Japanese lessons

Monday - 3/21/2011, 11:28am EDT

The horrific videos of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami have transfixed viewers everywhere. Nothing on this scale has been recorded before, and my sympathies go to the thousands of people who have lost family and friends and to the larger number of victims who survived with only their lives.

An engineer familiar with Japan and construction in earthquake zones said that no country could respond better to such a disaster than the Japanese. Their culture makes looting in such a catastrophe unthinkable, and the orderliness of the people patiently waiting in line for water and food and gasoline is striking.

Japanese officials already are looking at the damage to learn what can be done differently to lessen such devastation in the future. Americans should get out their notebooks, too, because there are at least four big lessons they can learn.

First, there are some natural disasters that are going to be terrible no matter what you do. They cannot be prevented, avoided, or halted. They're going to happen.

Second, the ongoing nightmare of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant can be instructive. The plant is near the coast where the earthquake and tsunami hit. Engineers and designers considered damages from an earthquake and installed a set of generators that continued cooling the reactors when the main power grid failed.

They did not anticipate the great tsunami. The wave killed the generators, hence the frantic effort to cool the superheated radioactive rods before they cause a meltdown. The lesson here is not to build power plants so close to the ocean.

The Atlantic Ocean has not been as prone to tidal waves as the Pacific. But the East and Gulf coasts are very prone - annually - to powerful hurricanes that can churn up large floods and tidal flooding. Power plants near the ocean, on any coast, could be too risky.

We are going to need more nuclear power, and America's power companies are drawing up plans right now. The Japanese experience certainly will curb the enthusiasm, and it offers a third lesson: what to do about the dangerous threat posed by spent nuclear fuel.

The disposal of nuclear waste has never been resolved, mostly because of politics. Most such fuel is not at the bottom of the ocean but on nuclear power plant sites. Yes, that close. One of Japan's newest and most alarming problems at Fukushima Daiichi is keeping the spent fuel rods cool. The United States must find a permanent, safe place to dispose of nuclear waste.

Fourth, Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan said the rebuilding of his country will be its greatest challenge since World War II. This will require massive spending, especially on basic infrastructure such as bridges, roads, railroads, power grids and buildings such as airports. In short, a large economic stimulus program.

Japan will ask its people to share in these expenses, and there likely will be higher taxes, especially for those who can afford them. If this stimulus pumps up the stagnate Japanese economy, it will be a valuable lesson, indeed.