Our Big Pig Problem w/ antibiotics

Our Big Pig Problem: Scientific American.

For more than 50 years microbiologists have warned against using antibiotics to fatten up farm animals. The practice, they argue, threatens human health by turning farms into breeding grounds of drug-resistant bacteria. Farmers responded that restricting antibiotics in livestock would devastate the industry and significantly raise costs to consumers. We now have empirical data that should resolve this debate. Since 1995 Denmark has enforced progressively tighter rules on the use of antibiotics in the raising of pigs, poultry and other livestock. In the process, it has shown that it is possible to protect human health without hurting farmers.

Farmers in many countries use antibiotics in two key ways: (1) at full strength to treat animals that are sick and (2) in low doses to fatten meat-producing livestock or to prevent veterinary illnesses. (It is illegal in the U.S. to sell milk for human consumption from dairy cattle treated with antibiotics.) Although even the proper use of antibiotics can inadvertently lead to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria, the habit of using a low or subtherapeutic dose is a formula for disaster: the treatment provides just enough antibiotic to kill some but not all bacteria. The germs that survive are typically those that happen to bear genetic mutations for resisting the antibiotic. They then reproduce and exchange genes with other microbial resisters. Because bacteria are found literally everywhere, resistant strains produced in animals eventually find their way into people as well. You could not design a better system for guaranteeing the spread of antibiotic resistance.

The data from multiple studies over the years support the conclusion that low doses of antibiotics in animals increase the number of drug-resistant microbes in both animals and people. As Joshua M. Sharfstein, a principal deputy commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration, told a U.S. congressional subcommittee last summer, “You actually can trace the specific bacteria around and … find that the resistant strains in humans match the resistant strains in the animals.” And this science is what led Denmark to stop subtherapeutic dosing of chickens, pigs and other farm animals.

Although the transition unfolded smoothly in the poultry industry, the average weight of pigs fell in the first year. But after Danish farmers started leaving sows and piglets together a few weeks longer to bolster the littermates’ immune systems naturally, the animals’ weights jumped back up, and the number of pigs per litter increased as well. The lesson is that improving animal husbandry—making sure that pens, stalls and cages are properly cleaned and giving animals more room or time to mature—offsets the initial negative impact of limiting antibiotic use. Today Danish industry reports that productivity is higher than before. Meanwhile reports of antibiotic resistance in Danish people are mixed, which shows—as if we needed reminding—that there are no quick fixes.

Lest anyone argue that Denmark is too small to offer a reasonable parallel to the U.S., consider that it is the world’s largest exporter of pork. Like U.S. farmers, Danes raise pigs on an intensive, industrial scale. If they can figure out how to limit antibiotic use while actually increasing agricultural productivity, then so can Americans.

The American Medical Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the American Public Health Association, a previous FDA commissioner and many others have advised the U.S. to follow suit. Last year the FDA published new guidelines calling for “judicious use” of antibiotics. Yet it ultimately left the decision on exactly when and where to use antibiotics up to individual farmers. That laissez-faire standard is not good enough, particularly when the health of the rest of the population is at stake.

Of course, the way veterinary antibiotics are used is not the only cause of human drug-resistant infections. Careless use of the drugs in people also contributes to the problem. But agricultural use is still a major contributing factor. Every day that passes brings new evidence that we are in danger of losing effective antibiotic protection against many of the most dangerous bacteria that cause human illness [see “The Enemy Within,” by Maryn McKenna=]. The technical issues are solvable. Denmark’s example proves that it is possible to cut antibiotic use on farms without triggering financial disaster. In fact, it might provide a competitive advantage. Stronger measures to deprive drug-resistant bacteria of their agricultural breeding grounds simply make scientific, economic and common sense.

Arctic Ozone Loss

Arctic Ozone Loss : Image of the Day.

Arctic Ozone Loss

Posted March 30, 2011

Arctic Ozone Loss

Color bar for Arctic Ozone Loss
download animation (4 MB, QuickTime) acquired March 19, 2011
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Recent observations from satellites and ground stations suggest that atmospheric ozone levels for March in the Arctic were approaching the lowest levels in the modern instrumental era. What those readings mean for the remainder of the year is unclear. But what they mean for the long-term is that the recovery from human-induced ozone depletion is an uneven climb.

These maps of ozone concentrations over the Arctic come from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on NASA’s Aura satellite. The left image shows March 19, 2010, and the right shows the same date in 2011. March 2010 had relatively high ozone, while March 2011 has low levels. The large animation file (linked below the images) shows the dynamics of the ozone layer from January 1 to March 23 in both years.

In mid-March, scientists from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute announced that Arctic ozone levels had been cut in half in the waning weeks of winter, according to a network of 30 ozone sounding stations spread around the region. Data from OMI (shown above) also confirmed a depletion. OMI is a spectrometer that measures the amount of sunlight scattered by Earth’s atmosphere and surface, allowing scientists to assess how much ozone is present at various altitudes, particularly the stratosphere.

Ozone is destroyed when chlorine- or bromine-based compounds—especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) —break into their free atoms and combine with the oxygen. That process is amplified when the stratosphere is especially cold, which it has been in recent weeks.

“This depletion is not necessarily a big surprise,” said Paul Newman, an atmospheric scientist and ozone expert at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “The ozone layer remains vulnerable to large depletions because total stratospheric chlorine levels are still high, in spite of the regulation of ozone-depleting substances by the Montreal Protocol. Chlorine levels are declining slowly because ozone-depleting substances have extremely long lifetimes.”

The concentration of ozone in the Arctic atmosphere varies greatly from year-to-year, and ozone “holes” do not form consistently like they do in Antarctica. “Last winter, we had very high lower stratospheric temperatures and ozone levels were very high; this year is just the opposite,” Newman said. “The real question is: Why is this year so dynamically quiet and cold in the stratosphere? That’s a big question with no good answer.”

Scientists will be watching in coming months for possible increases in the intensity of ultraviolet radiation (UV) in the Arctic and mid-latitudes, since ozone is Earth’s natural sunscreen. “We need to wait and see if this will actually happen,” Newman said. “It’s something to look at but it is not catastrophic.”

On a global scale, the ozone layer is still on a long-term course for recovery. But for decades to come, there remains a risk of major ozone losses on yearly or regional scales.

Bid to put flame-quelling electric wands in the hands of firefighters

Bid to put flame-quelling electric wands in the hands of firefighters | Herald Sun.

PETER Venkman trapped ghosts with it.

Wikus van de Merwe (unwillingly) exploded a prawn with it.

And that’s perfectly acceptable, because every kid who’s been caught probing a socket with a fork learns the hard way that Electricity Is Dangerous.

But can you fight fire with it?

Yes, say a group of researchers from Harvard University.

In fact, it’s actually a concept that’s been kicking around for some 200 years that, for no particular reason, simply hasn’t been developed.

Last week, team leader Ludovico Cademartiri showed the 241st National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society how electricity could bend, twist, turn and flicker flame.

And yes, it can even snuff it out.

Dr Cademartiri proved it for the society by shooting a beam of electricity from a “wand” at 30cm-high flames.

The wand was channelling about the same amount of power as a high-end car stereo system, which Dr Cademartiri said was about 10 times more than he thought was necessary.

That means a similar device could be carried in a backpack – in other words, future firefighters could all be carrying portable, fire-quelling magic wands.

“Our research has shown that by applying large electric fields we can suppress flames very rapidly,” he said.

“We’re very excited about the results of this relatively unexplored area of research.”

Which is not surprising. Rather than douse your entire home or office with thousands of litres of water or foam, your local hero simply waves his wand, parting the flames for you and your family to escape before performing an extinguishing sweep, yes?

It’s about now that we’d say the future vision doesn’t quite live up to the present reality, but Dr Cademartiri says there’s no reason why not.

He says carbon particles, or soot, generated in the flame are the keys to its response to electric fields.

Soot particles can easily become charged. The charged particles respond to the electric field, affecting the stability of flames, he said.

“Combustion is first and foremost a chemical reaction – arguably one of the most important – but it’s been somewhat neglected by most of the chemical community.

“We’re trying to get a more complete picture of this very complex interaction.”

While the technology is unsuited to fighting large forest fires, Dr Cademartiri envisions such electrical devices placed alongside – or replacing – water sprinklers on our ceilings.

The idea holds particular promise for enclosed spaces, such as airplanes and submarines.

Just don’t cross the streams. There – we said it.

The study was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – otherwise known as DARPA – and the US Department of Energy.

California big one expected to pale next to Japan quake

California big one expected to pale next to Japan quake | Reuters.

 

The skyline of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge appear above the evening fog as the suns sets on the Marin Headlands in Sausalito, California April 18, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Robert Galbraith

LOS ANGELES | Wed Mar 16, 2011 4:20pm EDT

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – When the seismic “big one” hits California, scientists doubt it will be quite as powerful as the earthquake that struck Japan last week although it could do plenty of damage.

The colossal California quake considered inevitable and long overdue is most likely to strike along the southern end of the famed San Andreas Fault and register a magnitude of 7.5 or greater, many times less powerful than the 9.0 temblor that rocked Japan on Friday, geologists say.

Still, an earthquake damage forecast prepared in 2008 for the U.S. Geological Survey by geophysicists and engineers envisions a calamity that would leave 2,000 people dead, 50,000 injured and 250,000 homeless.

That scenario is based on the premise of a magnitude 7.8 quake rupturing the San Andreas in the desert east of Los Angeles and radiating with catastrophic fury into the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area.

Such a quake could be expected to topple 1,500 buildings, badly damage another 300,000 and sever highways, power lines, pipelines, railroads, communications networks and aqueducts. Property losses of more than $200 billion are projected.

The hypothetical quake also would ignite about 1,600 fires, some growing into conflagrations that would engulf hundreds of city blocks.

Experts predict the biggest long-term economic disruption would come from damage to water-distribution systems that would leave some homes and businesses without running water for months.

“The lesson is you don’t need a magnitude 9 to cause extensive damage,” said USGS spokeswoman Leslie Gordon.

The quake scenario for the southern San Andreas does not foresee damage to the nearest of the state’s two nuclear power plants, the Southern California Edison-owned San Onofre station between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Both Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, owner of the Diablo Canyon plant to the north at San Luis Obispo, say their facilities are built to withstand quakes far greater than nearby faults are capable of producing.

