March 2011 Archives


Hourly Japan 's tragedy grows almost beyond comprehension (3/16 Update: The head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said this afternoon that releases of radiation at Fukushima have been "extremely high" and that "could impact the ability to take corrective measures."). There is universal empathy over the pain and suffering being experienced, fear about impacts on Japan's and the world's economy, and anxiety about releases of radiation. For those of us living in seismically active coastal earthquake zones (me), or anyone living in the airshed of an active nuclear facility (most of us), or living downwind (the West Coast of the US and Canada), concerns are multiplied.  

We must use this teachable moment to comprehensively plan for climate change, energy availability and transformational natural disasters. These multi-dimensional factors present non-linear problems bound up together, a "wicked problem."

The urban need for effective resilience planning has never been more urgent or daunting. The Sendai Earthquake shattered existing risk models with a 9.0 initial offshore earthquake, spawning a colossal tsunami from the epicenter toward shore, resulting in a humanitarian crisis underpinned by now-uncontrolled nuclear radiation releases.

Loss of life is rampant, and amongst survivors physical and psychological suffering is acute. 

All grids are down, no transportation, communications or energy are available in impact zones. Yet, the modest bicycle has emerged triumphant from the chaos in Tokyo and beyond

Infrastructure, communications, trains, subways, roads, energy, soil, air, water, and food are all impacted in terms of delivery, quality and supply. People are wisely cloistered indoors, but getting basic supplies will become the next concern for survival even before the radiation leaks subside.

In terms of global economic fallout, supply chains are getting hit, (microcontrollers, airplanes, and the automotive and electronics sectors, impacting global trade at least for the year.

Trend: World supply of renewables are being recalculated and redefined

Nuclear has lost its dubious "renewable" status permanently. Anything that makes land and resources unusable and dangerous for years should not qualify as a first solution. But with coal use likely peaking as an energy source and because its threat to climate, we are forced to consider nuclear as an energy option.

Trend: Need for New Nuclear Power Plant Criteria

Earthquake, and Cat 3 to 5 hurricane and typhoon zones should be taken off the global list of available nuclear energy generation sites. Nuclear needs a complete re-examination in terms of lifecycle energy costs (how much energy is used in mining uranium and other material) as well as lifecycle radiation risks.

Trend: Nuclear won't be Dismissed Outright

Considering the increase in the cities of the developing world (China, India) and their need for energy--it will be almost impossible to dismiss nuclear as an energy source, unless some very massive leapfrog technology comes along. We're stuck with most of the nuclear plants we have, at least for now. Plants should be scrutinized, even temporarily or permanently closed if they can't be run with "Post-Fukushima" confidence. Germany is doing just that to its older nuclear plants. The EU is stress testing more than 100 of its nuclear plants, according to the American Public Media show Marketplace.

France, the world's leading nuclear economy, doesn't get major temblors or tropical storms.  China, on the other hand, has massive fault zones. Southeast China, like the southeast US, also hosts its version of Hurricane Alley in its Pearl River Delta region. China has 13 plants up and running with 20 in planning stages, many in severe typhoon and earthquake risk areas (3/16 Update: China announced it was at least for now suspending the 37 nuclear plants it had in construction or planning stages.)

The challenge for urban planning agencies in the Pacific Rim: cities are more likely to be coastal, putting them at heightened risks for Pacific earthquake zones as well as climate change risks. The rising average ocean levels resulting from melting polar ice caps will only make tsunamis and flood events worse. The West Coast of the US dodged a bullet when the tsunami from Japan hit at low tide: still, California alone had more than $30 million in tsunami damage last week. Sea level rises will exacerbate the damage caused by tsunamis, and will also increase sea water intrusion into drinking water supplies and fresh water ecosystems. About 1.6 million households in Japan were without water as of 3/18.

Distributed Energy, Communications, Transportation and Radiation

Energy: Solar, biogas and fuel cell technologies will gain as they can be used on or near where they generate energy, providing energy supplies even after disasters take down the power grid. Distributed forms of energy require only local transmission lines, which can be repaired quickly. Wind energy relies more on national grid energy transmission networks (though as the most affordable major renewable energy supply, wind demands a share of the energy pie). Because of transmission risks, coal plants will decline, even if "clean coal" is perfected, let alone invented. Electricity supply is spotty from Tokyo north. Tokyo faces six months of brownouts, or reduced power because of the nuclear crisis (nuclear provides the nation with 30% of its total electric power).

Communications: Cellular telephone service in Japan was severely disrupted, not so for land lines and internet communications. The recommendation according to the US Department of State:  "Where possible, you may be able to contact family members using text messages or social media such as Facebook or Twitter." Of course that means email, chat, Skype, Vonage, etc. work in Japan, too.

Mobility: Trains and subways are back up in the Tokyo Metro, after being mostly down for a few days, as they are the lifeblood of urban Japanese life. The northeast region, however, is physically cut off from the urban spine of Tokyo. My Japan sources, Eric and Ken, tell me the regions should be able to be linked with cycling, if the right bikes are used (mountain or cruiser tires). I got around after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 with an old Fisher (pre "Gary"), and was even regularly able to clamber with that bike down a post-earthquake four-foot San Andreas Fault road drop on State Highway One, on cliffs above the Pacific. Though Highway One north was not reopened to cars for over a year, it still provided cyclists safe passage between West Marin-San Francisco.

Radiation: When the French, the planet's reigning nuclear experts, tell their people to flee Tokyo and then the US warships evacuate, you know things are critical. Tuesday nuclear plant overflights for aircraft were banned and, more disturbingly, operators may have been forced by events to abandon nuclear plant control rooms

Besides the immediate risks to health, the big unknown risks jeopardize land, infrastructure and food. How will Japan safely assess radiation levels and then make a go/ no go decision for what's inhabitable or edible? How will that information be conveyed to the international community? Already the US has made multiple requests that Japan release more data on its basic air radiation levels(Update: in the first break of policy with Japan, the US today, 3/16, has set an evacuation zone of 50 miles for US citizens versus a Japanese zone of 12 miles.)

Imagine the complexity of trying to obtain, analyze and effectively communicate radiation levels in soil, water, food and products.

Overall, Japan has remained stoic, calm, and orderly for which its leaders and people should be greatly commended. There have been no reports of looting or price gouging. Now may we all breathe carefully, take stock of the lessons that emerge, and plan for a world of new forces and constraints.

We should take heed from Japan. Its situation at present may seem unbelievably hellish, but it could demonstrate for the world how to face not only natural disasters that rightfully grab headlines, but also how to deal with the forces that will always lurk in the background: climate change and energy supply volatility.

Image: Associated Press via The CityFix

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of a forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and management.     


About the Author

    Warren Karlenzig
Warren Karlenzig, Common Current founder and president, has worked with the United Nations (lead co-author United Nations Shanghai Manual: A Guide to Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century, 2011); the provinces of Guizhou and Guangdong, China (urban sustainability master planning and green city standards); the United States White House and Environmental Protection Agency (Eco-Industrial Park planning and Industrial Ecology primer); the nation of South Korea ("New Cities Green Metrics"); The European Union ("Green and Connected Cities Initiative"); the State of California ("Comprehensive Recycling Communities" and "Sustainable Community Plans"); major cities; and the world's largest corporations developing sustainability policy, strategy, financing and critical operational capacities for 20 years. Read more here.

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from March 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

February 2011 is the previous archive.

April 2011 is the next archive.

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