The world we live in is a dangerous place. Witness the horrific toll that earthquakes have taken in the last decade. The earthquake in Japan will likely be the 7th one in the past decade to kill more than 10,000 people. The total fatalities from these 7 earthquakes will exceed 700,000 lives in less than 10 years. Most of these events are quickly forgotten by those that see a few images on the news and then it is forgotten within a a week or two. Some of them are remembered longer. To refresh your memory here is the list of the 7 deadliest earthquakes in the last decade.
- Gujarat, India: January 26, 2001. – 7.6 magnitude.
- Iran: December 26th, 2003. – 6.6 magnitude.
- Sumatra: December 26th, 2004 – 9.1 magnitude.
- Pakistan: October 8th, 2005 - 7.6 magnitude.
- Sichuan, China: May 12th, 2008 - 7.9 magnitude.
- Haiti: January 12th, 2010 - 7.0 magnitude.
- Tohoku, Japan: March 11th, 2011 – 9.0 magnitude
Since the scale for earthquakes has a logarithmic for the energy released, the difference is that a 9.0 magnitude releases 1000 times more energy than a 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
The latest Japanese earthquake released more energy than the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. This earthquake is of the few times in a century scale. The Lisbon earthquake in 1755 was identical in scale to the latest Japanese one and it the study of that earthquake more than 250 years ago was the first truly scientific study of the behavior of a major earthquake.
Despite the incredible power of this latest earthquake, most of the damage and death was from the tsunami that quickly followed. In one of the strongest earthquakes to take place near a heavily populated area, the strictly designed and followed building codes made an enormous difference in saving lives. The damage was from the enormous waves, not the collapse of buildings. While the event is a terrible one, it also shows just how important it is to build with the a realistic expectation that these events will always happen.
Another example of this was the strongest earthquake in the past 100 years that happened in Chile. It struck in 1960 and its magnitude was a 9.5. It generated local tsunamis that exceeded 11m in height. The tsunami was over 30 ft high in Hawaii which is 6,000 miles away. The buildings that were designed to be earthquake resistant survived enough to save many lives.
In a sad way, each earthquake better prepares mankind for the future earthquakes. It would be nice if such lessons were not needed, but the reality is that new understanding of how to prepare and prevent the worst damage is learned from what fails in each earthquake. Such is the current situation in Japan.
The buildings held up for the most part, that is until the waves arrived. I am not sure what solutions will be devised to minimize the tsunamis of the future, but solutions will be found and they will be put into place where the threat is greatest. People can learn and improve from these events, or they can chose not to learn.
The same lessons that have been learned to reduce the damage from earthquakes will also be used in the future for nuclear power. There has been a torrent of fear about the use of nuclear power by those that have always opposed nuclear power. The prevention in the current crisis in Japan was maddeningly simple. If the backup generators that provided cooling water had been protected from the tsunami, there would not be the current crisis. The plant shutdown exactly the way it should have, but the diesel generators that should have easily functioned, failed after a short time. The irony is that the nuclear danger now was caused by the problems in a fossil fuel generator.
That the containment structure, reactors and facilities handled an earthquake of a 9.0 magnitude is an engineering marvel. Much will be learned from this problem in Japan, but consider that what the nuclear plant has been through is about as worst case as possible. One of the largest earthquakes in 100 years followed shortly be an enormous tsunami. If the backup generators had been high enough above the tsunami, the problem would never have developed.
The dangers of a significant radiation leak still exists so I will not say that the crisis has been averted, but in the future the need for nuclear power is evident. Imagine the consequences of such and earthquake and tsunami on a country that depended on solar and wind power. Both of these sources require vast areas of land to generate the power that a single small nuclear power plant does. The cost is also many times higher. If a significant fraction of the solar panels and wind turbines were destroyed (which is very possible and likely) by a comparable earthquake, it could be years before the damaged capacity was replaced. Does anyone really think that a sea based wind farm could survive a 10m tsunami?
Surviving in the dangerous world requires learning from these events. The safety of nuclear power plants will improve as a result of what is learned from the crisis in Japan. If we fail to learn from it, then the loss of life will only be repeated in the future. If we let fear rule our decisions, then we will learn nothing.
Here are some write-ups about the entire even that I consider well worth the read, but didn’t fit into the article very well.