And unlike Japan, California faces little if any risk of tsunamis from its own quakes.

But substandard construction poses a bigger problem in California, said Lucy Jones, a USGS geologist who co-authored the agency’s quake scenario.

“The Japanese have done a better job than we have done of retrofitting older buildings,” she said on Tuesday.

SEISMIC ODDS

USGS studies put the probability of California being hit by a quake measuring 7.5 or more in the next 30 years at 46 percent, though the extent of damage will depend on where in the state it occurs. The likelihood of a 6.7 quake, comparable in size to the temblors that rocked San Francisco in 1989 and Los Angeles in 1994, is 99 percent statewide.

The Los Angeles basin is especially vulnerable to violent shaking from earthquakes because the area is heavily populated and built on motion-sensitive sediment that runs four miles deep before hitting bedrock, USGS geologist Erik Pounders said.

The 9.0 quake that struck Friday off Japan‘s northeast coast, unleashing a deadly tsunami and a nuclear power crisis, was the biggest in that island nation’s modern history. The death toll is expected to surpass 10,000, and the quake ranks as the fifth most powerful in the world for the past century.

Its force was roughly equivalent to the power of 30 quakes like the one imagined in the 2008 USGS scenario.

Geologists believe a 9.0 quake is virtually impossible along the San Andreas, a network of “strike-slip” faults smaller and more fragmented than the great chasm that exists where two continent-sized plates of the Earth’s crust meet along the Japanese islands.

This subduction zone beneath the Pacific, where one tectonic plate is thrust up over another, is capable of producing the biggest quakes on Earth, on an order of magnitude higher than any recorded in California.

Offshore quakes generated from subduction zones, also found along Alaska’s Aleutian Islands chain, can produce tsunamis because of the tremendous volume of water they suddenly displace on the sea floor.

The horizontal ruptures of California’s seismic faults, even those offshore, displace little or no water, and thus pose no tsunami threat, except in cases when they trigger underwater landslides. Even those tsunamis, however, are small compared with the ones caused by subduction quakes at sea.

At the high end of quake magnitudes considered possible in California was the massive rupture of the San Andreas Fault in northern California which caused the devastating 8.3 quake that laid waste to San Francisco in 1906.

The last “big one” of equivalent size to strike south of the San Gabriel Mountains, near Los Angeles, was some 300 years ago, and the average interval between such quakes in that region is 150 years.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Jerry Norton)

Japan disaster, various articles

Amazing before/after pix of Sendai, other affected areas

Japan scrambles to avert nuclear disaster, global fears mount | Reuters.

(Reuters) – Operators of a quake-crippled nuclear plant in Japan said they would try again on Thursday to use military helicopters to douse overheating reactors, as U.S. officials warned of a rising risk of a catastrophic radiation leak from spent fuel rods.

Officials scrambled to contain the nuclear crisis with a variety of patchwork fixes. The top U.S. nuclear regulator warned that one reactor’s cooling pool for spent fuel rods may have run dry and another was leaking.

“We believe that around the reactor site there are high levels of radiation,” Gregory Jaczko, head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

“It would be very difficult for emergency workers to get near the reactors. The doses they could experience would potentially be lethal doses in a very short period of time.”

Health experts said panic over radiation leaks from the Daiichi plant was also diverting attention from other threats to survivors of Friday’s 9.0 magnitude quake and tsunami, such as the cold or access to fresh water.

The head of the world’s nuclear watchdog, meanwhile, said it was not accurate to say things were “out of control” in Japan, but the situation was “very serious”, with core damage to three units at the plant, around 240 kms (150 miles) north of Tokyo.

The latest photographs from the plant showed severe damage to some of the buildings after several blasts.

A stream of gloomy warnings and reports on the Japan crisis from experts and officials around the world triggered something of a meltdown in U.S. markets on Wednesday, with the Japanese yen surging to a record high against the dollar and all three major stock indexes slumping on fears of slower worldwide growth. European markets fared similarly.

Traders were glued to their screens, hitting the sell button every time officials gave ever bleaker assessments of the situation on the ground in Japan.

G7 Finance ministers will hold a conference call later on Thursday to discuss steps to help Japan cope with the financial and economic impact of the disaster, a source said.

Japan’s government said radiation levels outside the plant’s gates were stable but, in a sign of being overwhelmed, appealed to private companies to help deliver supplies to tens of thousands of people evacuated from around the complex.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) officials said bulldozers attempted to clear a route to the reactor so firetrucks could gain access and try to cool the facility using hoses. Company officials also said limited power could be supplied to the facility at some point which could help restart pumps.

“People would not be in immediate danger if they went outside with these levels. I want people to understand this,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told a news conference, referring to people living outside a 30-km (18-mile) exclusion zone.

High radiation levels on Wednesday prevented a helicopter from dropping water into the No. 3 reactor to try to cool its fuel rods after an earlier explosion damaged the unit’s roof and cooling system.

Officials from TEPCO said shortly after midnight (1500 GMT) that they would ask the military to make a second attempt later on Thursday.

The plant operator described No. 3 — the only reactor at that uses plutonium in its fuel mix — as the “priority”. Plutonium, once absorbed in the bloodstream, can linger for years in bone marrow or liver and lead to cancer.

If cooling operations do not proceed well, the situation will “reach a critical stage in a couple of days”, said an official with the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The situation at No. 4 reactor, where the fire broke out, was “not so good”, TEPCO added, while water was being poured into reactors No. 5 and 6, indicating the entire six-reactor facility was now at risk of overheating.

“Getting water into the pools of the No.3 and No.4 reactors is a high priority,” Said Hidehiko Nishiyama, a senior official at Japan‘s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Administration.

“It could become a serious problem in a few days,” he said.

UNPRECEDENTED CRISIS, SAYS EMPEROR

Japanese Emperor Akihito, delivering a rare video message to his people on Wednesday, said he was deeply worried by the crisis which was “unprecedented in scale”.

“I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times,” the emperor said.

Panic over the economic impact of last Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami knocked $620 billion off Japan’s stock market over the first two days of this week, but the Nikkei index rebounded on Wednesday to end up 5.68 percent.

The Tokyo Stock Exchange and the Financial Services Agency plan to keep the stock market open despite calls for a halt to trading, mainly from foreign financial institutions, the Nikkei business daily said.

TSE President Atsushi Saito said the exchange “will continue to provide investors with an opportunity to trade”, calling it “an important piece of social infrastructure”.

“If we put a stop to trading, it will be seen as a confirmation of the concerns among foreigners and could trigger panic,” a senior TSE official was quoted as saying by the Nikkei.

Estimates of losses to Japanese output from damage to buildings, production and consumer activity ranged from between 10 and 16 trillion yen ($125-$200 billion), up to one-and-a-half times the economic losses from the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Damage to Japan’s manufacturing base and infrastructure is also threatening significant disruption to the global supply chain, particularly in the technology and auto sectors.

EMBASSIES URGE CITIZENS TO LEAVE

Scores of flights to Japan have been halted or rerouted and air travelers are avoiding Tokyo for fear of radiation. On Thursday the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo urged citizens living within 50 miles of the Daiichi plant to evacuate or remain indoors “as a precaution”, while Britain’s foreign office urged citizens “to consider leaving the area”.

The warnings were not as strong as those issued earlier by France and Australia, which urged nationals in Japan to leave the country. Russia said it planned to evacuate families of diplomat on Friday.

In a demonstration of the qualms about nuclear power that the crisis has triggered around the globe, China announced that it was suspending approvals for planned plants and would launch a comprehensive safety check of facilities.

China has about two dozen reactors under construction and plans to increase nuclear electricity generation about seven-fold over the next 10 years.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said nuclear power was safe provided power stations were built in the right place and designed and managed properly. Russia ordered checks at nuclear facilities on Tuesday.

In Japan, the plight of hundreds of thousands left homeless by the earthquake and devastating tsunami that followed worsened following a cold snap that brought snow to worst-affected areas.

Supplies of water and heating oil are low at evacuation centers, where many survivors wait bundled in blankets.

About 850,000 households in the north were still without electricity in near-freezing weather, Tohuku Electric Power Co. said, and the government said at least 1.5 million households lack running water.

“It’s cold today so many people have fallen ill, getting diarrhea and other symptoms,” said Takanori Watanabe, a Red Cross doctor in Otsuchi, a low-lying town where more than half the 17,000 residents are still missing.

The National Police Agency said it has confirmed 4,314 deaths in 12 prefectures as of midnight Wednesday, while 8,606 people remained unaccounted for in six prefectures.

INTERNATIONAL FRUSTRATION

In another sign of international frustration at the pace of updates from Japan, Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said he would fly to Japan on Thursday to glean first hand information on the crisis.

Several experts said the Japanese authorities were underplaying the severity of the incident, particularly on a scale called INES used to rank nuclear incidents. The Japanese have so far rated the accident a four on a one-to-seven scale, but that rating was issued on Saturday and since then the situation has worsened dramatically.

France’s nuclear safety authority ASN said on Tuesday it should be classed as a level-six incident.

At its worst, radiation in Tokyo reached 0.809 microsieverts per hour on Tuesday — 10 times below what a person would receive if exposed to a dental x-ray. Early Thursday, radiation levels were barely above average.

But many Tokyo residents stayed indoors. Usually busy streets were nearly deserted. Many shops and offices were closed.

(Additional reporting by Nathan Layne, Linda Sieg, Risa Maeda, Isabel Reynolds, Dan Sloan, Terril Jones and Leika Kihara in Tokyo; Chris Meyers and Kim Kyung-hoon in Sendai; Taiga Uranaka and Ki Joon Kwon in Fukushima, Noel Randewich in San Francisco, and Miyoung Kim in Seoul; Writing by David Fox; Editing by Andrew Marshall)

***********************************

Japan tsunami ‘could be 1,000-year event’

House floating off the coast of north-east Japan The death toll is not known, but could run into the tens of thousands

Tsunamis on the scale that hit north-east Japan last week may strike the region about once every 1,000 years, a leading seismologist has said.

Dr Roger Musson said there were similarities between the last week’s event and another giant wave that hit the Sendai coast in 869AD.

It is not unusual for undersea earthquakes to generate tsunamis in this part of Japan. Offshore quakes in the 19th and 20th centuries also caused large walls of water to hit this area of coastline.

