It has been two weeks since a 8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, and still the stories continue to roll in, with many serious situations still ongoing. So much has happened over these two weeks, it seems appropriate to reflect and take stock.
The official rescue mission may have ended but the clean up operation has only just begun, with some areas still largely cut off from the outside world. The photographs captured by journalists, locals and rescue workers are still shocking, and give a small insight into the force that was unleashed on the small communities around Sendai. The cost of the clean is staggering too. Although the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has said it believes Japan’s economy is strong enough to afford the cost of rebuilding, the Japanese government has estimate that it will need at least $309bn (£191.8bn). Add to that the cost to insurers and the ongoing Fukushima nuclear power station crisis, that number is expected to rise.
The monetary impact is nothing compared to the human cost however. As of 25th March, the death toll had passed 10,000, with the further 17,000 missing. A further 250,000 people are living in temporary accommodation.
In the midst of all of the destruction there have been amazing stories of survival. One in particularly moving account was of Sumi Abe, 80, and her grandson Jin Abe, 16, who were trapped in the kitchen when their two-storey house collapsed around them in the devastated coastal city of Ishinomaki. They survived for nine days on the contents of the fridge, mainly consisting of yogurt, bread, Coca-Cola and water. Jin stayed close to his grandmother to keep her warm and was eventually able climbed through a small hole on to the collapsed roof of the building and shouted for help. He was heard by passing police officers who called a rescue team. After 45 minutes removing debris they reached the kitchen, where they found the elderly woman lying on top of a fallen cupboard and wrapped in blankets. She broke down in tears when rescuers reached her.
The main headline since the earthquake has of course been the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power station. The situations has eased since the initial disaster, with the restoration of power and lowering of the cores temperature, so progress is being made, but many serious issues remain. Temperatures and pressures within some of the reactor containment vessels are still well above the intended levels, with number 1 reactor building at an estimated 390-400 degrees C, against an ideal operating value of 138 degrees C. These problems have also been compounded by the news this morning that a suspected break in the core of one of the reactors could have been responsible for a leak of large amounts of radioactive material. Officials have also said seawater outside one of the units has registered 1,250 the normal level of radiation, while efforts are under way to pump radioactive water that has pooled around the reactor turbines into safe storage. The BBC has reported that short-term radioactive iodine has been detected at very high levels in the Pacific Ocean near the plant. This, along with reports of infected water and food supplies around the plant, have only added to the fears of the long term effect of the crisis.
As was pointed out by the BBC’s environment correspondent, Richard Black, however, it is too early to draw any long term conclusions about the fate of the plant and the surrounding area.
It’s important to point out a couple of things here.
Firstly, nothing definitive can yet be said about the sequence of events at the plant, nor about the response of Tepco employees in the critical early hours.
And it is certainly too early to make a comprehensive assessment of the health impacts. With the Windscale reactor fire of 1957 – like Fukushima, rated Level Five on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) – the health consequences were still being assessed four years ago, on its 50th anniversary.
Fukushima will not take half a century to analyse because the facility has a civilian rather than a military purpose, because monitoring and knowledge of nuclear processes are far higher now than in 1957, and because the Japanese population is not likely to stand for it.
But at the moment, information is being disinterred bit by bit – and a truly comprehensive picture will in all probability have to wait on the first official inquiry.
He also points out that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), that owns the Fukushima plant has, after heavy worldwide criticism about honesty and openness, started to giving regular updates about the engineering teams progress and the dangers involved, although whether these have been voluntarily or because of pressure from the government – who have also been heavily criticised – is unclear.
Regardless, the debate about the viability and need for nuclear power around the world has once again been raised, with both environmental organisations and governments both looking into the implications of Fukushima. This is significant as more countries are beginning to make a big effort of lessening their reliance on fossil fuels, with nuclear power being one of the alternatives. France, for example, relies heavily on nuclear power for their low-carbon electricity, and Finland and the UK have, at least, committed to a partially nuclear future.
Potentialy, if no other plants were built, the shortfall could be made up from other forms of renewable energy, but the real question is whether it is politically feasible. Considering the way that these things have been talked about over recent years is seems unlikely to change unless the debate develops.
In the mean time, it is worth looking at the how to better regulate and, if necessary upgrade, these facilities in areas that have these sorts of risks associated with them, and perhaps even further afield. Fukushima is over 40 years old after all, and although it was designed to withstand earthquakes, it was not designed with tsunamis in mind. If it had been, then this crisis may not have happened, or at least, may not have been so serious, so upgrading other plants in similar settings and situations does seem prudent. It is yet another aspect to this this situations that will be debated and looked into for many years to come, so the overall remifications are still a long way off.
Hopefully the situation in Japan is now beginning to improve, although that will of course be little comfort to the people that have lost loved ones or have been displaced as their homes were washed away. As the clean up begins in earnest, and with the debates and arguments begin to pick up pace, it will take a long time for things to return to normal. And for many, that will never happen at all.