Category Archives: Tsunami

Fallout forensics hike radiation toll

Fallout forensics hike radiation toll : Nature News.

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March released far more radiation than the Japanese government has claimed. So concludes a study1 that combines radioactivity data from across the globe to estimate the scale and fate of emissions from the shattered plant.

The study also suggests that, contrary to government claims, pools used to store spent nuclear fuel played a significant part in the release of the long-lived environmental contaminant caesium-137, which could have been prevented by prompt action. The analysis has been posted online for open peer review by the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Andreas Stohl, an atmospheric scientist with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research in Kjeller, who led the research, believes that the analysis is the most comprehensive effort yet to understand how much radiation was released from Fukushima Daiichi. “It’s a very valuable contribution,” says Lars-Erik De Geer, an atmospheric modeller with the Swedish Defense Research Agency in Stockholm, who was not involved with the study.

The reconstruction relies on data from dozens of radiation monitoring stations in Japan and around the world. Many are part of a global network to watch for tests of nuclear weapons that is run by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna. The scientists added data from independent stations in Canada, Japan and Europe, and then combined those with large European and American caches of global meteorological data.

Stohl cautions that the resulting model is far from perfect. Measurements were scarce in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accident, and some monitoring posts were too contaminated by radioactivity to provide reliable data. More importantly, exactly what happened inside the reactors — a crucial part of understanding what they emitted — remains a mystery that may never be solved. “If you look at the estimates for Chernobyl, you still have a large uncertainty 25 years later,” says Stohl.

Nevertheless, the study provides a sweeping view of the accident. “They really took a global view and used all the data available,” says De Geer.

Challenging numbers

Japanese investigators had already developed a detailed timeline of events following the 11 March earthquake that precipitated the disaster. Hours after the quake rocked the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, the tsunami arrived, knocking out crucial diesel back-up generators designed to cool the reactors in an emergency. Within days, the three reactors operating at the time of the accident overheated and released hydrogen gas, leading to massive explosions. Radioactive fuel recently removed from a fourth reactor was being held in a storage pool at the time of the quake, and on 14 March the pool overheated, possibly sparking fires in the building over the next few days.

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But accounting for the radiation that came from the plants has proved much harder than reconstructing this chain of events. The latest report from the Japanese government, published in June, says that the plant released 1.5?×?1016?bequerels of caesium-137, an isotope with a 30-year half-life that is responsible for most of the long-term contamination from the plant2. A far larger amount of xenon-133, 1.1?×?1019?Bq, was released, according to official government estimates.

The new study challenges those numbers. On the basis of its reconstructions, the team claims that the accident released around 1.7?×?1019?Bq of xenon-133, greater than the estimated total radioactive release of 1.4?×?1019? Bq from Chernobyl. The fact that three reactors exploded in the Fukushima accident accounts for the huge xenon tally, says De Geer.

Xenon-133 does not pose serious health risks because it is not absorbed by the body or the environment. Caesium-137 fallout, however, is a much greater concern because it will linger in the environment for decades. The new model shows that Fukushima released 3.5?×?1016? Bq caesium-137, roughly twice the official government figure, and half the release from Chernobyl. The higher number is obviously worrying, says De Geer, although ongoing ground surveys are the only way to truly establish the public-health risk.

Stohl believes that the discrepancy between the team’s results and those of the Japanese government can be partly explained by the larger data set used. Japanese estimates rely primarily on data from monitoring posts inside Japan3, which never recorded the large quantities of radioactivity that blew out over the Pacific Ocean, and eventually reached North America and Europe. “Taking account of the radiation that has drifted out to the Pacific is essential for getting a real picture of the size and character of the accident,” says Tomoya Yamauchi, a radiation physicist at Kobe University who has been measuring radioisotope contamination in soil around Fukushima.

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Stohl adds that he is sympathetic to the Japanese teams responsible for the official estimate. “They wanted to get something out quickly,” he says. The differences between the two studies may seem large, notes Yukio Hayakawa, a volcanologist at Gunma University who has also modelled the accident, but uncertainties in the models mean that the estimates are actually quite similar.

The new analysis also claims that the spent fuel being stored in the unit 4 pool emitted copious quantities of caesium-137. Japanese officials have maintained that virtually no radioactivity leaked from the pool. Yet Stohl’s model clearly shows that dousing the pool with water caused the plant’s caesium-137 emissions to drop markedly (see ‘Radiation crisis’). The finding implies that much of the fallout could have been prevented by flooding the pool earlier.