But previous research by a Japanese team shows that in the 869 “Jogan” disaster, tsunami waters moved some 4km inland, causing widespread flooding.

The researchers said that such gigantic tsunamis occur in the area roughly once every 1,000 years. Dr Musson, who is the head of seismic hazard at the British Geological Survey (BGS), suggested the latest tsunami was comparable to the event in 869.

Quake rule

The most recent tsunami waves were up to 10m high; it is unclear how far inland the waters travelled, but reports say it was on the order of several miles.

Dr Musson told BBC News: “I would imagine it would be about the same, because it is hard to think that there would be any larger earthquakes than this in this part of the world.”

Coast of Japan  GeoEye The tsunami has devastated coastal areas of north-east Japan

The BGS seismologist acknowledged there had been other notably large earthquakes in the region in 1933 and in the 1890s. But he said: “There is a convenient little fact to remember… if you know how often Magnitude 9 earthquakes are, you will get Magnitude 8 earthquakes roughly 10 times as often and Magnitude 7 earthquakes approximately 100 times as often.”

However, another researcher contacted by BBC News said they would be cautious to draw conclusions about the frequency of such events, given how seismically active this region is.

Far inland

About 10 years ago, a team led by Professor Koji Minoura, from Japan’s Tohoku University, analysed sediments from the Sendai and Soma coastal plains that preserved traces of the tsunami in 869.

Their results, published in the Journal of Natural Disaster Science, indicated that the medieval tsunami was probably triggered by a Magnitude 8.3 offshore quake and that waters spread more than 4km from the shore.

Start Quote

It can also be dangerous to plan on past events only – even in Japan where the record is long, it might still not be long enough”

End Quote Hermann Fritz Georgia Tech

They also found evidence of two earlier tsunamis on the scale of the Jogan disaster, leading them to conclude that there had been three massive events in the last 3,000 years.

Dr Lisa McNeill, a geophysicist at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, told BBC News: “There are several ways you can find out about past events, before we began to record earthquakes on seismometers in the 1900s – one is through historical records, the other way is through geological records.

“You can either look for evidence of tsunamis, or you can look for evidence that the ground has moved rapidly up or down due to the earthquake itself. That is what happens to the seafloor and generates the tsunamis. In some cases, underwater sediment flows can be triggered by the earthquakes and these may leave a datable record which we can identify in sediment cores.”

Dr McNeill said it can be difficult to estimate a precise magnitude from limited geological data and historical records. But she said that – broadly speaking – there was a good correlation between the size of an earthquake and the size of a tsunami.

Planning ahead

She explained: “That usually works reasonably well, but there are some deviations. Some of them are due to local effects at the coastline: either the shape of the coastline – which can focus and increase the amplitude of tsunami waves – and the local bathymetry (seafloor relief).

Tsunami progression (NOAA) US scientists estimated the progression of the tsunami over the entire Pacific basin

“There can sometimes be additional effects that deform the seafloor such as undersea landslides or other faults that moved at the same time, which affect how the seafloor deforms.”

Professor Hermann Fritz, a tsunami expert from Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), US, said: “Nowhere in the world is as prepared as Japan – but in general you can plan for a magnitude 7 or 7.5 that happens every generation, but not for anything in the 9 range.

“The relationship [between earthquake size and tsunami size] is not linear, and it depends on how the rupture actually occurs. If the rupture is actually on the seafloor you get a much bigger displacement – then again if you get something like 7.2 somewhere deep in the Earth, that won’t create a tsunami at all.

“Once it’s a full megathrust rupture, Magnitude 9, then basically the entire zone ruptures from deep down up to the surface.

He added: “Each event is going to be different, and it can also be dangerous to plan on past events only – even in Japan where the record is long, it might still not be long enough.”

**************************************************

“The Washington Post reports that the US is urging Americans who live within 50 miles of Japan’s earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to evacuate as Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that no water remains in a deep pool used to cool spent fuel at the plant and that radiation levels there are thought to be ‘extremely high.’ Jaczko’s testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee suggests that damage to the plant is worse than the Japanese government and the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., has acknowledged. On Tuesday, the company said water levels in three of the site’s seven fuel pools were dropping, but did not say that the fuel rods themselves had been exposed. Left exposed to the air, the fuel rods will start to decay and release radioactivity into the air and lack of water in at least one spent-fuel pool sparked fears of a worst-case scenario: the fuel could combust. ‘If there’s no water in there, the spent fuel can start a fire,’ says Eric Moore, a consultant to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on nuclear plant design and safety issues. ‘Once you have that fire, there’s a high risk of radiation getting out, spewed by the fire.’ The power company says a reduced crew of 50 to 70 employees — far fewer than the 1,400 or more at the plant during normal operations — had been working in shifts to keep seawater flowing to the three reactors now in trouble. Their withdrawal on Wednesday temporarily left the plant with nobody to continue cooling operations.”

*****************************************

Low-Dose Radiation Risks Unknown

Scientists struggle to calculate long-term effects of low-dose exposures in Fukushima.

By Gwyneth Dickey Zakaib

One thing is certain about the human costs of the radiation leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan: they will pale in comparison to the catastrophic consequences of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the crisis. Nevertheless, experts are tracking radiation levels worldwide to learn more about the accident and to assess the possible impacts on health.

Radioactive vapor and particles released from the plant have spread across the region and followed prevailing winds across the Pacific (see “Plume projections“). “The plume is very large,” says Ted Bowyer, a nuclear physicist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., one of the first U.S. stations to detect isotopes released from Fukushima. Bowyer adds that the tiny concentrations of radioactive iodine, cesium, tellurium, xenon and lanthanum that have reached the United States are far below normal background levels and not a health risk. The fact that some of the isotopes are short-lived indicates that at least some of the radiation must have originated from breaches in the reactor vessels and not from the plant’s overheated caches of spent fuel, he says.

In Fukushima and adjacent prefectures, the Japanese government is reporting radio¬active contamination in sea water near the plant and in the food and water supply. Radioactive iodine 131 and cesium 137 have been detected in milk and leafy vegetables such as spinach, as well as in tap water, in some cases above allowable levels for consumption. Such safety limits are based on long-term consumption of these foods, says William McCarthy, deputy director of the radiation protection program within the Environment, Health and Safety Office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. “The prudent thing is to not eat that food,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it poses immediate health risks.”

Authorities in Japan have banned the shipment of milk from Fukushima prefecture, as well as some produce from Fukushima and three neighboring prefectures. In the short term, the main concern is iodine 131, which can cause cancer in the thyroid gland. With a half life of 8 days, iodine 131 will effectively be gone from the environment in a matter of months once releases have stopped. But cesium 137, another cancer-causing isotope, has a half-life of 30 years and will persist for much longer. Steve Wing, an epidemiologist from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, points out that even the low levels of radiation that remain in the environment could be significant in the long run “because so many more people are exposed, even though the dose per person decreases farther from the plant.”

Jacquelyn Yanch, a radiation physicist at MIT, thinks that it is too early to say what the impact will be. “We haven’t come up with risk estimates for a situation like this,” she says. “We don’t know how much is too much.”

Experts agree that any long-term effects are most likely to be seen in the workers battling the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear station. The government has increased the allowable dose for workers from 100 milli¬sieverts per year to 250 millisieverts per year–five times the annual allowable dose for US radiation workers–to allow emergency operations to continue. This dose is considered by the US National Institutes of Health as the lower limit for the first symptoms of radiation sickness.

Otsuchi is one of the many cities utterly demolished by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011.

The scene from the air in Sendai was similarly bleak the day after the earthquake. This photo was taken aboard an SH-60B helicopter from Naval Air Facility Atsugi.

Rikuzentakata was also reduced to rubble during the course of the quake and the tsunami.

In this photo, rescue crews in Miyagi work to quell the flames of smoldering buildings.

Residents carefully collect and extract any belongings they can recover from their devastated homes. Pictured here is Takako Sasaki of Rikuzentakata.

Everyone pitches in: Neena Sasaki, age 5, also of Rikuzentakata, totes some of her family’s belongings.

Firefighters from the Osaka Prefecture answer the call for emergency workers.

Soldiers dig through the rubble, looking for survivors in Otsuchi.

Still in Otsuchi, debris jumbled about in the chaos of the tsunami strew the ground. The wave reached up to 30 feet (10 meters) in some places.

Japan’s Nuclear Kamikazes: A Morality Tale of Energy Madness

by: Madeleine Austin and Rinaldo Brutoco  |  World Business Academy | Op-Ed

In the final stages of World War II, Japan found young men willing to give their lives in suicidal missions against Allied warships. Scarves tucked around their necks blowing in the wind identified them as men willing to die for their country.

The modern day kamikazes are the men who have been sent day after day into the unshielded nuclear morass of the smoldering Fukushima nuclear power complex. Why must we ask such noble sacrifices from individuals when this crisis could and should have been avoided?

The inherent danger of nuclear power creates known risks that the world has chosen to ignore, including higher cancer rates, nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and contamination from nuclear waste.

The only way to avoid another nuclear crisis is to decommission nuclear reactors. They persistently emit radiation even during their routine operations and generate radioactive waste that no country in the world has found a safe way to permanently store for the millennia it stays radioactive.

Even as radiation levels surge in Japan, media pundits discuss the dangers of radiation as if radiation sickness were limited to instances in which people experience nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, or death. This is false. A host of studies show that emissions of radioactive strontium-90 during nuclear plants’ routine operations increase cancer rates among those who live near the plants, especially in women and children. The cumulative effect of low-levels of radiation—whether from dental or airport x-rays, the routine emissions of nuclear plants, or elevated radiation emissions during nuclear plant emergencies—can be lethal over time.

In the days following the start of the world’s latest nuclear crisis, the media has repeatedly touted Japan’s nuclear expertise, marveling that such a crisis could occur in a country with such an advanced nuclear industry. The real marvel is the public’s willingness to abide the global nuclear power industry’s ability to translate its influence and government connections into taxpayer subsidies, liability caps, and lax regulatory regimes that demonstrate governments’ cavalier disregard for public safety. Why is the public willing to subsidize and cap the liability of an industry that is afraid it may cause so much harm it cannot afford to pay for it?

