I write this following news of the many-layered disaster in Japan. At the point I am writing, the literal dust has settled but the metaphorical dust remains hovering in the air in the confusion. The literal fallout from the nuclear reactor has been gauged and thankfully found under control, but the metaphorical fallout is just beginning. In trying to write about the situation it is striking how many clichéd metaphors have to be avoided because of their literal relevance. It is perhaps a sign of the scale of the tragedy when what is usually the language of exaggeration (“open the floodgates”, “go nuclear”) fits the facts.

When disaster strikes there is always a pregnant pause while the world watches and the commentariat suspends their rational brains as they engage with the situation. Radical intellectual Naomi Klein is eloquent on the risks of governments using that pause of reason to push though radical agendas before the bloggers, the columnists and the public intellectuals have processed the situation. She warns us to be wary of big changes made while nations are reeling. That period is now ending and the thought process beginning. It is not known as I sit at my computer now what the big discussions will be about in the coming weeks, let alone what conclusions will be drawn, what changes made.

There are two areas to follow closely from a climate change perspective. The most obvious is the future of nuclear power. With the British government pushing the nuclear option hard in recent months, the events at Fukushima may radically shift both public and expert opinion.

Fukushima No.1 plant exploded twice more today. Radiation has risen to dangerous levels

At the point of writing there has just been a third blast at the No. 2 reactor and concerns about radiation are now at the front of everyone’s mind. Michael White on the Guardian website is arguing that if “the underlying lesson of Fukushima will turn out to be that, even after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, nuclear plants – 40-year-old nuclear plants – can be built that survive, more or less in tact. Touch wood.” One suspects this will not be the only side of the argument to emerge in the next few days. Germany is one of several countries to be already seriously rethinking its approach to nuclear power.

Perhaps the less obvious conversation this may shift is the conversation about hazard management. Let me first clarify some terms: a hazard is a potentially risky event, like an earthquake in a crowded area. A disaster is what happens if this turns into a humanitarian catastrophe. This need not be the case: where Hurricane Katrina is widely considered to have been disastrously managed, Cuba survived the onslaught of a Hurricane Ivan (which, like Katrina, reached category 5 status but struck while at category 3 size), relatively unscathed the year before. In the area of climate change adaptation, good disaster management practice is understood as key to reducing the impacts of the increased likelihood of hurricanes, floods and heatwaves that we can expect as a result.

What happened in Japan, however, was unusual: in fact Japan has often been seen as excellent at earthquake management. This BBC news story from back in 2003 praises that ability effusively. The problem here was that two disasters struck in rapid succession. A plan for one, or even both, falls apart when hit by two in combination. The best example of this is the nuclear power station’s unit 1, where disaster struck first. When the earthquake hit, the plants all shut down, leaving hot fuel (uranium) needing to be cooled. This should have been happened using an electric water pump. The power-cut, however, knocked out this option. The backup system was a diesel pump that would have taken over successfully had it not been for the Tsunami shortly afterwards, which is thought to have disabled it. The second backup system, the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling system is battery-powered, and continues to supply water for as long as its batteries last: eight hours. Normally this would be enough to get power back up. In this situation things are more complicated. (See the reports by the Union of Concerned Scientists for detail.)

It is difficult to know what kinds of multiple-layered hazards may strike as the impacts of climate change become more serious. Some, like agricultural failure, may be more gradual. Imagine, however, a scenario let’s say in the U.S.A. where heat-waves damage food supplies in the country and heat the towns, rising sea-levels drive people from coastal cities and together lead to overcrowding and civil unrest in inland cities. If a hurricane, or a non-climate related hazard like an earthquake then strikes, the potential for disaster is huge, and the need for complex, well-funded and well-integrated disaster planning becomes key.

The detailed lessons for disaster management will be one of many areas to watch as the aftermath of the crisis plays out. This combination of earthquake and tsunami was, sadly, fairly predictable: geologists know where the fault lines are and know that earthquakes cause tsunamis. If this situation was not adequately accounted for, what about stranger combinations of hazards?

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