prevent and third and possibly worst disaster, a nuclear catastrophe.
Numerous nuclear reactors have suffered explosions or loss of cooling systems, and three are at risk of melt downs. Radiation has already been released and much more is likely to contaminate the area and population. The resources that could be going into helping those struggling to survive post-tsunami are needed to evacuate citizens from around nuclear plants that are on the verge of total disaster.
Of the three disasters that Japan faces, while they planned and prepared for resilience to natural disasters, their reliance on nuclear energy is threatening the lives and safety of their citizens.
As a former resident of Japan, I can only imagine what is happening there as these disasters unfold but every update seems almost unreal. Yet, it is real, and as the plants have exploded, commentators have focused on how plants may be vulnerable because they are older, that new plants may be safer, or that this is only a risk due to the tsunami. These concerns are almost besides the point, because fundamentally, reliance on centralized, dangerous power sources is something we cannot afford in a modern and more disaster-prone world.
The United State rebuilt its infrastructure in two dramatic examples to defend against the catastrophic threat of nuclear war. The Interstate Highway system and the Internet were originally designed as distributed systems, where resources, people, or information could move regardless of if individual elements went down. Railroads were seen as a risk, as one interruption meant that the entire system would breakdown and the internet could move data even if one part was damaged.
However, we never designed our power system for resilience and we are still relying on outmoded and dangerous power plants that threaten communities around them with either radiation or air toxics. These plants are top targets for terrorists, they are vulnerable to natural disasters like earthquakes, flooding, and their power lines are go down after hurricanes, sleet, or even just a bad storm. Fundamentally, for all the talk of homeland security, we never seem to actually try and make things safe.
One of the biggest advantages of clean energy is that it is disaster insurance. Investing in clean energy is not just a preventative measure against threats like global warming, oil spills, nuclear meltdowns, or oil price shocks, it also is infrastructure that can increase our resilience.
When the power goes down, people struggle to heat their homes in the winter or cool them in summer, hospitals fire up generators to keep their patients alive, communications to coordinate search and rescue becomes more difficult. Distributed clean energy technologies, such as solar power, community co-generation, windpower, combined with high performance buildings can transform a society to be a model of resilience, one able to protect their population.
Clean energy has been advocated for its environmental benefits, the creation of green jobs, and the foreign policy benefits. The greatest value of a clean energy powered economy might be its contribution to resilience, safety, and human security.