Japan Earthquake: Two Weeks On

26 03 2011

Boat on House

A boat sits atop a building in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture - Picture: AP

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.

 

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

The central control room of Tepco's Fukushima No 1 nuclear plant after the lighting was recovered - Picture: Tepco/EPA

 

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.

Man and wreckage

A man inspects the damage as he tries to retrieve belongings from a destroyed house in Otsuchi - Picture: REUTERS





Japan – March 11th Earthquake: Day 3

13 03 2011

 

On the 11th March, a 9.0 earthquake struck off the north-east coast of Japan, 130 kilometres (80 miles) from Sendai. The quake was the largest in recorded history in Japan and the tsunami that was created devastating much of the surrounding countryside. Even after three days of hard work by rescue workers the full destruction and horrors of the Japan earthquake is only now becoming clear.

 

Japan Tsunami in Miyagi prefecture

Waves of tsunami hit residences after a powerful earthquake in Natori, Miyagi prefecture. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

As the wall of water of the tsunami began to engulf the land all but the most solid structures were carried away. Cars, boats and peoples homes were all washed away, along with anyone that had not reached safety in time, or were unable to do so. Such was the force of the wave that some coastal villages simply disappeared.

Although the death-toll is still rising it is believed that at least 10,000 lost their lives in Miyagi prefecture alone, but that number is expected to rise still further, with thousands still unaccounted for. Among the statistics, individual harrowing stories are also beginning to come to light:

 

Harumi Watanabe’s last words to her parents were a desperate plea to “stay together” as a tsunami crashed through the windows and engulfed their family home with water, mud and wreckage

She had rushed to help them as soon as the earthquake struck about 30 minutes earlier. “I closed my shop and drove home as quickly as I could,” said Watanabe. “But there wasn’t time to save them. They were old and too weak to walk so I couldn’t get them in the car in time.

They were still in the living room when the surge hit. Though she gripped their wrinkled hands, it was too strong. Her elderly mother and father were ripped from her grasp, screaming “I can’t breathe” before they were dragged down.

Watanabe was then left fighting for her own life. “I stood on the furniture, but the water came up to my neck. There was only a narrow band of air below the ceiling. I thought I would die.”

Harumi Watanabe’s last words to her parents were a desperate plea to “stay together” as a tsunami crashed through the windows and engulfed their family home with water, mud and wreckage

She had rushed to help them as soon as the earthquake struck about 30 minutes earlier. “I closed my shop and drove home as quickly as I could,” said Watanabe. “But there wasn’t time to save them. They were old and too weak to walk so I couldn’t get them in the car in time.

They were still in the living room when the surge hit. Though she gripped their wrinkled hands, it was too strong. Her elderly mother and father were ripped from her grasp, screaming “I can’t breathe” before they were dragged down.

Watanabe was then left fighting for her own life. “I stood on the furniture, but the water came up to my neck. There was only a narrow band of air below the ceiling. I thought I would die.”

via The Guardian

 

The USGS reported that since the initial quake over 250 aftershocks had been detected, with 30 of those in excess of magnitude 6. As rescue teams from more than 70 countries and tens of thousands of Japanese troops descended on the disaster zone, meteorological agency officials warned there was a 70% chance of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake striking the region in the next three days, so the threat of further seismic shifts and tsunami are far from over. New Scientist have provided an interactive map to illustrate Japan’s seismic history.

 

Japan Tsunami 11th March 2011

Tsunami sweep shores along Iwanuma, northern Japan, March 11th 2011 (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

One of the main concerns that have come to light as a result of the quake is the growing nuclear crisis. It was reported on Friday 11th March that the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant, 240km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, had been damaged causing the cooling system that regulated the temperature of the fuel rods in the reactor core to shut-down. Despite efforts by engineers to  replace and repair the system the makeshift attempt to cool the No 1 plant failed, leading to a build up of superheated water inside the chamber. On Saturday, engineers released water vapour – which contained radioactive caesium and iodine – from the pressure vessel as an emergency measure, but it appears that hydrogen escaped during the venting procedure and exploded. The blast damaged several nearby buildings and injured four workers, but thankfully, the explosion happened outside the reactor’s primary containment vessel, which appears to be intact.

 

Fukushima-Daiichi-No-1 001

Smoke rises from Fukushima Daiichi No 1 plant after a blast at the power station following Japan's earthquake and tsunami. (Photo: Staff/Reuters)

On Sunday, engineers vented water vapour from a second reactor at the power station and began pumping in sea water after the cooling system at the No 3 unit also failed. Japanese authorities said there was a risk of a similar explosion as happened in the first reactor. This strategy untested however and could take several days to bring the temperature and pressure of the reactor cores down to within safe limits. The biggest worry is that if the cooling fails, the reactors could overheat and cause a total meltdown of the radioactive fuel rods in the core if the reactor’s containment vessel was breached. Officials are also concerned that if there is another large aftershock, as mentioned above, it could further destabilise the plant. Because of the continuing danger, tens of thousands of local residents have been evacuated from the 20km exclusion area.

 

The scale of this tragedy is hard to fathom, but to give an example of the sort of forces involved, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) specialist Richard Gross, stated that the earthquake not only caused Japan to shift positive by 2.4 metres but that it had altered the Earth’s figure axis (the axis around which the Earth is balanced by mass) by about 15 centimetres – 2 times greater than after the Chilean earthquake of 2010.

 

“According to my calculations, the length of the day should be reduced to 1.6 microseconds (millionths of a second). The earthquake in Chile gave, in my opinion, a reduction of approximately 1.2 microseconds,” he said.

 

That may not sound like a lot but the fact that a single event can have an impact like that at all is staggering.

 

There are to many stories to note in a single blog post, and more is being revealed all the time, so this is but the briefest of overviews. The power that was unleashed on the 11th March was humbling, but it is when you read the stories of personal tragedy and miraculous survival that the affects of this event really starts to sink in. These stories and photographs are heartbreaking, but the full horrors are impossible to imagine. So many families and communities have been torn apart and countless lives have been changed forever. Organizations such as the Red Cross have started up appeals to try and help the victims and I urge you to give what you can. More will be revealed as the days and weeks go on, and more quakes will be felt, so it will be up to the brave rescue services from around the world to try and save as many lives as possible, in the most difficult of circumstances.

 

Japan Earthquake cargo 001

Cargo containers thrown around by the tsunami in Sendai, northern Japan. (Photo: Itsuo Inouye/AP)

A soldier carries a man

A soldier carries an elderly man to a shelter in Natori city, Miyagi prefecture, after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. (Photo: Str/AFP/Getty Images)