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Japanese Tsunami and Nuclear Accident -- Natural or Man-Made Disaster?

March 31, 2011 by Somebody Else

On March 11, 2011, Japan was rocked by the strongest earthquake experienced there within the last hundred years, and one of the most powerful in recorded human history. In addition to the extensive damage and destruction caused by the earthquake itself, a monstrous tsunami wave, generated by sudden and tremendous displacement on the seafloor, descended upon the Japanese coast and left in its wake a catastrophe of epic proportions, surpassed in recent history only by the Indonesian tsunami of 2004. Finally, nuclear reactor facilities in the area, heavily damaged by the earthquake, began to spew forth deadly gases.

There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that natural processes were to blame for the earthquake itself. Over time, pressure builds up between tectonic plates as they move against each other. Finally, a breaking point is reached, and the pressure is released with a burst of movement, producing an earthquake and subsequent aftershocks.

This has been going on for millions if not billions of years. It would be rather presumptuous of us to think that these geological processes must cease since we human beings have massively reproduced ourselves and now cover vast areas of the earth, many of which lie on top of seismic fault lines, such as in Japan. Should we react with shock and disbelief when the earth continues on with its customary geological processes as it has for endless eons? Well, of course we shouldn't, but when earthquakes strike and people die as a consequence, as has just occurred in Japan, many of us can't help but wonder why a supposedly loving God would allow something like this to happen to innocent people.

But if we take a closer look at the disaster, we realize that in all fairness we cannot blame God or even the earth and nature themselves for what happened. The painful truth is that the destruction of human life and property could actually have been avoided, and deep down inside, if we can get completely honest about it, we really know this. Actually, this has been a man-made tragedy in which nature has only played a passive role.

It is a natural tendency of human beings to take risks. The success of Las Vegas is ample testimony to this fact. Some risks that we take are reasonable. Others are madness, which brings Las Vegas to mind once again, I suppose. And more tragically, Japan.

We cannot expect nature to stop what she is doing and conform herself to our desires and expectations. We know that nuclear fission is a dangerous process with potentially deadly outcomes when things do not go according to plan, as happened at Chernobyl in 1986. The Japanese designed their nuclear reactors to withstand powerful earthquakes of up to 8.0 on the Richter scale. Such earthquakes are relatively rare. But this one was close to 9.0, the kind that might strike Japan every century or so. That sounds pretty remote until you remember that every century or so does not mean never. It could mean March 11, 2011.

Similarly, the Japanese knew very well that every century or so, a tsunami wave will devastate their coastline. Why build large communities right next to the ocean in areas that will be inundated beneath dozens of feet of onrushing water that smashes houses, destroys buildings, and indiscriminately extinguishes human lives? Why? Because people like to live next to the ocean for any number of reasons. And because that deadly tsunami wave will strike one of these days, but probably not tomorrow, and probably not the day after that, nor the day after that either. So, on they went with their lives, mostly unaware of the terrible and imminent disaster that awaited them, right up until the middle of the afternoon on March 11, 2011.

There are so many more other unacceptable risks that human beings take in this world. But the recent Japanese tragedy should certainly stand out in our minds as a particularly egregious example of such illogical risk taking. Taking into account the historically documented geological record of the area, and given the inevitability of what occurred, I would say that it goes beyond unacceptable risk and crosses the line into delusion.

The best way to prevent the horrible tragedy of those Japanese towns is to never rebuild them. Let nature reclaim them and let the people move further inland. Shut down the nuclear reactors and build ones that can withstand 10.0 earthquakes, or better yet, don't build any more nuclear reactors at all -- Chernobyl didn't need an earthquake, just a bit of simple human error. Finally, make sure that all Japanese buildings and homes can resist the worst kinds of regional earthquakes without significant loss of human life. Actually, the Japanese are probably already actively contemplating all of these measures, at least for the time being while the bodies of victims are being collected and the tears of loss and regret are still wet upon the faces of the survivors.

That's good, but it's too bad that it took the events of March 11, 2011 to get their attention. That's another tragic aspect of human nature. We tend not to learn from our mistakes until they have cost us dearly. And as the old saying goes, insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. I think that a large part of humanity is, in so many ways, certifiably insane in that regard.

So, for those reasons, I expect the Japanese nuclear reactors and the razed seaside towns and cities to be fully rebuilt soon. After all, the colossal earthquake and gargantuan tsunami just recently struck. When will the next ones come? In about a century or so. It will be one of these days, but probably not tomorrow, and probably not the day after that, nor the day after that either.

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