Surely the world has received a wake-up call—the sight of Japanese workers on near-suicide missions trudging and flying back into lethal radiation at the doomed Fukushima plant in a desperate attempt to prevent a wider nuclear catastrophe. Videos present a graphic testament to the failure of human foresight: a country with a supposedly advanced nuclear industry reduced to trying to prevent a full nuclear meltdown by helicopters’ dousing windblown water on damaged reactors and their radioactive waste fuel as if they were an out-of-control campfire.

A power failure following an earthquake or other natural disaster is not an unforeseeable event, nor is a massive earthquake or tsunami in the “Ring of Fire”—the area of high seismic and volcanic activity that rings the Pacific. The Japanese government disregarded these known and substantial risks at the Fukushima nuclear plants. The U.S. government continues to disregard these known and substantial risks at the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear plants in California, which sit just 40 miles from the offshore Cascadia subduction zone where another earthquake and tsunami is highly likely.

But the ultimate failure of foresight is public acceptance of an expanding nuclear industry whose danger exceeds the fallible human race’s ability to manage it. Nuclear power technology is based on the mad idea of generating electricity by using radioactive fuel to boil water, using a process that can create an uncontrollable nuclear reaction if mismanaged.

So far, the nuclear industry’s false refrain that nuclear power plants have no carbon footprint has obscured the fact that nuclear plants’ radiation footprint is far more lethal than the carbon footprint of any other industry.
In fact, the nuclear power life cycle produces carbon emissions, especially during uranium milling and mining, which severely harm human health and the environment.

As we have written, nuclear power is particularly ill-suited to the climate change era because of nuclear plants’ need for vast amounts of cooling water and because new plants cannot be built fast enough to substitute for higher carbon energy sources before climate change reaches a tipping point.

The Public Pushes Back

Around the globe, members of the public are trying to push the reset button. Anti-nuclear protests have spread in Europe, including Germany, France, and Italy. As a result of the crisis in Japan and an anti-nuclear protest in Germany that drew over 100,000 people, the German government has reversed its plans to extend the operating lives of its aging nuclear reactors by 12 years, and has shut 7 nuclear plants for safety inspections. The EU has announced plans to stress test the 143 plants in its 27 countries, and Switzerland has suspended a project to replace its nuclear reactors.

Nature and Nuclear Power

As people around the world witness and grieve over the profound human suffering and tragedy in Japan, they also struggle with fears for their own safety, from both the impact of Japan’s unfolding nuclear crisis and the risks posed by their own country’s nuclear power industry. Even more than an oil disaster, a nuclear disaster anywhere is a disaster everywhere.

Japan’s 9.0 quake and its aftermath show the stark mismatch between human nature and the forces of nature unleashed by nuclear power. While immediate short-term reforms are necessary to protect the public from existing nuclear reactors—such as picking up the pace at which plants move radioactive spent reactor fuel from largely unprotected spent fuel pools into concrete entombments, and tighter standards for nuclear plants’ backup power—the only real solution to the dangerous, dirty, and uneconomical nuclear fuel industry is for the world to speed its transition to truly clean energy.

Governments all around the world are ignoring the well-documented dangers of nuclear power as part of “a largely out-of-sight worldwide free-for-all among nuclear power companies and their allied national governments to expand their share of the fast-growing nuclear energy international market,” as we wrote in June 2010 in “The Upcoming Nuclear Peril: Worse than the BP Oil Disaster.”

Seventeen nuclear reactors in the EU and 23 reactors in the U.S. are boiling water reactors similar to the Japanese Fukushima reactors—known as GE Mark 1 reactors— whose containment structures exploded. Since at least 1972, experts have warned that if the plants’ cooling systems failed, the primary containment vessels would probably burst as the fuel rods inside overheated, spewing radiation.

Despite well-publicized safety problems with new AP1000 reactors, including the likelihood of containment failure, China and the UK are among the countries with plans to build such reactors. China has already begun construction. Half of the 2 8 new re a c tor s proposed for the U.S. are AP1000 reactors.

T h e U.S . Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has required some design improvements in the AP1000 reactor but even with those, a senior NRC engineer has warned that the reactor’s concrete-steel containment building could shatter “like a glass cup” from the impact of an earthquake, airplane, or storm-carried missile. The NRC is expected to issue its final approval this May. In a March 7, 2011 letter, Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass) urged the NRC to resolve the safety issues before issuing its approval.

China has the world’s most ambitious plans to expand nuclear power, but this week it announced that it would suspend its approval of any new plants pending a review of its safety standards. It is in the midst of building more nuclear power plants than the rest of the world combined even as it accounts for about half the earth’s recorded quakes every year. The former head of its nuclear program recently received a life sentence for corruption.

China hasn’t given up its plans to quadruple its nuclear-power capacity over the next decade but it has told local officials to temporarily cool their enthusiasm for nuclear power. Other countries from Thailand, to India, and Chile are re-evaluating their plans to expand nuclear power.

The U.S. has stubbornly reaffirmed its support for nuclear power, saying it will look for “lessons learned” from Japan, even as both countries demonstrate a remarkable indifference to the lessons to be learned from the problems in their own nuclear industry, whether caused byearthquakes and other natural disasters, power failures, or human error.

The Fool in “Foolproof Technologies”

Edward Teller, father of the nuclear bomb, famously said that the problem with foolproof technologies is that the fool always proves greater than the proof. The Japanese and U.S. government’s cavalier attitude toward nuclear safety, including seismic risks, evidences the truth of his statement.

Before Japan’s 9.0 earthquake, its Atomic Energy Commission had claimed that Japan’s reactors were built to withstand an all but a “once in 10,000 years” earthquake. Yet since Japan’s first reactors started up in the 1960s, three earthquakes before the 9.0 quake had produced vibrations that exceeded design assumptions. The Fukushima power plant was designed to withstand only a 7.0 quake.

In 2007, after a 6.8 earthquake damaged and led to an indefinite shutdown of Japan’s Kashiwazaki- Kariwa nuclear plant, which had been built on an undiscovered active fault line, the deputy director for nuclear safety at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said that the nuclear company had done the best it could when it constructed the plant, adding, “If you insisted on being 100% sure about finding all active fault lines, you’d never get anything built.”

WikiLeaks cables show that in 2008 the International Atomic Energy Agency warned that Japan’s safety guidelines for protecting nuclear plants from earthquakes were inadequate and out of date.

The NRC also has been slow to update its assessment of seismic hazards. More than five years after NRC staff recommended an updated assessment, the NRC released its August 2010 report that raised the risk of quake damage to U.S. plants from the range of 1 in 100,000 to the range of 1 in 10,000. The plants most at risk are in the East, South, and Midwest because they haven’t been built to withstand earthquakes. The NRC report said that with risks no higher than 1 in 10,000, “there was no immediate concern regarding adequate protection.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has just ordered a review of earthquake danger at the Indian Point plant, which was listed as the U.S. plant most at risk.

Several U.S. nuclear plants sit on or near earthquake fault lines. Despite a newly discovered fault just offshore of the aging Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which sits half way between San Francisco and LA, the NRC has so far refused to shut it or even deny a 20-year extension of its operating license. It also has failed to shut California’s San Onofre nuclear plant, which sits in a highly active seismic zone and lacks the freeways necessary for an emergency evacuation of the 7.4 million people who live within 50 miles of the plant.

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010,” shows how NRC tolerates known safety problems at U.S. nuclear plants, and describes the NRC’s 14 nuclear “near-misses” in 2010.

The nuclear industry has been no more immune to fraud and cover-ups than any other industry. The difference is in the potential scale of the consequences. Several examples suffice.

The President of Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), which operates the Fukushima plants, resigned along with four of the company’s other senior executives after suspected safety violations and cover-ups. TEPCO is Japan’s largest utility and a minority investor in a planned new nuclear plant in Texas known as the new South Texas Project.

Local residents sued to shut the Shimane nuclear plant in Japan due to an earthquake fault line 2.5 km (1.5 miles) from the plant that the plant’s utility operator, Chugoku Electric Power Co., disclosed in 1998, long after the plant began operations. The utility first reported that the fault line was 8 km long, but gradually upped it to 22 km while still asserting the plant could withstand any quake and pursuing its plans to build a new reactor at the site. In June 2010, the utility announced that it had discovered that it had failed to perform required inspections or component replacements at 511 locations at the plant, up from the 120 such failures it had reported in March. Last month the company announced that technical problems have delayed the start-up of a new reactor at the site.

Greg Palast, a former lead investigator in U.S. government nuclear plant fraud and racketeering investigations, recently wrote a chilling account about falsified results of safety tests of back-up diesel generators at the U.S. Shoreham nuclear plant. The generators failed so fast during safety tests that the investigators nicknamed them “Snap, Crackle, and Pop.”

Power Blackouts and Nuclear Plants

Standards need to be tightened to protect the public from nuclear accidents caused by nuclear plants’ loss of on-site and off-site power. The NRC now requires U.S. plants to be able to cope with such “station blackouts” for as little as 4-8 hours. A natural disaster, a terrorist attack on infrastructure, or a Nor’easter storm could easily cause a longer station blackout. U.S. nuclear reactors have already experienced power failures as a result of natural disasters, including a 2008 hurricane, 1998 tornado, and 1992 hurricane.

Every nuclear plant should be subject to safety standards to protect backup generators from tsunamis and other foreseeable risks. Back-up generators near water, like those at the Fukushima plant, are in danger of getting swamped. Because of nuclear plants’ need for vast amounts of cooling water, they are often built on coastlines or rivers. Coastal plants are particularly vulnerable to the rising sea levels and severe storms that climate change is causing. Nine of the EU’s Mark 1 reactors, in Sweden and Finland, are on coastlines, and about 40% of all the EU’s reactors are on coastlines.

Nuclear safety standards also must address the risk from a “space weather” event—“an enormous ejection of charged gas from the sun capable of scrambling terrestrial electronic instruments.” The history and current understanding of such solar flares and other space weather events that have the ability to “affect the integrity of the world’s power grids,” were vividly described in a recent New York Times article, “Celestial Storm Warnings,” by prominent scientists John Holdren and John Beddington.

The Foundation for Resilient Societies has filed a rulemaking petition with the NRC to address the problem of loss of backup power for unattended spent fuel cooling at nuclear plants, which will hopefully stoke public demand for new NRC rules on backup power.

