Japan’s triple whammy: Earthquake, Tsunami, Nuclear Crisis

Tuesday, 29 March 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Japan has been devastated by the combined effect of a massive earthquake, resulting tsunami and a nuclear crisis caused by the combined effect of those two natural disasters. The offshore earthquake, now estimated to measure 9.0 in magnitude, was one of the largest ever recorded. The tsunami triggered by the earthquake which took place off Japan’s North East coast, flattened towns and villages , resulting in massive destruction of property and the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

The death toll stands at 9,000 and the number missing is 12,645 at the time of writing and is rising rapidly. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, resulting in several explosions; this caused fears of radiation leaks and nuclear contamination, which caused the evacuation of people living in a 20 mile exclusion zone surrounding the nuclear facility.

If there is one single country, culture or race, which has the ability to face up to, withstand and recover from the Triple Whammy which hammered Japan, it is the fabled Land of the Rising Sun. It alone in the whole world has faced an explosion of two Atomic Bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War and is aware of the consequences of a population being exposed to mass radiation. This earthquake is estimated to be equivalent in power to 30,000 Hiroshima’s! Though Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were also nuclear accidents they did not take place in close concert with two other major natural disasters. Historically Japan, is probably the best country geared up to facing up to an earthquake. Lying on the explosive Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan has probably the strictest building code for earthquake resistant buildings. Its citizenry is constantly and repetitively put through earthquake drills, which I can say from first hand experience, causes mind numbing fear to foreign visitors. The high rise building, in which one is the 40th floor,  undergoing a series of tremors which the Japanese hosts describe nonchalantly as a  ‘slight shake up’, throwing papers on to the floor, rattling the computers and printers, is just brushed off as ‘minor’ and life resumes as before in a few moments.  

The Asian tsunami

We south Asians have experienced the phenomenal wrath of a Tsunami. Tsunami is a Japanese word, meaning ‘harbour wave’. A tsunami can be caused by an earthquake, volcanic eruptions and underwater volcanic explosions, the sudden displacement of a large body of water. Roughly 195 tsunamis have been recorded in Japan. As we Sri Lankans well know the immense volumes of water and the massive energy involved, a tsunami devastates coastal regions. Before the 2004 tsunami triggered by the earthquake in the sea off Sumatra, the only previous tsunami to hit Sri Lanka was when the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa erupted in the 1830s. The young Captain who commanded the Company of British troops garrisoned at the Batticaloa Fort, had recorded in his day book, ‘I am told that the sea is coming ashore, I have asked my syce to saddle up my horse, to go and see what the natives are in a panic about’. Neither the unfortunate Captain nor his horse were ever seen among the living again. Tsunami’s out at sea have a small wave height and are often passed unnoticed. Indeed a diving instructor at the Bentota Marina told me that on the morning of 26  December 2004, he was out at sea with a group of divers, and the only thing he noticed when the tsunami wave passed over them, when they were in mid dive, was that his depth gauge worn on his wrist suddenly, for no reason he could discern underwater, showed a sudden reduction in depth. As he had recently acquired the new gauge he made a mental note to check whether the warranty period had expired, as it seemed to be faulty, when he got back to shore, as he assumed it was a malfunction. In fact it was the ‘drawback’ wave of the tsunami, the first part of a tsunami to reach land, the water along the shore line retreats dramatically, exposing normally submerged areas, which brings the sea level dramatically down. Drawback begins before the crest of the tsunami arrives. It is said that many people on Sri Lanka’s coast, walked out to explore the exposed a sea bed out of curiosity and were drowned when the ‘run up’ wave arrived. Some even, anecdote has it, were pegging out land claims on the exposed sea shore! His colleague in the diving boat on the surface did not notice anything more than a slight swell passing him!

