A year that began with uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, tsunami-like flooding in Australia and massive mudslides in Brazil, shows no signs of easing up. From Christchurch’s pulverizing earthquake to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s scorched-earth policy and the escalating disaster in Japan, the world is being rocked on a daily basis. Old certainties can no longer be relied upon.
What is clear is that new standards are now required — in disaster preparedness, in damage-proofing nuclear power stations, in accountability both on the part of government and private industry and in the public’s expectations of themselves. While it is not possible to guarantee against every possibility, much more can be done and the last thing that is needed is bland reassurance from governments, whether in Japan, Taiwan, the US, Egypt, China or elsewhere.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) on Thursday held what he said would be a series of daily National Security Council meetings in response to the situation in Japan and promised to think ahead and provide the public with vital information.
We must “be honest about what we know and what we don’t know,” he said.
Yet honesty is often the first thing eliminated when dealing with a crisis. After all — in the midst of the almost hourly litany of bad news coming out of Japan — the Tokyo Electric Power Co has continued to hedge on the extent of the damage to and danger from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex.
While we might question why it took almost a full week for Ma to convene the security council — especially since he said the decision-making process should be fast and decisive — we can applaud his willingness to be proactive. We can also demand that he keep his word.
There have been calls this week for Taiwan’s three nuclear power plants to suspend operations. The Atomic Energy Council and Taiwan Power Co have responded by saying the plants could withstand earthquakes of a magnitude of 6.0 or 7.0. That might have been good enough before, but the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex was also built to withstand a maximum magnitude of 7.0 — even though the Kanto earthquake of 1923 was magnitude 8.3 and the 1995 Kobe quake was magnitude 7.2.
Old scenarios will no longer suffice. So what can be done to shore up our plants to withstand a magnitude 9.0 quake? When the council was asked if Japan’s crisis would prompt it to upgrade safety standards for Taiwan’s plants, the council’s minister said it was studying the possibility. While that may have been an honest answer, more study is not the solution.
From the 921 Earthquake to Typhoon Morakot, there have been calls for a national disaster preparedness agency instead of the ad-hoc emergency response task forces that are set up for each natural disaster. Yes, Japan is undergoing a multiple worst-case scenario, but that is exactly why ad-hoc task forces should be seen as obsolete. It is time to demand expertise — and then follow the advice.
We don’t have to look at Japan to see what can happen when expert advice goes unheeded. As author Germaine Greer wrote in the Guardian, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said in June last year that La Nina would dump “buckets” on the country after 10 years of drought, and yet so many people were still surprised at the extent and savagery of the flooding that devastated large swathes of Queensland.
The message in the plethora of bad news is that we must expect the unexpected and prepare for the worst. It’s a message that too many elected officials and members of the public don’t want to hear; they are more comfortable with platitudes. However, platitudes don’t have any place in this new world of ours.
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