During the 2009-10 U.S. election cycle, the Nuclear Energy Institute (the main trade and lobbying arm of the U.S. nuclear industry) and over a dozen power companies with big nuclear reactor fleets spent tens of million of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to key members of Congress, according to Politico and data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. A similar tale of corporate power and influence could be told in any country in which the nuclear industry does business.

Taxpayer Subsidies and Liability Caps for the Nuclear Industry

Even before the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the realization was spreading that the much-hyped “nuclear renaissance” was an illusion. The industry has never been able to survive without massive taxpayer subsidies in France, the U.S., or elsewhere.

Several years ago as the touted renaissance began, U.S. nuclear CEOs made clear that this time would be no different and that there would be no new plants without new taxpayer subsidies, including taxpayer-financed loans, insurance against delays caused by public participation in the licensing process, and caps on the industry’s liability for nuclear catastrophes.

Countless studies have shown that nuclear power is dirty power that even as a mature industry cannot compete with other energy sources. A comprehensive report on taxpayer subsidies for nuclear power, released last month by the Union of Concerned Scientists, concluded that “in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy kilowatts on the open market and give them away.”

The nuclear industry will not passively watch the galvanizing public pushback against its ambitious plans to expand nuclear power. It will take a sustained and well organized political movement for people around the world to counter the nuclear industry’s global power, fueled by its political and media connections.

Nothing but a powerful political movement can dispel the confusion and misunderstanding created by the mainstream media’s poor coverage of the dangers of nuclear power, including the dangers of the industry’s routine radiation emissions.

There’s Nothing Green About Nuclear Power

Japan’s nuclear crisis has captured the world’s attention and empathy, as it should and will in the months and years ahead. But as the world struggles with that crisis, it must come to terms with the fact that nuclear power does not need an earthquake and tsunami to be dangerous. We must stop courting disaster through our energy choices. Nuclear power is not green. It does not sustain life. It destroys it.

Common sense dictates that people around the world reject a form of energy that is inherently dangerous, carcinogenic, too risky and expensive for the private sector to fund, and controlled by a few corporations who enrich themselves by demanding liability caps and other taxpayer subsidies as the price of doing business. That price is too high to pay.

Rinaldo Brutoco is the Founding President of the World Business Academy, and a frequent public speaker and a prolific author on renewable energy, climate change, and sustainable business strategies. He is the co-author of Freedom from Mid-East Oil (2007), a leading book on energy and climate change, and Profiles in Power (1997), a college textbook on nuclear power and the dawn of the solar age.

Madeleine Austin is the Vice President of the World Business Academy and the co-author with Rinaldo Brutoco of several articles on nuclear power, including “The Nuclear Nemesis” (ABA, Trends May/June 2008) and “The Nuclear Nemesis Redux” (Forum CSR International, Dec. 2008).

All republished content that appears on Truthout has been obtained by permission or license.

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Tokyo’s tap water is unfit for babies to drink after radiation from Japan’s quake-hit nuclear plant affected the capital’s water supply, officials said.

Radioactive iodine levels in some areas were twice the recommended safe level.

People in Fukushima prefecture, where the nuclear plant is located, have been told not to eat certain vegetables because of contamination worries.

Workers have been temporarily evacuated from the plant after black smoke was seen rising from reactor No 3.

Engineers have been trying to cool the reactors and spent fuel rods to avoid a major release of radiation, after power to the cooling systems was knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami.

The authorities are warning people living in Tokyo not to allow babies less than a year old to drink water from the tap.

The level of radiation picked up in tests carried out on Tuesday was more than twice the level that is safe for infants to drink.

Analysis

Japan’s health ministry has urged some residents near the plant to stop drinking tap water after samples showed elevated levels of radioactive iodine – about three times the normal level.

Radioactive iodine has also been found in water supplies in Tokyo at twice the levels deemed safe for babies under a year old to drink.

Raised radiation levels have also been found in samples of milk and 11 green leafy vegetables, in some cases well outside the 20km exclusion zone.

However, there is no suggestion that these levels of radiation pose any immediate threat to human health.

Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano said the level of radioactivity found in samples of spinach would, if consumed for a year, equal the radiation received in a single CAT scan. For the milk, the figure would be much less.

Experts say that safe limits for radiation in food are kept extremely low, so people should not necessarily be unduly worried by reports that they had been breached.

But officials have stressed that children would have to drink a lot of it before it harmed them. There is no immediate health risk to others.

The government has also ordered people living in Fukushima not to eat 11 types of green leafy vegetable grown locally that have been contaminated by radiation.

Local producers have been ordered not to send the goods to market, and in the neighbouring prefecture of Ibaraki they have been told to halt shipments of milk and parsley with immediate effect.

The Japanese Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano, said: “Even if these foods are temporarily eaten, there is no health hazard.

“But unfortunately, as the situation is expected to last for the long term, we are asking that shipments stop at an early stage, and it is desirable to avoid intake of the foods as much as possible.”

He told a news conference that importers of Japanese foods should take a “logical stance”.

Hong Kong has banned a variety of food imports.

The Food and Drug Administration in the US said that all milk and milk products and fresh fruits and vegetables from four Japanese prefectures – Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma – would be stopped from entering the United States.

Countries including China, Taiwan and South Korea have already been carrying out rigorous checks of Japanese food imports.

SetbacksThe confirmed death toll from the earthquake and tsunami has risen to 9,408, and more than 14,700 people are listed as missing.

An estimated half a million people have been made homeless and some 300,000 people remain in evacuation centres or temporary housing.

Tokyo mother Miho: “It is very scary at the moment”

Japan has said it will cost as much as 25 trillion yen ($309bn; £189bn) to rebuild the country after the disaster.

Meanwhile, work has been halted at the Fukushima Daiichi plant after black smoke was seen rising from reactor 3.

Radiation levels were reported to be unusually high before the smoke was spotted; they later fell but remain higher than in recent days.

Engineers were earlier forced to halt testing of the electrical system at reactor 2 after radiation levels spiked. There is also concern about the rising temperature at reactor 1.

Power cables have been connected to all six reactors, and lighting has been restored at reactor 3.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco), had hoped to try to power up water pumps to reactor 3 on Wednesday but it is unclear whether that will now happen.

Tepco has said restoring power to all the reactor units could take weeks or even months. Engineers’ efforts have been frequently hampered by smoke and spikes in radiation.

On Tuesday, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) senior official, James Lyons, said he could not confirm that the damaged reactors were “totally intact” or if they were cracked and leaking radiation.

“We continue to see radiation coming from the site… and the question is where exactly is that coming from,” Mr Lyons told a news conference.

BBC news graphic

Are you in Japan? Are you taking part in the recovery efforts? Send us your comments and experiences using the form below.

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How Much Fuel Is at Risk at Fukushima?

on 17 March 2011, 5:39 PM | | 1 Comments

The maximum hazard from a crippled nuclear power plant depends on how much radioactive fuel is on site, both in the reactors and in the storage pools. And the Daiichi complex in Fukushima, Japan, damaged by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami contains more fuel than was at risk at Three Mile Island.

The Daiichi complex had a total of 1760 metric tons of fresh and used nuclear fuel on site last year, according to a presentation by its owners, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). The most damaged Daiichi reactor, number 3, contains about 90 tons of fuel, and the storage pool above reactor 4, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC’s) Gregory Jaczko reported yesterday had lost its cooling water, contains 135 tons of spent fuel. The amount of fuel lost in the core melt at Three Mile Island in 1979 was about 30 tons; the Chernobyl reactors had about 180 tons when the accident occurred in 1986.

When the 9.0 earthquake struck, three of the six nuclear reactors at the Daiichi complex were running and were immediately shut down. The other three were already down for inspection, and their fuel had been unloaded.

The three machines in service—only one of which appears to have been seriously damaged in the quake—contain partly burned fuel that could harm the environment and endanger public health. Storage ponds that contain used fuel also pose a risk—as Jaczko, the NRC chair, emphasized in dramatic testimony yesterday to the U.S. Congress. Citing the deterioration of Daiichi’s cooling systems, he recommended that people evacuate the area around the plant within a 50-mile radius.

Some saw Jaczko’s comments as an overreaction. But it raised the question of what a worst-case scenario would look like.

The answer must take into account fuel rods held in standby in the reactors plus used fuel in the seven storage pools—one co-located with each reactor and a central holding facility. Although cooling and fuel containment systems have done their jobs as designed in most cases, one reactor appears to be leaking from its containment structure. And one holding pool—according to Jaczko, but not Tepco—may have run out of water. The temperature of some other pools is elevated.

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(Reuters) – Japan‘s devastating earthquake and deepening nuclear crisis could result in losses of up to $200 billion for the world’s third largest economy but the global impact remains hard to gauge five days after a massive tsunami battered the northeast coast.

As Japanese officials scrambled to avert a catastrophic meltdown at a nuclear plant 240 km (150 miles) north of the capital Tokyo, economists took stock of the damage to buildings, production and consumer activity.

The disaster is expected to hit Japanese output sharply over the coming months, but economists warned it could result in a deeper slowdown if power shortages prove significant and prolonged, delaying or even scotching the “v-shaped” recovery that followed the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Most believe the direct economic hit will total between 10-16 trillion yen ($125-$200 billion), resulting in a contraction in second quarter gross domestic product (GDP) but a sharp rebound in the latter half of 2011 as reconstruction investment boosts growth.

“The economic cost of the disaster will be large,” economists at JP Morgan said. “There has been substantial loss to economic resources, and economic activity will be impeded by infrastructure damages (like power outages) in the weeks or months ahead.”

Japanese stocks suffered their worst two-day rout since the 1987 crash on Monday and Tuesday, losing a whopping $626 billion in value, before rebounding 5.7 percent on Wednesday as hedge funds rushed to cover short positions.

But traders remained skittish, swayed by each new development at the stricken Fukushima power plant and alert to signs Japanese companies and insurers could sell sizeable foreign assets and repatriate funds to cover the costs of the nuclear crisis, quake and tsunami.

High-yield bonds and U.S. Treasuries top the list of vulnerable assets should the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear breakdown prompt Japanese investors to bring overseas funds back home, analysts say.

YEN RISK

Although the damage to infrastructure has been severe, some of the biggest risks to the economy may come from indirect market consequences of the disaster, such as a rise in the Japanese yen.

