Japan’s magnificent resilience

Japan, including its nuclear industry, has shown magnificent resilience in the wake of the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

The widespread failure to recognise this achievement is a sad testament to the prevalence of miserabilism and pessimism in western societies.

A charitable explanation for this lack of understanding might be that most of the commentators on the crisis do not understand the basic facts. An earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale is almost unimaginably huge.

Few seem to realise that the Richter scale is logarithmic. In practice this means that an apparently small move up the scale signals a huge increase in the power of a quake. According to the US Geological Survey, “each whole number step in the magnitude scale corresponds to the release of about 31 times more energy than the amount associated with the preceding whole number value”.

This means that Japan’s Tohoku quake, at 9.0, was almost 1,000 times (31 x 31) more powerful than the quake that devastated Haiti last year. Yet the Haiti quake killed 50,000 people by the most conservative estimates, and the figure could have been as high as 300,000, whereas the likely maximum of Japanese casualties is 14,000.

Of course Japan is a much richer country than Haiti – but that is the point. Wealthier countries are in a better position to use technology to help protect themselves against the force of nature. Although such protection cannot be absolute it can go a long way towards protecting human life. (Blog continues below)

Britain inadvertently provides another example to illustrate Japan’s resilience in the face of adversity. Not long ago the country had huge problems dealing with a few centimetres of snow. Airports were even closed for lack of de-icing equipment. The bad weather was also blamed for 0.5 percentage points of the 0.6% fall in GDP in the final quarter of 2010. Yet the scale of the challenge is far smaller than that facing Japan.

Considering the extent of the devastation in Japan, the obsession with the problems facing nuclear reactors is churlish. It should only be seen as a minor part in a much larger story of suffering and fortitude.

Any balanced discussion of the nuclear question should conclude that the reactors performed incredibly well under difficult circumstances. Considering the power of the forces they have had to face it is remarkable that they are largely intact. The likely casualties also look set to be a tiny proportion of the overall numbers killed.

Today the Japanese authorities upgraded their assessment of the core damage at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor to level five on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). This is defined as “an accident with wider consequences” which can involve, among other things, several deaths from radiation. It is on a par with the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the release of radioactive material in Windscale, since renamed Sellafield, in Britain in 1957.  The 1986 Chernobyl explosion was, in contrast, at a maximum seven on the scale.

It should be remembered that other forms of power generation could have suffered damage with equivalent or worse consequences. Giant wind turbines washed away by the force of the tsunami or coal-fired power stations destroyed by the earthquake could also have posed substantial and possibly lethal challenges.

There can be no better illustration of the pervasiveness of contemporary pessimism than the response to the tragedy of the Tohoku earthquake. Under tremendously difficult circumstances Japan showed incredible resilience. It should be seen as an inspiration to move even further towards improving the ability of humanity to curb the destructive power of nature.