It has been four years since Japan was hit with the most powerful earthquake in its recorded history.
In March of 2011, just 45 miles east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku, a 9.0 magnitude undersea megathrust earthquake triggered a wave of destruction unlike anything in Japan’s recorded memory. The quake and subsequent tsunami washed over coastal ports and towns, claiming over 18,000 lives, destroying over one million buildings and triggering a nuclear meltdown.
Four years later, Japan continues to deal with the aftermath of the disaster. The almost 83,000 residents living closest to the Fukushima nuclear plant were evacuated and radiation levels have kept them from returning home. Cleanup continues and researchers and analysts have now ruled local dairy, produce and seafood to be safe.
However, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, fears persist. As Wired reports, locals are slow to return to locally grown food even in the face of positive data.
Understandably, these fears are also affecting Japan’s energy infrastructure. The Fukushima plant and all 48 of the nation’s nuclear facilities have remained closed since the events of 2011, leaving utilities scrambling for energy. Forced to rely heavily on fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas, leaders have worked to find cleaner sources like solar.
Driven by political and popular will, solar use in Japan has grown dramatically in the last two years. Clean and renewable, it represents an about-face from atomic energy but as the New York Times reports, this may be too good to be true. Utilities are now rejecting solar, complaining that it can’t reliably support the demands of the country.
Many argue that the solution, to reducing Japan’s now high greenhouse gas emissions, is actually a return to atomic power. The long-term effects of the world’s worst nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl remain to be seen but the reality is that there have been no fatalities directly linked to the Fukushima accident.
Japan’s struggle is a microcosm of our global struggle. ‘Answers’ are few and far between and, as they are learning, ‘solutions’ are often trade-offs.
These issues around sustainability, unfortunately, are easily politicized. It seems tough, however, to take issue with the Portland Cement Association’s basic sentiment on the topic:
“We believe the most sustainable building is the one still standing.” David Shepherd, PCA
Each year in the United States alone, more than $35 billion in direct property loss is caused by natural disasters. States and municipalities are seeking to adopt ordinances that require “green” or “sustainable” construction, yet as the PCA points out, they are overlooking disaster-resistance construction.
There is now a call for making enhanced resilience of a building’s structure to natural and man-made disasters the first consideration of a green building. Increased longevity and durability, combined with improved disaster resistance, results in the need for less energy and resources. This is not only the case for repair, removal, disposal, and replacement of building materials and contents due to disasters but for routine maintenance and operations as well.
“Integration of durability and functional resilience into sustainability codes, standards, and programs, is long overdue,” David Shepherd, director of sustainability for the Portland Cement Association (PCA) said. “Some say the most sustainable structure is the one that isn’t built. We believe the most sustainable building is the one still standing.”
Functionally resilient buildings place less demand on resources and allow communities to provide vital services, even after a natural disaster. For example, resilient construction allows businesses to continue operations, providing municipalities with a consistent tax base. Emergency recovery, the PCA reminds us, costs money. These funds are often reallocated from other community economic, societal and environmental initiative. The ripples can last for generations.
The question of sustainability is complicated and rife with misinformation, trade-offs, and unforeseen consequences but building better, it seems, will always be the right choice.