The Japanese authorities continue to maintain that the spent fuel was not a significant source of contamination, because the pool itself did not seem to suffer major damage. “I think the release from unit 4 is not important,” says Masamichi Chino, a scientist with the Japanese Atomic Energy Authority in Ibaraki, who helped to develop the Japanese official estimate. But De Geer says the new analysis implicating the fuel pool “looks convincing”.

The latest analysis also presents evidence that xenon-133 began to vent from Fukushima Daiichi immediately after the quake, and before the tsunami swamped the area. This implies that even without the devastating flood, the earthquake alone was sufficient to cause damage at the plant.

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The Japanese government’s report has already acknowledged that the shaking at Fukushima Daiichi exceeded the plant’s design specifications. Anti-nuclear activists have long been concerned that the government has failed to adequately address geological hazards when licensing nuclear plants (see Nature 448, 392–393; 2007), and the whiff of xenon could prompt a major rethink of reactor safety assessments, says Yamauchi.

The model also shows that the accident could easily have had a much more devastating impact on the people of Tokyo. In the first days after the accident the wind was blowing out to sea, but on the afternoon of 14 March it turned back towards shore, bringing clouds of radioactive caesium-137 over a huge swathe of the country (see ‘Radioisotope reconstruction’). Where precipitation fell, along the country’s central mountain ranges and to the northwest of the plant, higher levels of radioactivity were later recorded in the soil; thankfully, the capital and other densely populated areas had dry weather. “There was a period when quite a high concentration went over Tokyo, but it didn’t rain,” says Stohl. “It could have been much worse.” 

Additional reporting by David Cyranoski and Rina Nozawa.

Quake-prone Japanese Area Runs Disaster System on Force.com

Quake-prone Japanese Area Runs Disaster System on Force.com | PCWorld.

A coastal region of Japan due for a major earthquake and possible tsunamis has implemented a cloud-based disaster management system run by Salesforce.com.

Shizuoka Prefecture, on Japan’s eastern coast in the central region of the country, lies curled around an undersea trough formed by the junction of two tectonic plates. It has been rocked by repeated large temblors in past centuries, collectively called “Tokai earthquakes,” and the central government has warned that with underground stresses high another is imminent.

The local prefectural government began to build a new disaster management system last year, the initial version of which went live in July. It is based on Salesforce.com’s platform-as-a-service offering, Force.com, which hosts hundreds of thousands of applications.

“It would have cost a lot more to run our own servers and network, and if a disaster happened managing something like that would be very difficult, especially if the prefecture office was damaged,” said Keisuke Uchiyama, a Shizuoka official who works with the system.

Japanese prefectures are the rough equivalent of states.

The system is currently hosted on Salesforce.com’s servers in the U.S. and goes live when an official disaster warning is issued by the government. It links up information about key infrastructure such as roads, heliports and evacuation centers.

Salesforce.com says it combines GIS (geographic information system) data with XML sent from Japan’s Meteorological Agency. Users can also send email updates from the field using their mobile phones, with GPS coordinates and pictures attached.

Uchiyama said the original plan was to allow open access, but budget cuts forced that to be postponed and it is now available only to government workers and disaster-related groups. The system was implemented with a budget of about 200 million yen (US$2.6 million) over its first two years, down from an original allotment of about 500 million yen over three years.

He said it was used to keep track of the situation last week when a powerful typhoon swept through central Japan.

The obvious downside to a hosted system is that key infrastructure is often destroyed during natural disasters. After the powerful earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan’s northeastern coast in March, some seaside towns were completely devastated and went weeks without basics like power or mobile phone service. Local communities turned to word-of-mouth and public bulletin boards to spread information and search for survivors.

“If the network gets cut, it’s over,” said Uchiyama.

Japan struggles to rebuild

Insight: Japan struggles to rebuild, leaving lives in limbo | Reuters.

Severe storms hit the Midwest on Saturday and are expected later in the Northeast, where flash flooding killed at least four people in Pittsburgh on Friday.

Heavy rains submerged cars in flood water that was nine feet deep in places in Pittsburgh, authorities said.

A mother and her two daughters died when water engulfed their vehicle in a low-lying section of the city’s Washington Boulevard near the Allegheny River.

Kimberly Griffith, 45, and her daughters Brenna, 12, and Mikaela, 8, were pronounced dead at the scene, a spokeswoman for the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office said.

