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|Prepare for a backlash against nuclear power|
The Times - March 14th 2011
It is no coincidence that the internationally accepted word for a wave caused by an earthquake is the Japanese tsunami, formed from the characters for harbour and wave, nor that even the old, historic temples that you might have visited there as a tourist have been rebuilt many times over the centuries.
In many such disasters, the initial estimates of casualties prove too high, as it is so hard to keep track of people amid the resulting chaos. As the 2004 earthquake and tsunami off
That looks sure to happen in
There is an awkward sense of relativism in our response to disasters: we are even more horrified by an event like this in Japan than, say, by the estimated 250,000 deaths caused by the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, or the 70,000 in China’s Sichuan province in 2008. But after all, Japan is a country more like ours than is Haiti—modern, developed, industrialised—one in which we do not expect tens of thousands of people suddenly to die during an ordinary March afternoon. It challenges our sense of security, of the protections that affluence appears to bring us.
What, though, might be the consequences for the 120m Japanese and for the world from what the Japanese prime minister,
There will, of course, be huge disruption to economic activity in the short term, especially as some of the country’s nuclear power stations are shut down. But such economic effects will be temporary. Just as after Hurricane Katrina devastated
Much more important will be the psychological, political and cultural effects.
That does not, though, mean that in what Prime Minister Kan called the “new
The story of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant is still unfolding, so it is too soon to judge which way the facts will really lean. So far, at least if the government and the power-plant operator are to be believed, the leakage of radiation has been tiny, and reported problems at a second plant, Onagawa, are insignificant. If it stays that way, then a strictly rational response would be that this extraordinary episode has shown how safe nuclear power can be: hit by the worst earthquake in
It is not enough to point out, as the electric power companies have done, that this earthquake was exceptionally powerful. Safety measures and government regulations are, or ought to be, designed to deal with exceptional cases and to prevent them from leading to catastrophes. Still, if they do prevent a catastrophe then other countries, especially those like
The trouble is that at such times the response is unlikely to be simply rational. And in
So, already scared and shaken by the quake and the tsunami, the Japanese are likely to be in a defensive and distrusting mood about the nuclear dangers. There can be little doubt: plans to expand the share of
In political terms, though, the black cloud of this disaster will surely have a silver lining.
A deeper psychological or cultural worry must be that while the Japanese will now bind closer together in order to rebuild and recover, they might also become more detached from the rest of the world. Wartime defeat sent
One symptom of that has been a decline in the number of young Japanese going abroad to study or to work. The danger now is that the earthquake and tsunami will reinforce that tendency, amid a natural preoccupation with domestic problems and tasks, cutting