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Four lessons from Japan

March 18, 2011 |  6:13 am


If you've missed the Opinion pages this week, here's a roundup of four Op-Eds offering lessons from Japan's devastating tsunami and earthquake. Basically, we need to rethink nuclear energy; prepare for the big one; prepare for a tsunami; or move to part of the country without a nearby fault or an ocean.

Nuclear energy isn't cheap or clean or accident-free

Although it is true that serious accidents at nuclear plants are few and far between, it is also true that the consequences of such accidents are potentially catastrophic. Even for strong advocates of the nuclear industry, therefore, it is foolish to ignore avoidable risks — such as locating a reactor in a seismically active region or, as in the case of Diablo Canyon, assuming that engineering can eliminate any possibility of a seismically induced accident.

Once again, the debate has begun about the role of this uniquely dangerous technology in our global fight against climate change — whether this latest failure in "fail-safe" nuclear reactor safety systems disqualifies nuclear energy from a growing role in cleaning up fossil-fuel pollution as we transition to a clean energy future, a future based on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green jobs. Neither the nuclear industry nor the commission has done enough over the years to inspire public confidence. Nuclear energy isn't cheap or clean or accident-free, and, for the relentless claims to the contrary, the credibility of nuclear utilities and the NRC has taken a beating.

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--Joel R. Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Southern California program of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

We need to take the warnings from Japan seriously

Despite the catastrophic effects that the quake had on Japan, it could have been far worse. Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, and it has better building codes and better civic preparedness than just about any other nation. The Japanese take their earthquakes very seriously and do far more drills and inspections than Californians. Yet even some of their earthquake-resistant structures could not survive the shaking of a quake this big, just as their buildings and overpasses failed catastrophically during the 1995 earthquake in Kobe. From all accounts, there were adequate tsunami warnings in most regions, but those people closest to the offshore earthquake had almost no time to react or flee, and there was nothing they could do when the huge waves swept inland carrying big fishing boats and tons of debris.

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--Donald R. Prothero is a professor of geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and a lecturer in geobiology at Caltech. His latest book is "Catastrophes! Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Tornadoes, and other Earth-Shattering Disasters."

We need to prepare for a potential tsunami

Great strides have been made in the technological and natural science aspects of tsunamis; however, there is still much to be learned from the social sciences about how to motivate people to change their behavior and to prepare for rare but inevitable tsunamis. An effective warning system is not solely technological; it includes efforts of agencies at multiple levels to improve our understanding of tsunami risk, educate officials and the public on what can be done now to prepare, and train individuals to educate others in their communities about tsunami safety.

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--Nathan Wood is a research geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey, an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior. He was a member of a recent National Research Council committee to review the nation's tsunami preparedness.

We need to take responsibility for our choices

We may choose to build nuclear power plants, or we may choose a view of today's lapping waves over worries about tomorrow's tsunami, but let's not kid ourselves about who's responsible for our choices and their consequences. Words like "murderous" and "unfriendly" place the blame on nature, when nature is blameless. If blame must be placed, let us appropriately assume it ourselves.

We decided to build towns on the beach and cities on the faults; we created the complex web of power-hungry machines that require ever more energy. After that honest and mindful reckoning, let us stockpile resources and make evacuation plans and fund more disaster response agencies, even as we take a long, hard, soul-searching look at our insistence on hauling out experts to justify bad ideas (e.g., building nuclear power plants near major fault zones) whenever they serve our short-term priorities.

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--Fenton Johnson's most recent book is "Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks."


Nuclear power: The end, or a new beginning?

Evaluating the risk of nuclear power plants

Economy: The other fallout from Japan

--Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: A man looks around a devastated area hit by earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Credit: Kim Kyung-hoon / Reuters

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