The water pinned their vehicle to a tree and they were unable to escape, authorities said.

Also recovered after the flood was the body of Mary Saflin, 72, who had been reported missing earlier, according to the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office.

The Philadelphia area was also soaked by heavy thunder showers Friday, bringing a record rainfall of 12.95 inches for August, close to the record for any month, according to NWS meteorologist Lee Robertson.

The previous record is from September 1999, set when a hurricane pushed rainfall to 13.07 inches.

As more storms were forecast for the region Sunday, the NWS warned in a flood advisory that nearly half of all flood fatalities are vehicle-related.

“As little as six inches of water will cause you to lose control of your vehicle,” the NWS stated.

MORE STORMS

The Weather Channel forecast more storms from the Great Lakes to the Central Plains into Saturday night.

One man died as storms and a tornado roared across northern Wisconsin Friday night, cutting an 8-mile-wide swath 65 miles north of Green Bay and taking out power to around 2,000 homes, officials said.

Douglas Brem, 43, was staying in a rented trailer at a recycling center in the path of the storm, which caused extensive damage to homes, Marinette County Coroner George Smith said.

A fierce thunderstorm in the Chicago area Saturday suspended the Chicago Air & Water Show until about 2 p.m., leaving time for a condensed show. The two-day free annual event was expected to attract around 2 million spectators.

Saturday’s thunderstorm threat will shift to the Northeast Sunday.

The Southeastern Virginia Hampton Roads region was spared from severe storm activity, but smoke from a 6,000-acre fire in the Great Dismal Swamp continues to plague the region down into North Carolina.

Virginia’s Environmental Quality Department downgraded Friday’s air quality red alert in some areas to orange, advising of possible health problems for sensitive individuals.

(Additional reporting by John Rondy in Milwaukee, Cynthia Johnston in Las Vegas, Matthew A. Ward in Chesapeake, Va., David Warner in Philadelphia; Writing by Molly O’Toole and Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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ACTION PLAN NEEDED

<span class="articleLocation”>More than five months after a massive magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a deadly tsunami ravaged Japan’s northeast coast, the nation has yet to come up with a detailed action plan and the money needed to rebuild the devastated areas.

The following is a summary of where Japan’s rebuilding efforts stand.

DEATH TOLL, EVACUEES AND SHRINKING WORKING-AGE POPULATION

— About 15,690 were killed, 4,740 are missing, and 5,710 were injured.

— Many of about 5.6 million residents of the three prefectures worst hit by the March disaster have lost their homes and the number of evacuees peaked at more than 475,000 on March 14.

— Some 9,900 still live in evacuation shelters while 34,100 are staying in hotels or with relatives or friends and about 40,000 live in temporary housing.

— Japan’s northeast is aging faster than other area of a country whose population is already graying at a rapid pace. By 2030, 31.6 percent of the population is expected to be above 65 in Tohoku, whereas the country-wide estimate is 29.6 percent.

According to BNP Paribas estimates the region’s working population shrunk 8.4 percent over the past 15 years and is expected to decline by further 12.6 percent over the next decade.

RUBBLE

— The quake and tsunami left an estimated 22.6 million tonnes of rubble in the coastal towns. Out of that, nearly half has been moved to temporary storage destinations.

— By end-August, the government aims to remove debris from areas where people live and work and this goal is likely to be met. But removal of all rubble and dismantling of damaged buildings will take months, if not years, and the government aims to dispose the stored rubble by end of March, 2014.

ECONOMIC DAMAGE

— The quake and tsunami destroyed supply chains given that the northeast is home to many manufacturers. Japan’s gross domestic product fell 0.9 percent in the first quarter, tipping the economy into its second recession in three years. But in the second quarter, the economy shrank much less than foreseen as companies made strides in restoring output and is expected to bounce by 1.2 percent this quarter — probably the best performance among major industrialized nations.

— The government initially estimated the material damage from the March 11 disaster at 16-25 trillion yen ($190-$300 billion) but later lowered it to 16.9 trillion yen ($210 billion). The estimated damage is roughly double that from the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

EMERGENCY BUDGET FOR RELIEF

— The government enacted its first extra budget of 4 trillion ($50 billion) in May, and its second emergency budget of 2 trillion ($25 billion) in July.

— The government hopes to pass the third extra budget by the end of September under a new prime minister, though whether this can materialize so quickly is unclear.