The yen surged to an all-time high against the dollar after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 as Japanese firms pulled funds home. The dollar has fallen 3 percent against the yen since the disaster and is now close to the low hit after Kobe.

The direction of the yen could have a big impact on Japanese carmakers like Toyota Motor Co, Nissan Motor and Honda Motor, which build between 22 and 38 percent of their cars at home.

HSBC Chief Economist Stephen King said it was still too early to put a figure on the economic costs as the scale of the disaster was not yet clear.

The area of Japan affected by the tsunami produces around 4.1 percent of the country’s GDP, suggesting first-round economic effects could be limited, he said. But with the fate of the Fukushima nuclear reactors still unclear, Japan may not have felt the full force of the disaster yet.

“At this stage, it’s too early to come up with meaningful estimates of the overall impact of the terrible events in Japan,” King wrote in a research note.

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Power and Transport Trouble Japanese IT Makers After Quake

Japan’s major electronics companies took stock of their problems on Monday, as the country struggles to come to terms with the scale of devastation following Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami.

Several of Japan’s largest electronics manufacturers suspended production at some plants on Monday.

The companies are having to deal with several problems at once. Some plants were damaged by the earthquake. Other plants are offline because of a loss of power, while others can operate but are unable to get parts because supply chains have been disrupted.

Sony said seven of its plants were not in operation on Monday. Several hundred Sony staff slept in one factory over the weekend because they faced problems getting home or because their homes were badly damaged.

NEC factories in Iwate and Fukushima prefectures are offline because of electricity and water supply problems and Hitachi has halted work at six factories. Fujitsu shut down 10 plants on Monday, while Canon has suspended work at eight and Nikon at four. Factories in the region belonging to other electronics companies and their suppliers are also offline.

Many of the companies are unable to say when production will restart.

Work is also being affected outside of the quake-hit region. Problems at several nuclear power stations have cut power generation capacity by 27 percent, and sparked fears that supply will not be able to keep up with demand.

Late on Sunday, the government asked major companies to reduce electricity consumption and some responded by instructing employees to stay at home. Other energy-saving measures include the switching off of large neon signs and giant TVs that blast advertisements over major intersections.

Planned blackouts began late Monday in two regions around the capital as part of a plan to keep the lights on in Tokyo. The blackouts affect all customers in those regions, so factories and offices are also being forced to suspend work.

There are no plans to ration power in central Tokyo.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn’s e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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The rubble caused by an earthquake and tsunami fill the landscape in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, Monday, March 14, 2011, three days after northea AP – The rubble caused by an earthquake and tsunami fill the landscape in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, …

TAGAJO, Japan – There are just too many bodies. Hundreds of dead have washed ashore on Japan’s devastated northeast coast since last week’s earthquake and tsunami. Others were dug out of the debris Monday by firefighters using pickaxes and chain saws.

Funeral homes and crematoriums are overwhelmed, and officials have run out of body bags and coffins.

Compounding the disaster, water levels dropped precipitously inside a Japanese nuclear reactor, twice leaving the uranium fuel rods completely exposed and raising the threat of a meltdown, hours after a hydrogen explosion tore through the building housing a different reactor.

On the economic front, Japan’s stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries including big names such as Toyota and Honda.

While the official death toll rose to nearly 1,900, the discovery of the washed-up bodies and other reports of deaths suggest the true number is much higher. In Miyagi, the police chief has estimated 10,000 deaths in his province alone.

Miyagi prefecture bore the full force of Friday’s tsunami, and police said 1,000 bodies were found scattered across its coast. The Kyodo news agency reported that 2,000 bodies washed up on two shorelines in Miyagi.

Most Japanese opt to cremate their dead, and with so many bodies, the government on Monday waived a rule requiring permission first from local authorities before cremation or burial to speed up funerals, said Health Ministry official Yukio Okuda.

“The current situation is so extraordinary, and it is very likely that crematoriums are running beyond capacity,” said Okuda. “This is an emergency measure. We want to help quake-hit people as much as we can.”

The town of Soma has only one crematorium that can handle 18 bodies a day, said an official, Katsuhiko Abe.

“We are overwhelmed and are asking other cites to help us deal with bodies,” Abe told The Associated Press.

Millions of people spent a fourth night with little food, water or heating in near-freezing temperatures as they dealt with the loss of homes and loved ones. Asia’s richest country hasn’t seen such hardship since World War II.

Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, one of the hardest hit, said deliveries of supplies were just 10 percent of what is needed. Body bags and coffins were running so short that the government may turn to foreign funeral homes for help, he said.

The pulverized coast has been hit by hundreds of aftershocks, the latest one a 6.2 magnitude quake that was followed by a new tsunami scare Monday.

As sirens wailed in Soma, the worst hit town in Fukushima prefecture, soldiers abandoned their search operations and yelled to residents: “Find high ground! Get out of here!”

The warning turned out to be a false alarm and interrupted the efforts of search parties clearing a jumble of broken timber, plastic sheets, roofs, sludge, twisted cars, tangled power lines and household goods.

Ships were flipped over near roads, a half-mile (a kilometer) inland. Officials said one-third of the city of 38,000 people was flooded and thousands were missing.

Though Japanese officials have refused to speculate on the death toll, Indonesian geologist Hery Harjono, who dealt with the 2004 Asian tsunami, said it would be “a miracle really if it turns out to be less than 10,000” dead.

The 2004 disaster killed 230,000 people — of which only 184,000 bodies were found.

Harjono noted that many bodies in Japan may have been sucked out to sea or remain trapped beneath rubble as they did in Indonesia’s hardest-hit Aceh province. But he also stressed that Japan’s infrastructure, high-level of preparedness and city planning to keep houses away from the shore could mitigate its human losses.

According to public broadcaster NHK, some 430,000 people are in emergency shelters or with relatives, while another 24,000 are stranded.

One reason for the loss of power is the damage to several nuclear reactors in the area. At one plant, Fukushima Dai-ichi, three reactors have lost the ability to cool down. A building holding one of them exploded Monday, the second such blast at the plant in three days.

A top Japanese official said the fuel rods in all three of the most troubled reactors appeared to be melting. Unit 2 caused the most worry.

Technicians struggled to raise water levels in the reactor, but the rods remained partially exposed late Monday night, increasing the risk of the spread of radiation and the potential for an eventual meltdown.

“Units 1 and 3 are at least somewhat stabilized for the time being,” said Nuclear and Industrial Agency official Ryohei Shiomi. “Unit 2 now requires all our effort and attention.”

Though people living within a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius were ordered to leave over the weekend, authorities told anyone remaining there or in nearby areas to stay inside their homes following Monday’s blast.

Military personnel on helicopters returning to ships with the U.S. 7th Fleet registered low-level of radioactive contamination Monday, but were cleared after a scrub-down. As a precaution, the ships shifted to a different area off the coast.

So far, Tokyo Electric Power, the nuclear plant’s operator, is holding off on imposing rolling blackouts, but the utility urged people to limit electricity use. Many regional train lines were suspended or operated a limited schedule.

The impact of the earthquake and tsunami on the world’s third-largest economy helped drag down the share markets Monday, the first business day since the disasters. The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average fell 6.2 percent while the broader Topix index lost 7.5 percent.

To lessen the damage, Japan’s central bank injected 15 trillion yen ($184 billion) into money markets.

Initial estimates put repair costs in the tens of billions of dollars, costs that would likely add to a massive public debt that, at 200 percent of gross domestic product, is the biggest among industrialized nations.

___

Pitman reported from Sendai. Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge in Soma, Kelly Olsen in Koriyama, Malcolm J. Foster, Mari Yamaguchi, Tomoko A. Hosaka and Shino Yuasa in Tokyo and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.

 

********************

How the Japan quake shortened the Earth’s day:

This map shows the location of the March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan, as well as the foreshocks (dotted lines), including a 7.2-magnitude event on March 9, and aftershocks (solid lines). The size of each circle represents the magnitude of the associated
This map shows the location of the March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan, as well as the foreshocks (dotted lines), including a 7.2-magnitude event on March 9, and aftershocks (solid lines). The size of each circle represents the magnitude of the associated quake or shock.
CREDIT: USGS

The massive earthquake that struck northeast Japan Friday (March 11) has shortened the length Earth’s day by a fraction and shifted how the planet’s mass is distributed.

A new analysis of the 8.9-magnitude earthquake in Japan has found that the intense temblor has accelerated Earth’s spin, shortening the length of the 24-hour day by 1.8 microseconds, according to geophysicist Richard Gross at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Gross refined his estimates of the Japan quake’s impact – which previously suggested a 1.6-microsecond shortening of the day – based on new data on how much the fault that triggered the earthquake slipped to redistribute the planet’s mass. A microsecond is a millionth of a second. [Photos: Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in Pictures]

 

“By changing the distribution of the Earth’s mass, the Japanese earthquake should have caused the Earth to rotate a bit faster, shortening the length of the day by about 1.8 microseconds,” Gross told SPACE.com in an e-mail. More refinements are possible as new information on the earthquake comes to light, he added.

The scenario is similar to that of a figure skater drawing her arms inward during a spin to turn faster on the ice. The closer the mass shift during an earthquake is to the equator, the more it will speed up the spinning Earth.

One Earth day is about 24 hours, or 86,400 seconds, long. Over the course of a year, its length varies by about one millisecond, or 1,000 microseconds, due to seasonal variations in the planet’s mass distribution such as the seasonal shift of the jet stream.

The initial data suggests Friday’s earthquake moved Japan’s main island about 8 feet, according to Kenneth Hudnut of the U.S. Geological Survey. The earthquake also shifted Earth’s figure axis by about 6 1/2 inches (17 centimeters), Gross added.

The Earth’s figure axis is not the same as its north-south axis in space, which it spins around once every day at a speed of about 1,000 mph (1,604 kph). The figure axis is the axis around which the Earth’s mass is balanced and the north-south axis by about 33 feet (10 meters).

“This shift in the position of the figure axis will cause the Earth to wobble a bit differently as it rotates, but will not cause a shift of the Earth’s axis in space – only external forces like the gravitational attraction of the sun, moon, and planets can do that,” Gross said.

This isn’t the first time a massive earthquake has changed the length of Earth’s day. Major temblors have shortened day length in the past.

