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Learning from Fukushima: Eleven years after the disaster, are we still building in the wrong place?


On March 11, 2011, the massive 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami that killed more than 19,000 people.

The deadly tsunami sent a 14-metre wave of water over the seawall protecting the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, located on Japan’s east coast in the town of Okuma in Fukushima Prefecture, about 250 kilometres north-east of the capital Tokyo.

The flooding caused power outages which led to meltdowns in three reactors, three hydrogen explosions, and the release of radioactive contamination.

It was the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986 and highlighted the risks of building critical infrastructure in danger zones.

Seismologist Ishibashi Katsuhiko’s issued a warning to the Japanese Government in 2007, that the construction of nuclear reactors in earthquake zones and substandard safety plans placed the nation at risk of a large nuclear disaster, but this had gone unheeded.

According to Dr Paul Dorfman from UCL’s Energy Institute, 11 years after the disaster, the world’s nuclear infrastructure is still largely unprepared for a changing climate.

“The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission concludes the vast majority of its nuclear sites were never designed to withstand the future climate impacts they face, and many have already experienced some flooding,” he writes in The Conversation. “Some reactors could soon become unfit for purpose.”

The effect of climate change

In a world where extreme weather is the new norm thanks to climate change, infrastructure must now contend with unplanned-for shocks and stresses.

One study, conducted in the wake of Hurricane Sandy – the devastating 2012 storm that caused US$70 billion in damage across eight countries – found that New York City’s flood hazard has increased significantly over the past two centuries, and is likely to increase again sharply during the 21st century.

A changing climate and the subsequent increased incidence of extreme weather events is “leaving infrastructure operating outside of its tolerance levels,” states a 2020 report by McKinsey Global Institute, Will infrastructure bend or break under climate stress? “This can present direct threats to the assets as well as significant knock-on effects for those relying on the services those assets deliver.”

The McKinsey report found that “climate change could increasingly disrupt critical systems, increase operating costs, exacerbate the infrastructure funding gap, and create substantial spillover effects on societies and economies.”

Infrastructure assets have a specific vulnerability to hazards. Flooding poses a significant risk to road and rail, for example. Wastewater treatment plants, often located beside bodies of water, are vulnerable to storm surges, hurricanes and cyclones. During Hurricane Sandy, power shutdowns and storm surges saw 50 billion litres of sewage spill into waterways.

Infrastructure resilience – or the lack of it – is a global problem. In 2018, the Sendai Framework Monitor found that 1,889 infrastructure assets in 20 countries in Europe and Central Asia were damaged or destroyed due to disasters, amounting to direct economic losses of more than US$3 billion.

It is a cost that’s expected to rise as climate change further exacerbates the risk to infrastructure from natural disasters.

Planning for resilience

Resilience should be a priority in the planning phase when critical decisions such as location, design and management of assets are made, according to Pathway to Infrastructure Resilience, a new research project initiated by Infrastructure Australia and Infrastructure NSW.

The new framework proposes a shift from “resilient infrastructure” – which focuses on the resilience of individual assets – to “infrastructure for resilience” – how infrastructure assets and networks contribute to the resilience of the system.

It’s a “whole-of-system approach” that requires a high degree of collaboration and accountability across sectors often lacking in Australia, where the governance of infrastructure planning and management is fragmented and complex.

Under the current system, “Infrastructure is being delivered that is generally not sufficiently resilient to future events, resulting in poor social, economic and environmental outcomes for communities and taxpayers,” states the paper. 

“Achieving infrastructure for resilience requires alignment, coordination and accountability across sectors, agencies and jurisdictions responsible for infrastructure planning, climate-risk management, emergency management, community resilience and land use planning. Currently, actions are often uncoordinated within and across jurisdictions.”

Some of the strategies proposed in Pathway to Infrastructure Resilience include sophisticated scenario planning, the introduction of a national data management system, coordinated land use planning and community consultation.

“Population growth, ageing existing infrastructure, political and market appetite, and COVID-19 stimulus have caused strong demand for infrastructure in Australia … It is imperative that the projects being considered for development and delivery give regard to the long-term resilience implications of an asset’s operations, location, climate risks and the shocks and stresses that are likely to impact it over the course of its lifetime.”

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