Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What India can learn from Japan's natural and nuclear disasters

Nuclear power plants are not as safe as we think--but that may be the least of our worries

As the earthquake-tsunami in Japan threatens to transform itself from a natural disaster into a nuclear one, many people are asking themselves what this all means for those of us in India. I think we can draw two simple lessons.

1. Nuclear power is obviously not as safe as we've been told. I know you are reading reassuring reports in the media designed to keep us from worrying about nuclear safety. But anyone who followed the incident last year when radioactive trash ended up in a west Delhi scrap market knows the authorities are simply not capable of monitoring the nuclear industry effectively. If you consider all the problems we have with toxics generally, this won't really come as a surprise, but sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious. Calls for increased monitoring are wonderful, but the watchdogs simply don't have the resources to make those calls meaningful. 

The Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) is right to call for a moratorium on  nuclear power plant construction, as is Avaaz, which is opposing the Jaitapur nu clear plant with this petition. Anyone who wants more info can also read what Kafila has on the subject.

2. Earthquake-safe housing may be even more urgent than the nuclear power plant issue. I don't want to take away attention from the nuclear issue. But let's not forget that most people die in earthquakes because they are crushed by unsafe buildings. Japan's quake would have been much, much deadlier had they not had relatively safe housing. We, on the other hand, do not have relatively safe housing: fatal building collapses due to heavy rains are far too common in Delhi and other major Indian cities. 

Given that, and given the damage caused by many recent earthquakes, one can hardly imagine the devastation that could result if a major earthquake hit a large Indian city. Consider two recent quakes, neither of which triggered a monsoon, and both of which were much, much smaller than the one that hit Japan last week.  The 2001 quake in Gujarat, killed about 20,000 people; the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, killed nearly 80,000. If you add "Delhi" or some other big city to that idea, you won't sleep well tonight.

Inexpensive earthquake safe housing is not beyond our reach.  In fact, it is a necessity.  Need I say more?

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