The 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile last year also sped up the planet’s rotation and shortened the day by 1.26 microseconds. The 9.1 Sumatra earthquake in 2004 shortened the day by 6.8 microseconds.

And the impact from Japan’s 8.9-magnitude temblor may not be completely over.The weaker aftershocks may contribute tiny changes to day length as well.

The March 11 quake was the largest ever recorded in Japan and is the world’s fifth largest earthquake to strike since 1900, according to the USGS. It struck offshore about 231 miles (373 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo and 80 miles (130 km) east of the city of Sendai, and created a massive tsunami that has devastated Japan’s northeastern coastal areas. At least 20 aftershocks registering a 6.0 magnitude or higher have followed the main temblor.

“In theory, anything that redistributes the Earth’s mass will change the Earth’s rotation,” Gross said. “So in principle the smaller aftershocks will also have an effect on the Earth’s rotation. But since the aftershocks are smaller their effect will also be smaller.”

 

 

Japan's quake updated to magnitude 9.0

Short Sharp Science: Japan’s quake updated to magnitude 9.0.

Jiminy!

1830 GMT, 11 March 2011

Paul Marks, senior technology reporter

The US Air Force is delivering a cargo of liquid coolant to the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant – where one of six reactors seriously affected by today’s quake is still alarmingly hot many hours after it was automatically shut down when the quake struck.

Electrical, mechanical and diesel generator failures are said to have combined to deprive the reactor of power for its coolant pumps.

The Tokyo Electric Power Co told Japanese news service Jiji News that pressure in the reactor vessel is rising and that the company intends to “take measures” to release it. CNN reports that activity around the plant hints at a “struggle” to cool down the facility. Indeed, Japan’s trade minister said this evening that there could well be what he described as “small radiation leak” from the Fukushima plant.

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said local US air bases are helping deliver the coolant. The reactor – one of six – is thought to be a boiling water reactor, so the coolant is likely to be demineralised light water, meaning it is depleted of the hydrogen isotope deuterium.

Some 3000 local residents living within a 3 kilometre radius of the Fukushima plant have been evacuated by the Japanese defence force.

1722 GMT, 11 March 2011

Michael Reilly, senior technology editor

8_1190311_.jpgSeismologists at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, have just revised their calculations regarding the magnitude of today’s quake. They now say it was magnitude 9.0. Already one of the top 10 recorded earthquakes in history, the revision suggests the quake was even more powerful than first thought.

Harold Tobin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison told New Scientist that this figure will probably change again. This is typical in the hours after a large seismic event, as more information becomes available.

Earlier today, it was suggested that the tremor may have occurred along a splay fault – a branch off the main megathrust fault which runs through this area of the Japan trench. If so, that could mean the fault was previously unknown to geologists.

Splay faults tend to break at steeper angles than megathrust quakes, making them highly likely to lead to a large uplift of the seafloor that produces damaging tsunamis such as the one that crashed ashore in Sendai and the Honshu coast earlier today.

But the new set of calculations indicate that the giant quake ruptured at an angle of 14 degrees below horizontal. Such a shallow slip suggests the earthquake did in fact occur along the main megathrust fault.

Tobin said that in the next few days, seismologists will be working feverishly to come up with a new set of calculations known as an “inversion” to determine over what area the fault slipped and how great the slip was. It’s likely to have been several metres for an earthquake of this magnitude.

Once that’s established, geologists will begin to look at how this earthquake may have transferred stress onto – or away from – faults in the Tokyo bay and Nankai trough regions, to the south-west.

This will help get a handle on the big question that will be on everyone’s mind: when, and where, will it happen again?

PA-10353159.jpg(Image: Yasushi Kanno/AP/Press Association Images)

1514 GMT, 11 March 2011

Paul Marks, senior technology reporter

 

The Japanese government declared its first ever “state of nuclear emergency” today after two of its nuclear power stations suffered major failures in the aftermath of today’s earthquake.

Quake damage cost one plant its reactor cooling system – an absolutely critical capability for a nuclear facility – while another suffered a fire in its turbine hall. Residents in a 3-kilometre radius of the coolant-afflicted plant have been evacuated.

Both incidents were considered risky enough to require the issuing of emergency alerts to the International Atomic Energy Authority in Vienna, Austria. However, the Japanese government insists this was precautionary and that no radiation release has occurred.

As the quake struck, seismic sensors triggered shutdowns at 15 of Japan’s nuclear power stations. Eleven are thought to have resumed operation, but the four nearest the epicentre have remained shut – and the problems occurred at two of those.

After a nuclear plant is shut down, control rods are normally inserted into the reactor core to quench the fission reaction. But the reactor remains hot and still needs cooling.

At the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, located just to the south of the Miyagi district, which was worst hit by the quake and tsunami, electrical systems powering the plant’s cooling system failed – and a backup diesel generator powering water pumps didn’t cut in. The shut-down reactor remains hot.

“Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency says the plant has been shut down and no release of radiation has been detected,” said the IAEA in a statement.

Nearer the epicentre, the Onagawa nuclear plant in Miyagi was pictured with smoke streaming from its turbine building. While that’s not a nuclear issue as such – it uses superheated steam to turn a generator – any incident near a reactor is bad news. The fire is now said to be out.

These failures will probably speed efforts to make Japan’s nuclear plants more rugged against seismic risks – a process that was set in train after a July 2007 quake severely damaged Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata prefecture.

1305 GMT, 11 March 2011

PA-10352066.jpg

(Image: AP/Press Association Images)

Michael Marshall, environment reporter

The Japanese earthquake has triggered a series of tsunami waves that are now moving east across the Pacific. How will the countries they hit be affected?

The shape of each landmass is a major factor determining how the tsunami behaves. Tsunamis are most dangerous when they run over a large area of shallow water. This causes the first wavefront to slow down, so successive waves pile up to form one tremendous wave.

As a result small Pacific islands, especially ones that lie in otherwise deep water, should be largely unaffected. Wave height here might reach 30 centimetres at most. “A little atoll presents a pencil in the water, and the wave just goes right past,” says Robert Cessaro, a senior geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Hawaii. Because most of the islands in the tsunami’s path are fairly small, they should see waves 10 to 30 centimetres high at most.

Islands with a diameter of 80 kilometres, including any underwater sediment surrounding them, will slow down the waves and thus experience a larger tsunami impact.

“It looks like the Hawaiian islands will see [waves] between 1 and 2 metres [in height], depending on where you are,” Cessaro says. The first wave is expected in Hawaii at 1707 GMT (0307 local time).

Most of the tsunami’s force seems to be heading for the west coast of North America, which could see waves of up to 40 centimetres in some areas. California will see the highest waves, with Alaska “pretty much out of the beam”, says Cessaro.

California’s Crescent City, which is susceptible to tsunamis because of its confined bay, could get up to 1 metre. Residents have been urged to move to higher ground.

South America is expected to see less of an effect than North America. Waves with a height of roughly 20 to 30 centimetres may occur here.

Cessaro emphasises that these figures are rough. Data on the tsunami is still coming in, and the PTWC will be updating their models throughout the day. As the wave moves on, more gauges will be affected, the measurements generated will feed into the models and the picture will become clearer.

1230 GMT, 11 March 2011

Catherine Brahic, environment news editor

ttvulhvpd9-01.jpg(Image: NOAA)

The US National Oceanographical and Atmospheric Agency has produced this map showing when the tsunamis are expected to hit land across the Pacific. The quake was at 0546 GMT, meaning Hawaii could see the first waves around 1700 GMT (0300 local time) and smaller, low-lying Pacific islands like Tuvalu could be hit in the coming few hours.

The University of Southern California’s Tsunami Research Centre also has this map showing the theoretical path of a tsunami, with maximum wave heights. The map is not a forecast for today’s events, but the results of modelling studies the centre has done in the past for a quake of similar location and magnitude.

1200 GMT, 11 March 2011

Andy Coghlan, reporter

Brian Baptie, a seismologist at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, UK, answers our questions on the Japan quake and related tsunamis, reported at 10 metres in Sendai port in Miyagi prefecture, north-eastern Japan.

Are the recent huge quakes linked?
This one is on the same scale as the Chile quake last year and the Sumatran quake in 2004, so there is a sequence that’s been followed. They’re all caused by motion of tectonic plates. There’s no causal link between them, but it is possible that one quake could trigger another, so it’s possible Sumatra has unleashed a chain of quakes and rupture segments to the west of Sumatra.

But it’s not linked to the recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. This latest quake was 8000 times large than the Christchurch quake in terms of the energy released, so it’s a different beast.

What was the geology of the quake?
Japan sites at the boundary between two tectonic plates – there are eight major plates worldwide. To the east of Japan is the Pacific plate, and Japan itself sits on the Eurasian plate. The Pacific plate is moving west at about 8 centimetres a year, and is pushing down beneath Japan itself. As the plates push past each other, a massive amount of strain energy is generated, which builds up in the rocks. Sometimes the strain can build for many years, and that’s the underlying cause for earthquakes in Japan. The amplitude of the quake decreases rapidly from the epicentre, although it will be felt across all Japan.

What about the tsunamis now moving east?
They travel at the speed of a jet airliner and propagate at low amplitude deep in the ocean. As they approach land, the tsunami slows down but the amplitude increases, generating waves with huge energy. So you still get large waves several metres high many hours after the original quake. They can still cause extreme amounts of damage many kilometres away. Also, individual tsunamis can last for many waves, and sometimes the first is not the biggest.

Was Japan ready?
Japan is a country with a long history of earthquakes, but this one is unprecedented in Japanese history. The previous largest was Great Kanto in 1923, south of Tokyo, which resulted in 140,000 deaths, and that was 7.9 magnitude. That puts this latest one in perspective. It’s easily the largest Japan has ever experienced.

Japan has well-regulated building codes, and large buildings are constructed not to collapse. Also, people are well prepared both for quakes and tsunamis, with regular evacuation drills. All those will have saved life this time.

Are Japan’s nuclear facilities safe?
They’re unlikely to collapse in a quake, but they will have experienced strong shaking. Reactors have their own earthquake warning system that shut them down automatically. These also work for high-speed rail networks. But it’s difficult to say what damage there’s been to these facilities.