DAMAGE TO FISHING AND FARMING

— Northeast Japan is known for fishing and farming. Damages in the fishing industry are estimated at 1.23 trillion yen. About 320 fishing ports, or 11 percent of all fishing ports in Japan, have been closed due to the March disaster and it would take at least another decade for full operations to resume at these ports.

— About 2.6 percent of the total farm area in Japan, or 23,600 Ha, has been washed away or submerged due to the disaster.

AID MONEY

— The Japanese Red Cross Society has so far collected 259 billion yen in relief money. Out of this, about 48 percent has been distributed to disaster victims, while the remaining amount is stuck at overburdened local governments.

(Sources: The Cabinet Office’s Reconstruction Headquarters in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake, Environment Ministry, Fukushima Prefecture, Miyagi Prefecture, Statistics Bureau, Fisheries Agency, Farm Ministry, Japanese Red Cross Society, Cabinet Office, National Police Agency, Tohoku Trade department)

(Reporting by Yuko Takeo; Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota)

 

Nuclear worries for Japan as quake rocks south coast

Short Sharp Science: Nuclear worries for Japan as quake rocks south coast.

Wendy Zukerman, Asia-Pacific reporter

An earthquake shook Japan’s south coast on Monday, close to Hamaoka, which has the dubious status of hosting the nation’s most perilous nuclear plant.

No damage was reported – the plant had been shut down while a tsunami-proof seawall was built – but Japan is by no means free of nuclear worries. In Fukushima, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) reported that radiation exceeding 10 sieverts (10,000 millisieverts) per hour was found at the bottom of a ventilation stack standing between two reactors.

 

The Japan Meteorological Agency recorded that a 6.1 magnitude earthquake jolted Shizuoka Prefecture and the surrounding areas. Hamaoka is 40 kilometres from the quake’s epicentre and is considered one of the world’s most dangerous because it straddles two major geological faults.

Shingo Tsumura, an engineer at Chubu Electric Power Company (CEPC), which runs Hamaoka, told New Scientist that it is unlikely that yesterday’s 6.1 magnitude quake would have caused any damage to the nuclear plant, had it been switched on.

According to Tsumura, the ground at the power plant accelerated only 40 to 50 Gal (centimetres per second). “It is very small,” he says. “The plant will automatically shut down at 120 Gal.”

Tests last month reported that the plant could withstand ground motion of 300 Gal, with a “low possibility of collapse or damage that would cause functional failure.”

But Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan has said there is a high chance of a magnitude-8 quake in the region within 30 years – and in any case less powerful quakes have been known to affect the Hamoaka plant.

In August 2009, a magnitude-6.4 earthquake automatically shut down reactors 4 and 5 at the Hamaoka. According to the World Nuclear Association, of which CEPC is a member, some equipment was also damaged.

At Fukushima, a Tepco spokesman said that the potentially lethal doses of radiation were detected in areas that would not hamper recovery efforts. Tepco regulations state that workers at Fukushima not be exposed to more than 250 millisieverts of radiation a year.

Tepco said that the spots of high radiation could stem from debris left behind by emergency venting conducted after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Meanwhile Iwate Prefecture became the third to ban the shipment of beef cattle following the detection in cows of caesium above safety limits.

Strategic implications of Japan's disaster

Strategic implications of Japan’s disaster | Shadow Government.

Posted By Michael J. Green Share

I have been cautious about predicting the longer-term strategic implications of the massive earthquakes and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11. To begin with, years ago I lived for a summer in the part of Japan that has born the brunt of this disaster, interviewing farmers and politicians for a column I struggled to write each week in Japanese for the local Iwate Nippo Newspaper. The images of death and destruction, especially to the beautiful Sanriku Coast, have been heartbreaking for me to watch. A second reason for caution is the lesson many of us learned trying to anticipate the longer-term impact of the December 2004 Asian Tsunami. Most of us in government at the time expected that the civil war in Sri Lanka would end because the tsunami had destroyed the Tamil Tigers’ fleet and coastal bases, but that the insurgency in Aceh, Indonesia would grow worse because the tsunami had destroyed the Indonesian Army’s bases and lines of supply. The exact opposite occurred the Sri Lankan civil war dragged violently on for five more years, but Indonesian President Susilu Bambang Yudyuhono managed to sign a peace agreement with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) within six months of the disaster. A final reason for caution is that the scope of the disaster is not yet clear — particularly at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, where a few dozen engineers bravely remain to cool the reactor cores.