Damage and destruction

It was only when they completed the dive and were heading for the shore that they passed a whole lot of dead bodies, cars, roofs of houses, bicycles, motorcycles, fridges, TV sets, household furniture  and other debris floating in the sea around them that they realised something was amiss. When they got closer they saw the destruction and cars on top of coconut trees that they realised the extent of the damage and destruction. Tsunamis create damage by this drawback, the destructive power of a large volume of water draining off the land and carrying all with it, and the ‘run up’ wave, the initial smashing force of a wall of water traveling at a high speed and hitting the shore. A tsunami in the deep ocean has a wave length of about 200 kilometers, and travels at well over 800 kilometers per hour but owing to the enormous wave length the wave oscillation at any given point takes 20 or 30 minutes to complete a cycle and has amplitude of only about one meter. This is what makes tsunamis difficult to detect over deep water. As the tsunami approaches the coast and the waters become shallower the wave compresses. Its velocity slows and its amplitude grows enormously. The wave does not break, but appears like a fast moving tidal wave. Where there are narrow fjord like physical features in the landscape the destructive force is amplified by a tunnel effect, as the video footage on Japan’s North East coast near Sendai clearly show, the black wall of sludge mercilessly steamrolling over everything in its path. On Sri Lanka’s east coast in 2004, residents described the horrors of the black, almost primeval sediment from the bottom of the sea which came at them with thundering force.      

Nuclear crisis

The nuclear crisis at the Daiichi Fukushima nuclear plant was feared to have spread to all six of the reactors housed there. The earthquake had damaged the power lines powering the pumps which transferred water to cool the reactors. The tsunami had washed away the stand by diesel generators and the reactors and spent fuel storage tanks were overheating and heading for a melt down. Engineers of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) were trying desperately to draw a temporary power line to energise the pumps, as generators and diesel could not be transported due to road access being blocked by earthquake and tsunami damage. At the time of writing it is reported that this power line from the main national grid has been successfully connected. A desperate attempt to pour sea water by helicopters had to be abandoned when radiation levels due to the overheating and explosions became dangerous for the Japans Self Defense Force helicopter crews. Strong winds blew away the water dropped from these helicopters and also fixed wing air craft. Tepco had to temporarily withdraw its emergency crew of 50 volunteer engineers from the site after radiation levels increased to dangerous levels.

Residents evacuated

Military fire trucks using water canons were tried, but they could not get close enough to the reactors, due to high radiation levels. Residents of a 20 mile radius of the nuclear plant were evacuated. In a 30 mile radius residents were asked not to go out doors and to keep doors and windows closed. Higher radiation levels have been recorded in milk and spinach in the Fukushima prefecture. There were fears that the fish in the sea off Japans North East coast were also affected by radiation leaks, and the Lotte Mart supermarket chain in Korea withdrew Japanese fish from their shelves. This would be a body blow to the Japanese fishing industry. The US has banned the import of food from the Fukushima area. The evacuees, due to radiation fears, were in addition to the ones whose homes had been destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami. The relief and rescue services in Japan were stretched totally beyond capacity. Thousands of Japan’s Self Defense Forces were also deployed to support relief and rescue services. Medical supplies, food and water were in short supply in affected areas due to transport problems. There were concerns that authorities were not releasing adequate information on the actual situation. Yuhei Sato, the governor of Kukishima prefecture said that the people were ‘uneasy and angry’; he wanted Tepco and the government to provide accurate information to the people quickly. The Emperor Aikido of Japan made a national televised address, condoling with the victims of the disasters and said he ‘strongly hoped that the situation can be resolved quickly without further deterioration’. This was only the second time in Japans history that the Emperor had addressed the nation live, the last time was after the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered to end the Second World War, when the Emperor called upon the people to ‘endure the unendurable’ of surrender, in a live radio broadcast.  

The known and the unknown

Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense in the US at the time Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded after 9 /11, in evidence before a Committee of the US Congress, referred to three possible varieties of information. The ‘known’, the ‘known unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’!  The economic and other consequences of a triple whammy of an earthquake, a tsunami which damages a nuclear reactor which causes a radiation leak, in a country which is one of the manufacturing giants of the world, is clearly in the area of an unknown, unknown. How all three in combination will affect Japans economy and the world economy can only be guessed. The consequences can only be speculative as they cannot be predicted or foretold. Something similar to what happened to the Swiss Alpine village based traditional watchmakers who hand crafted exquisite time pieces for generations who were suddenly bankrupted by quartz technology installed in automated factory assembly line mass produced watches which costs a fraction of a hand crafted Swiss watch and kept more accurate time. That is an example of a classic unknown, unknown.  Howard Stringer, the American, who is Sony Corporation’s CEO in Tokyo, told an interviewer-‘Dealing with a row of disasters that escalate one by one is not something you can prepare for’. Sony had contingency plans for a major earthquake, but not for the biggest earthquake to ever hit Japan, a consequent Tsunami, followed by a nuclear accident resulting in radiation leakages, in sequence!

