March 24, 2011
Helpless in the face of nuclear disaster
The international humanitarian relief community is not prepared for nuclear disaster such as that threatening Japan. Nor would it be equipped to deal with chemical or biological disasters, says Thea Hilhorst, professor of Disaster Studies at Wageningen.
'Internationally, Japan has a strong reputation for coping with disasters', says Hilhorst, 'but now you can see that that does not include nuclear disasters. Nuclear energy is a world of its own. Last week it became clear that the old nuclear reactors in Japan are only protected against earthquakes up to a maximum of seven on the Richter scale. The International Atomic Agency reported this fact back in 2008, but that had no consequences for the disaster plan. We have known since Chernobyl that nuclear disasters can happen. Conflict scenarios increasingly take into account the possible use of dirty bombs containing nuclear waste, in a terrorist attack, for example. The military are prepared for this and would take the lead if such a thing happened. But they cannot always take the lead in dealing with disasters. Who will be able to provide specialized medical aid now if the numbers of people contaminated by radioactivity go into the tens or hundreds of thousands? I am not saying that the aid organizations should be able to deal with chemical and nuclear disaster as well, but I am posing the question. Dealing with this sort of disaster is very expensive; you need to buy protective suits and gas masks and it is highly specialized work. It may be too complicated for the humanitarian aid organizations. But we need clarity on this point.
The international aid organizations are prepared for standard sorts of disaster: civil war, floods or earthquakes in rural areas. Libya is a standard operation in that sense: you wait for the refugees at the border and put up tents there. They have more trouble dealing with urban disasters though. Where could they put up tents in Port au Prince in Haiti after the earthquake there?