Yet as Japanese scholars and citizens themselves begin considering the future — and as American rating agencies and pundits hit a drumbeat of negative and often ill-informed predictions — it seems both appropriate and necessary to at least frame the possibilities of what comes next for Japan.

The first thing that can be said about the disaster is that it has highlighted both the traditional strengths and the adaptability of Japanese society. The world press has marveled at the stoic resolve and orderliness of the Japanese public as they queue for hours for scarce supplies without breaking the rules or complaining. This is precisely the national character that allowed Japan to rebound from even greater disasters such as the Edo fire of 1657, the Kanto earthquake of 1923, and the aftermath of the Pacific War’s end in 1945, when the Emperor announced that the Japanese people would have to “endure the unendurable”… and they did. The response has also highlighted the adaptability of Japan. After studying shortcomings in the response to the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, the Japanese government strengthened coordination with the Self-Defense Forces and created crisis management centers across central and local government. This preparation has saved countless lives, even as the government struggles on multiple fronts because of the scale of the disaster. Even more impressive has been the activism of Japanese civil society and especially of Japanese youth; frequently dismissed in recent press analysis as self-obsessed “herbivores,” they have mobilized spontaneously through Facebook and other social media and have been shown carrying elderly citizens to high ground on their backs.

The disaster will likely have at least some impact on Japanese security and foreign policy. The government’s poor response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake was seized upon by national security realists to argue for changes in emergency legislation and greater acceptance of the Self Defense Forces as an instrument of national power. Fiscal realities may keep defense spending below 1 percent of GDP, but the disaster will reinforce calls to remove impediments to the SDF’s rules of engagement and for greater interoperability with the United States (Operation “Tomodachi” — the relief effort by the 50,000 U.S. personnel in Japan — is the largest joint and combined operation between the United States and Japan ever). Japan’s relations with China and Russia, which were abysmal before the crisis, may thaw somewhat now. Beijing’s 15man rescue team could take some of the edge off of the Sino-Japanese tensions 86 percent of Japanese said in recent polls that they do not trust China — though the root cause of the tensions, PLA operations around Japan, are unlikely to change.  Putin’s decision to set aside differences over the Northern Territories for now in order to help a “good neighbor” may have a more lasting effect, since the root causes of friction between Tokyo and Moscow were always more political than structural or strategic. Finally, many Japanese friends are telling me that the world’s outpouring of support and assistance is reminding average citizens in Japan how important it is for Japan to also make its own “international contributions” in terms of ODA and security. Of course, this impulse will be in competition with the understandable desire to focus on reconstruction at home over the coming years.

Japanese economic production will definitely recover from the disaster. The damage estimates are generally well above US $150 billion, and Japanese business surveys are expecting a big hit on manufacturing output over the coming months. However, the economy is still expected to grow overall in JFY 2011 (April 2011-March 2012) once corporations adjust their supply chains and reconstruction spending begins.  Moody’s Investors Service is warning that the huge financing needs may erode investor confidence in the country’s ability to repay its debts, but this underestimates the likelihood that Japanese citizens will buy reconstruction bonds (over 90 percent of Japanese debt is already domestically held) and ignores the huge amounts of cash Japanese banks and corporations have been sitting on the past year. (Moody’s also downgraded South Korea’s sovereign debt rating when Roh Moo Hyun came to power in 2003on the dubious logic that relations with the United States would deteriorate.) However, even if production recovers, that still leaves the question of whether Japan will revitalize its basic economic growth strategy. Phil Levy rightly pointed out in his post that the Japanese political classes could become addicted again to Keynesian approaches to growing the economy. On the other hand, Prime Minister Kan had already begun to embrace measures that would unleash greater competition in the Japanese economy, including participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations. That specific debate will probably be on hold for a few months, but the economic reformers behind it will seize on the reconstruction strategy to argue for even bolder measures to revitalize economic growth. Decisions about how to raise money for reconstruction — for example, whether to include incentives for private equity and not just rely on debt — will reveal the prevailing direction of the economic strategy debate in the coming months.

Numerous Japanese commentators had recently argued that the nation needed a shock to accelerate the kind of opening, reform and revitalization that Japan embraced after Commodore Perry’s ships landed in Edo Bay on July 8, 1853 and the war ended in August, 1945. While no one could have anticipated or called for the enormity of the heart-wrenching human tragedy of March 11, the nation again finds itself at an important turning point. And history would strongly suggest that Japan will emerge stronger.