Global nuclear industry                

Other than the immediate death, destruction and disruption of economies caused by the supply chains of many manufacturing sectors being disrupted, the most affected will be the global nuclear industry. Even other manufacturing industries, especially those for which the component supply chain extends to or originates from Japan will be adversely affected. Especially the Japanese cost saving model of ‘Just in Time’ production, which requires world class transport systems. All major vehicle manufacturers have predicted disruption. All Japanese car manufacturers have suspended production as their component supply chain , built on an outsourced supply chain has been destroyed, this applies across the board, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Suzuki, Mazda etc. Even manufacturers out side Japan have said they will be affected. Semi conductors, used today in almost everything under sun, except in food, are going to be in short supply. But semi conductors are vital for most modern agricultural machinery, such as combined harvesters, the popular Indian manufactured ‘tsunami’ and ‘boothaya’ prototypes being used on Sri Lanka’s paddy fields.  The world economy will definitely adversely affected. China has said that they are suspending the construction of new nuclear plants. So has Venezuela. Sri Lankans have expressed concerns on nuclear plants located on India’s coast in close proximity to Sri Lanka. Demand for coal, oil and natural gas will increase and so will the cost, as countries re assess the safety standards of their nuclear power plants and take some older ones off the power production line.


(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

Even before the triple whammy hit , the government of prime minister Naoto Kan was already unpopular, considered weak and ineffective. Their handling of the crisis has resulted in even more criticism. One commentator said it was a prime example not of ‘crisis management’ but a major national ‘management crisis!’ Politicians and bureaucrats made every effort to appear as if they were on top of the situation. For press briefings they made a major sartorial change, appearing not in the customary black business suit and tie but in a blue zip up jump suit, worn by engineers on site at a plant. The Chief Cabinet Secretary looked visibly fatigued, while answering journalists’ questions. The power company, Tepco, which owned the nuclear plant, came in for severe criticism, for their lack of transparency and withholding information. In the midst of a prime ministerial press conference an explosion took place at the damaged plant, the reporters got the news before Tepco got around to informing the government of Japan, the prime mister when questioned, new nothing! He later stormed into the Tepco head office and barged into a Board of Directors meeting and demanded to know ‘What the hell is going on’?

This was in stark contrast with the behavior of the Japanese people.  Ordinary, decent Japanese people proved to be extremely resilient, no looting, no rioting, very little complaining. They resolutely helped each other and obeyed instructions of the authorities. Their resolute stoicism in the face of the triple disaster is something to be admired. It is because of these commendable national traits that Japan will recover, like the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes. Of that there is no doubt whatever.

Nuclear energy has had its critics from inception. It also has its defenders. Japanese policy makers put their faith in the capacity of their technology, institutions and their engineers and brushed aside the reservations of the skeptics. The forces of nature, in all its mighty fierceness, showed utter and complete contempt for everything the Japanese put their misplaced faith in. For best practice nuclear safety, just brilliant engineering and good planning has been proved to be insufficient. You need a social system that can produce accountability and transparency. A society that can build institutions which the public learnt to trust. Democracies are much better than autocracies at building such institutions. That is why the world is so concerned over the proliferation of nuclear plants in the worlds nations generally and specifically in the worlds autocracies. China for example has 27 reactors under construction at present and plans for 50 more.

In Sri Lanka too, in certain quarters, there is a lot of loose talk on the magic of nuclear power. We are blessed with humongous hydro power resources and every conceivable type of alternative energy, wind, solar, geo thermal, wave, bio mass, dendro, bio gas, bio fuel, etc., you name it, we have it. Not withstanding that, we went hammer and tongs on a misguided pursuit of power produced from oil and coal, which it is conceded, at this stage of our development, because of past neglect, is needed to meet the demand, but at the same time the available alternative energy sources should also have been aggressively encouraged.  Phase one of the Norochcholai coal power plant has just been inaugurated.  The  negative consequences when the supply of these limited resources, oil and coal, which are finite and the supply mostly controlled by unstable regimes, and which are also highly polluting,  become scarce and prices shoot up must also be factored in. 8 hour rolling power cuts, remember? At least now, with the tragedy in Japan rolling out before our eyes every evening on our television screens, will a genuine effort be made to integrate the wide variety of alternative energy sources our country is blessed with and an overall inclusive  energy sector plan be made? Will the negative effect of monopolies in general and state sector monopolies in particular, in generation, transmission and distribution of energy be seriously looked at?             

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