1032 GMT, 11 March 2011

Wendy Zukerman, Asia-Pacific reporter

japearthq.jpg(Image: Kyodo News/AP/PA)

A massive 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck off the north-east coast of Japan today, creating a tsunami that hit the north of the country and sparking tsunami alerts around the Pacific.

According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), the quake hit at 0546 GMT, with its epicentre 373 kilometres north-east of Tokyo. Preliminary reports suggest it occurred at a depth of 24.4 kilometres.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency says that movements in the crust caused by the quake created a tsunami that moved towards Japan’s east coast, reportedly reaching a height of 10 metres at the point of impact.

Kevin McCue, a seismologist at Central Queensland University, Australia, says tsunami waves “will be impacting other countries in the north Pacific in the coming hours”.

Already, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has issued a tsunami warning for many areas bordering the Pacific. The first wave is expected in Hawaii at 1707 GMT (0307 local time).

James Goff, a tsunami researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, says that tsunamis are virtually inevitable given the power of the earthquake. “Japan has a rigorous earthquake building code and excellent tsunami warning system and evacuation plans – this event will likely provide a severe test for all of them,” he says.

While details of the devastation in Japan remain murky, there have already been numerous reports of injuries, and five confirmed deaths. Power has been cut to 4 million homes in and around Tokyo. Five nuclear power plants in northern Japan have been shut down, but there are no reports of leaked chemicals.

Earthquakes are common in Japan because it is one of the most seismically active regions in the world. On 26 February the country experienced a 5.2-magnitude quake; a 7.2-magnitude quake hit just two days ago, and was followed by four more quakes yesterday. But quakes of a similar magnitude to today’s are rare. It is similar in scale to the quake that hit Chile almost a year ago to the day.

“This is the largest earthquake known in Japan,” says McCue. There have been just seven earthquakes in Japan over magnitude eight since 1891.

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Japan tsunami and earthquake

Japan tsunami and earthquake – live coverage | World news | guardian.co.uk.

VIDEO: Narrow escape for Japan office workers

Office workers have narrowly escaped harm by falling debris after a massive earthquake rocked Japan.

 

VIDEO: Eyewitness video of Japan quake

Flames rise from houses and debris from the tsunami in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture Burning houses and debris after the tsunami in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, Japan. Photograph: AP

Guardian environment team : Felicity Carus

7.47pm GMT: Felicity Carus is on the west coast of the US, watching the reaction to the huge waves generated by the tsunami arriving there:

Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from coastal and low lying areas along the west coast of the US this morning as seven-foot waves generated by the 8.9 earthquake near Japan first struck the US mainland coast at Crescent City, 20 miles south of the Oregon border.

The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Centre issued a warning for the California coast after waves travelled at 500 miles an hour across the Pacific, hitting Hawaii with waves up to 11ft high.

The first surges hit the US mainland at around 7.30am local time. Schools, highways and national parks were closed as authorities urged people to stay away from beaches, jetties and harbours.

Sirens sounded across Crescent City in far northern California in the early morning and police went door to door evacuating homes in the tsunami impact zone along the coast as fishermen left the busy harbour. A tsunami in 1964 devastated Crescent City and killed 11 people. Surges were expected continue to hit the California coast for up to 12 hours.

In the event, Crescent City experienced increasingly large waves from 3ft at 8.15am rising to 8.1ft at 10.15am. Some 6,000 people were evacuated from Crescent City town and police have sealed off the harbour.

In San Francisco police closed the city’s Great Highway and the National Park Service closed Ocean Beach, Baker Beach, China Beach, Fort Funston and Aquatic Park tucked inside the bay. Transport services to these areas were stopped and boats took shelter within the bay. There were also concerns that surging waves would pass under the Golden Gate Bridge and flood low-lying areas within the Bay Area, but low tide was expected to reduce their full force.

7.41pm GMT: A Japanese minister says a radioactive leak likely to come from the damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima – 240km (150 miles) north of Tokyo – is expected to be small. Reuters reports:

“It’s possible that radioactive material in the reactor vessel could leak outside but the amount is expected to be small and the wind blowing towards the sea will be considered,” Chief Cabinet Yukio Edano told a news conference.

“Residents are safe after those within a 3km radius were evacuated and those within a 10km radius are staying indoors, so we want people to be calm,” he added.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, said pressure had built up inside a reactor at the plant after the cooling system was knocked out by the earthquake, the largest on record in Japan. The company had been operating three out of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant at the time of the quake, all of which shut down. The remaining three had already been shut down for planned maintenance.

7.35pm GMT: Police in Miyagi prefecture say 200-300 bodies have been found in the northeastern coastal city of Sendai, the city closest to the epicenter of today’s first earthquake. Another 151 were confirmed killed, with 547 missing. Police also said around 800 people were injured.

7.28pm GMT: Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa has declared a national state of emergency and urged coastal and island residents to evacuate fast to higher areas, as the tsunami approaches.

7.23pm GMT: The US Geological Survey has said the new quake around Nagano a few minutes ago was measured at 6.2 magnitude – a big quake in most places. It’s 4.23am in Japan and I suspect quite a few people have had an early wake-up jolt.

7.16pm GMT: A 6.6 magnitude shock has just been reported in the Nagano Niigata area of Japan, apparently on a different faultline from the 8.9 magnitude quake earlier.

********************************************************

TOKYO | Fri Mar 11, 2011 6:01pm EST

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan confronted devastation along its northeastern coast on Saturday, with fires raging and parts of some cities under water after a massive earthquake and tsunami that likely killed at least 1,000 people.

Daybreak was expected to reveal the full extent of the death and damage from Friday’s 8.9 magnitude earthquake and the 10-meter high tsunami it sent surging into cities and villages, sweeping away everything in its path.

In one of the worst-hit residential areas, people buried under rubble could be heard calling out “help” and “when are we going to be rescued,” Kyodo news agency reported.

The government warned there could be a small radiation leak from a nuclear reactor whose cooling system was knocked out by the quake. Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered an evacuation zone around the plant be expanded to 10 km (6 miles) from 3 km. Some 3,000 people had earlier been moved out of harm’s way.

Underscoring concerns about the Fukushima plant, 240 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo, U.S. officials said Japan had asked for coolant to avert a rise in the temperature of its nuclear rods, but ultimately handled the matter on its own. Officials said a leak was still possible because pressure would have to be released.

The unfolding natural disaster prompted offers of search and rescue help from 45 countries.

China said rescuers were ready to help with quake relief while President Barack Obama told Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan the United States would assist in any way.

“This is likely to be a humanitarian relief operation of epic proportions,” Japan expert Sheila Smith of the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations wrote in a commentary.

The northeastern Japanese city of Kesennuma, with a population of 74,000, was hit by widespread fires and one-third of the city was under water, Jiji news agency said on Saturday.

The airport in the city of Sendai, home to one million people, was on fire, it added.

TV footage from Friday showed a muddy torrent of water carrying cars and wrecked homes at high speed across farmland near Sendai, 300 km (180 miles) northeast of Tokyo. Ships had been flung onto a harbor wharf, where they lay helplessly on their side.

Boats, cars and trucks were tossed around like toys in the water after a small tsunami hit the town of Kamaichi in northern Japan. Kyodo news agency reported that contact had been lost with four trains in the coastal area.

Japanese politicians pushed for an emergency budget to fund relief efforts after Kan asked them to “save the country,” Kyodo news agency reported. Japan is already the most heavily indebted major economy in the world, meaning any funding efforts would be closely scrutinized by financial markets.

Domestic media said the death toll was expected to exceed 1,000, most of whom appeared to have drowned by churning waters.

The extent of the destruction along a lengthy stretch of coastline suggested the death toll could rise significantly.

Even in a nation accustomed to earthquakes, the devastation was shocking.

“A big area of Sendai city near the coast, is flooded. We are hearing that people who were evacuated are stranded,” said Rie Sugimoto, a reporter for NHK television in Sendai.

“About 140 people, including children, were rushed to an elementary school and are on the rooftop but they are surrounded by water and have nowhere else to go.”

Japan has prided itself on its speedy tsunami warning system, which has been upgraded several times since its inception in 1952, including after a 7.8 magnitude quake triggered a 30-meter high wave before a warning was given.

The country has also built countless breakwaters and floodgates to protect ports and coastal areas, although experts said they might not have been enough to prevent disasters such as the one that struck on Friday.

In Tokyo, many residents who had earlier fled swaying buildings slept in their offices after public transport was shut down. Many subways in Tokyo later resumed operation but trains did not run.

“I was unable stay on my feet because of the violent shaking. The aftershocks gave us no reprieve. Then the tsunamis came when we tried to run for cover. It was the strongest quake I experienced,” a woman with a baby on her back told television in northern Japan.

FIRES ACROSS THE COAST

The quake, the most powerful since Japan started keeping records 140 years ago, sparked at least 80 fires in cities and towns along the coast, Kyodo said.

Other Japanese nuclear power plants and oil refineries were shut down and one refinery was ablaze.

Auto plants, electronics factories and refineries shut, roads buckled and power to millions of homes and businesses was knocked out. Several airports, including Tokyo’s Narita, were closed and rail services halted. All ports were shut.

The central bank said it would cut short a two-day policy review scheduled for next week to one day on Monday and promised to do its utmost to ensure financial market stability.

The disaster occurred as the world’s third-largest economy had been showing signs of reviving from an economic contraction in the final quarter of last year. It raised the prospect of major disruptions for many key businesses and a massive repair bill running into tens of billions of dollars.

The tsunami alerts revived memories of the giant waves that struck Asia in 2004.

Warnings were issued for countries to the west of Japan and across the Pacific as far away as Colombia and Peru, but the tsunami dissipated as it sped across the ocean and worst fears in the Americas were not realised.

The earthquake was the fifth most powerful to hit the world in the past century.

“The building shook for what seemed a long time and many people in the newsroom grabbed their helmets and some got under their desks,” Reuters correspondent Linda Sieg said in Tokyo. “It was probably the worst I have felt since I came to Japan more than 20 years ago.”

The quake surpasses the Great Kanto quake of September 1, 1923, which had a magnitude of 7.9 and killed more than 140,000 people in the Tokyo area.

The 1995 Kobe quake caused $100 billion in damage and was the most expensive natural disaster in history. Economic damage from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was estimated at about $10 billion.

Earthquakes are common in Japan, one of the world’s most seismically active areas. (Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Dean Yates)