Seismic Inequality

Seismic Inequality – By Charles Kenny | Foreign Policy.

Rich countries have gotten very good at keeping people alive in earthquakes. But that doesn’t mean poor countries should try to emulate them.

BY CHARLES KENNY | MARCH 14, 2011

The death and destruction in Japan may be horrifying, but the record earthquake that struck March 11 off the east coast of Honshu island still suggests one important lesson: Building codes and land use regulations can save lives. Japan’s strict guidelines have been widely credited for keeping the death toll down to a fraction of the casualties in Haiti’s quake last year. But that doesn’t mean we should import them lock, stock, and barrel to the developing world, where the great majority of earthquake-related mortality occurs. The regulations are also complex and expensive. And there are much cheaper and more straightforward ways to save lives.

It is too early to know the full extent of the tragedy still unfolding in Japan. But one thing we do know is that the great majority of deaths — and most of the problems at the nuclear plants — are the result not of the quake itself, but of the resulting tsunami. Things could have been much worse. Although the YouTube images of shaken workers and crashing shelves in Tokyo were frightening, there were very few injuries or deaths reported in the capital city — or anywhere else where flood waters didn’t come rushing ashore. This despite the earthquake being the largest recorded in Japan’s history — and orders of magnitude larger than the devastating Haiti quake.

That means the usual pattern has been repeated: Earthquakes don’t kill people in rich countries; they kill people in poor countries. The 1988 earthquake in Armenia was half as strong as the 1989 quake in Loma Prieta near San Francisco, and yet caused 25,000 deaths compared with 100 in San Francisco. The 2003 Paso Robles quake in California had the same power as the Bam quake in Iran in 2003; the death toll was two in California and 41,000 in Iran. Again, Chile’s recent earthquake was more powerful than Haiti’s, but the death toll was considerably lower. Chile is a member of the OECD club of rich countries; Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Regulation keeps people safe in rich countries. Japan is a perfect case study. The last major earthquake that country experienced hit Kobe in 1995, resulting in 6,000 deaths. But buildings constructed after a 1981 revision of Japan’s building codes were far less likely to collapse than older buildings. As the regulation gets better, the death tolls get smaller.

The story is very different in poor countries. The 2010 Haiti quake was closer than the Japan quake to a large population center (Port-au-Prince) but, perhaps more crucially, the Haitians in that population center were mostly living in shoddily constructed buildings. Building regulations and land use codes were mostly disregarded, and rarely enforced. The result was 230,000 people dead. Similarly, many of the 17,000 deaths from the 1999 Marmara earthquake in Turkey were blamed on collapse due to poorly constructed reinforced concrete frames, construction using concrete diluted with too much sand, or construction near fault lines.

Why don’t we learn our lesson? Why can’t we at least earthquake-proof the most vulnerable major cities of the world? Simply put, it costs too much. Earthquake-resistant engineering solutions are expensive and technically demanding. In Istanbul, the cost of reinforcing 3,600 public structures to make them better able to withstand earthquakes, or retrofitting, was estimated at $1 billion — approximately $280,000 per structure and a full third of the cost of rebuilding them from scratch. And that’s just public buildings — retrofitting all the private dwellings in the city would undoubtedly have cost far more.

Moreover, it’s probably not money well spent — at least in the developing world. The cost-effectiveness of these solutions is often unfavorable compared with other interventions designed to save lives in risk-prone countries. In part, that’s because a lot of people live in areas at risk of an earthquake, but only a few actually witness large earthquakes in any particular year and deaths are concentrated in only a very few locations. It is impossible to predict where serious quakes are going to happen with any accuracy — seismic risk maps had only put Haiti at moderate risk of a large quake before last January, for example. So earthquake preparedness necessarily involves spending a lot of money on strengthening buildings that may never be put to the test.

By contrast, countries like Haiti witnesses many thousands of deaths from very easily — and cheaply — prevented diseases in every month of every year. Choosing one over the other may be unfortunate, but it’s hardly irrational. In Istanbul, the cost efficiency of retrofitting public buildings has been estimated at about $2,600 per healthy year of life saved. But in developing countries, millions of people die each year from diseases that can be cured using a simple regime of oral antibiotics, which costs as little as $0.25. More broadly, there are a range of interventions that cost less than $2 per healthy year of life saved in the developing world.

