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Hamilton: One Year Later - Fukushima’s Wider Lessons

Last year's triple Fukushima disaster – an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis trifecta -- claimed more than 19,000 lives and wreaked utter havoc on the affected area. But the cascading effects of the Fukushima catastrophe may prove to be even more serious and long-lasting.

Tsunami hits Japan
Tsunami hits Japan

80,000 residents fled the Fukushima region in the wake of the disaster, taxing the capacity of neighboring regions. Only 2 of Japan's 54 nuclear reactors have come back on line, not because of any specified dangers emanating from those plants, but because local populations living near them simply refuse to permit officials to turn them back on. Mistrust in the ability of public officials to manage crisis has widened considerably throughout Japanese society, deepened the country’s profound crisis of identity as the economy struggles to emerge from its decades-long torpor and as Japanese politicians rise and fall with little discernible effect.

The crisis has also rippled far beyond Japanese shores. For a considerable time many Japanese companies were unable to ship intermediate parts and components to partner companies in the U.S. and around the world, clogging global supply chains and hampering economic recovery. The disaster upended the political debate in Germany, prompting all of the country's major political parties to coalesce around a decision to end entirely Germany's reliance on nuclear energy. Other countries are having similar debates. Officials around the world have been forced to reexamine their disaster management plans and rethink how they might cope with such unconventional crises.

Fukushima’s cascading effects are perhaps the most vivid recent example that in this world of global connections, the local can quickly become global. The well-being of our societies depends on highly integrated, complex systems that move people, goods and services, energy, food, money and information around the world. Daily life is sustained by transnational networks of unprecedented complexity and uncharted dependencies. Disruption of such critical functions as transportation, energy flows, medical services, “just-in-time” food supply chains and business systems, communications, and financial networks can have consequences for everyone in society. As a consequence, “human” security has become integral to “national” security.

As a result, just as governments used to protect their territories, so they must now protect society’s critical functions, the networks that sustain them, and the connections those networks bring with other societies.

Those functions can be endangered by Mother Nature, in the form of earthquakes or tsunamis, as in the case of Fukushima; major hurricanes such as Katrina; or fast-moving epidemics such as SARS or H1N1. They can be compromised and compounded by human accident, such as at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or the Bhopal chemical disaster; or by intentional actors, whether they be states, groups, networks, or individuals. Actions by both state and non-state actors to disrupt energy flows or cyber communications, for instance, have become a new tool of political intimidation. Such actors can target civilian populations, our military forces, or the networks of our society.

The critical infrastructure of society is commonly thought to be rather static; in reality it has long become dynamic, tied to flows of information, power, and substances constantly coursing and shifting. This dynamism creates vulnerabilities that can lead to cascading failures. Most homeland security mechanisms are rooted understandably in local response. But in today’s world, no one country is home alone. So-called ‘homeland’ security strategies must incorporate efforts to ‘project resilience’ forward, to ensure that the interconnected arteries upon which free societies rely are also supple and resilient. In the 21st century, we must defend our connectedness, not just our territory.

Daniel Hamilton is a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.