Lessons of 3/11

The world marked on Sunday the first anniversary of the deadly March 11, 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan—with a grateful spirit and a resolve to do better in the next crisis. With gratefulness because the casualty count and the destruction could have been worse; and with resolve because humankind must learn from the catastrophe if only to minimize the number of deaths and the size of the damage in like calamities in the future.

Indeed, hope springs eternal. To some extent this is due to the remarkable resilience of the Japanese who, warts and all, have performed creditably to cope with the crisis, and who in fact have shown strength of character and formidable fortitude in the face of terrible adversity.

It is from the Japanese that Filipinos and the rest of the world should learn the lessons of disaster preparedness. The Philippines shares with Japan the element of wayward nature: Both countries lie in the Pacific Rim of Fire and are prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. As a result, Filipinos and Japanese share a certain fatalism. But while Filipinos stop at being fatalists, the Japanese have parlayed their fatalism into an almost manic obsession with safety and alertness: it’s not for nothing that the Japanese have been the first to develop seismic-coping technologies.

But of course, 3/11 has shown that even the best laid seismic warning system could not predict for sure nature and its vagaries. No earthquake warning system is foolproof. The 3/11 earthquake that hit northeastern Japan was the fifth largest in the world since 1900; its magnitude was 9. The last time an earthquake of such strength hit the plate boundary of Japan was 1,200 years ago.

Nor could the best and most expensive tsunami-coping technology prepare Japan for what the earthquake triggered. With the top speed of a tsunami calculated at 800 kilometers per hour, the normal cruising speed of a jetliner, there was only eight to 10 minutes for authorities to warn residents to flee. Before long, giant waves came rushing on land, engulfing whole townships. Some 20,000 people perished.

It could have been worse. The best emergency technology and scenario-setting hadn’t anticipated the worst: the multiple meltdowns of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. It spewed radiation into the surrounding soil, water and forests. It was the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.

Naoto Kan, the prime minister of Japan when the tsunami struck last year, now says that the very location of the nuclear plant was problematic. It was built close to the shore and about 10 meters above a coastline that had experienced numerous tsunamis over the centuries, including three within the last 120 years, all of them smaller than the one on March 11. That altitude of the power plant’s site was a level imposed by regulators and the utility operator. But the tsunami was at least 14 meters tall, knocking out the plant’s power as well as emergency generators in the basement areas of the reactor buildings, disabling their cooling systems and sending the active reactors into meltdowns. Moreover, in the interview with the Associated Press, Kan acknowledged flaws in the authorities’ handling of the crisis, including poor communication and coordination between nuclear regulators, utility officials and the government he headed. He said that the system obviously needed to be rethought and even overhauled.

But what has perhaps radically changed after the crisis is Japan’s attitude toward nuclear power. Kan said Japan needs to dramatically reduce its dependence on nuclear power, which supplied 30 percent of its electricity before the crisis. He himself, he added, has become a believer of renewable energy.

His successor, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, has also admitted that the government shared the blame for the Fukushima disaster, but appears to balk at the prospect of Japan totally rid of nuclear energy. Considering that Japan is dependent on power to fuel the third biggest economy in the world, Noda is understandably hesitant about Japan completely turning its back on nuclear power.

But for the Philippines, the lesson is clear: 3/11 has effectively silenced the calls for the activation of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. That’s one lesson that has been learned, along with the perennial need to be on alert mode like Japan which, by and large, is a fine example in disaster preparedness.