It is particularly tragic when children die when their schools collapse during earthquakes, as was the case in Sichuan, China, in 2008 when some 7,000 students died. In an average year, as many as 2,500 kids worldwide die each year in school collapses. And schools and hospitals should be first in line both for inspection to make sure they meet standard building codes and for resources to strengthen them against earthquakes.

But consider this tragedy: 10 million children under age 5 die each year from other causes before they can even make it to school — the majority of which can be easily and cheaply prevented. And getting girls into school in the first place is one of the best ways to reduce future child mortality, as well as infant and maternal mortality. If there’s $10 million for school construction and the choice is between building more schools (thus admitting more students) that may collapse in a large enough earthquake or building fewer schools that are completely earthquake-proof, you may actually save more lives by making the first choice than the second.

Even if the money is available, it takes more than cash to ensure safe construction. The regulations regarding reinforcement and design have to be enforced. Turkey’s Marmara quake was of a magnitude and type accounted for by existing design specifications in the Turkish seismic code — but it was lack of enforcement that led to deaths. Turkey, in short, wasn’t Japan: Municipalities had weak and underfunded engineering and planning departments staffed with unaccredited engineers prone to corruption. In 2006, 40 municipal officials in three towns in Turkey were arrested for taking bribes in return for allowing unlicensed construction. Across a range of countries, construction permitting appears to be a regulatory area particularly prone to corruption.

That means that strict codes that are unenforced not only fail to save lives, but can also carry significant costs on the poor. Because non-code construction is illegal, it provides ongoing opportunities for officials to demand bribes while denying many owners legal title. At the turn of the millennium, as much as half of Turkey’s urban population lived in illegal settlements with no rights to sale or transfer. That’s a major factor in keeping them poor.

Earthquake deaths aren’t “acts of God” — they are the result of poverty and weak governance. And in poor, weakly governed countries, there are a lot of deaths cheaper and more straightforward to prevent — from malaria, diarrhea, or measles, for example. In rich countries with well-functioning regulatory systems, building regulations and land use codes specifically responding to earthquake threats have a place. In poor countries where regulation is capriciously enforced, they may even be harmful. If we want to change that grim calculus, we have to learn to treat earthquake deaths as a symptom of misery — not the cause.

Nuked: Japan's Post-Tsunami Future

Nuked: Japan’s Post-Tsunami Future – An FP Roundtable | Foreign Policy.

 

On March 11, 2011, Japan’s northern coast was shaken by the biggest earthquake ever to strike the island in recorded history. With a gigantic tsunami and the nuclear meltdown that followed, 3/11 was the worst disaster to hit the developed world for a hundred years. Confronted with tough questions about its dependence on nuclear power, about the competence of its leaders both in the private and public sectors, about the economy’s ability to rebound from a shock, the country has been plunged into crisis. After centuries of earthquakes, tsunamis, war, and a long list of other disasters, natural and unnatural, the Japanese people are accustomed to building back stronger — but how do they recover from such a devastating blow, and what will that new future look like?

FP’s latest ebook, Tsunami: Japan’s Post-Fukushima Future, the in-depth look at the quake’s aftermath, assembles an exclusive collection of the top writers and scholars working in Japan today to answer these questions. In the excerpts published here, a group of Japan-watchers debate the country’s nuclear future: Will TEPCO, which supplies 29 percent of all of Japan’s electricity, be able to rebuild or will its collapse drag down the Japanese economy? What was the role of Japan’s famous “nuclear village” — the close-knit, revolving-door community of nuclear-industry officials, regulators, and lobbyists who’ve managed to keep Japan pro-nuclear even after the shocks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — in allowing the Fukushima disaster to happen? And does it make sense to continue building nuclear power plants in a country so susceptible to natural disaster, or would a new smart grid based on renewable energy sources be a better solution for Japan’s north, as Andrew DeWit and Masaru Keneko argue?

For a longer look, plus articles on many other angles of Japan’s disaster, check out the ebook — with proceeds going to the Japan Society’s tsunami relief efforts.

Lawrence Repeta: Could the Meltdown Have Been Averted?

According to Greek legend, the god Apollo bestowed on the beautiful Cassandra the gift of prophecy, but when she resisted his charms, he applied the curse that no one would believe the truths she foretold. Thus, the Trojans ignored her warnings of impending doom.

A government hearing on TEPCO’s interim report about Fukushima No. 1 provided the stage for an eerie forewarning of the tragedy to come. At this June 2009 gathering, a Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry official named Yukinobu Okamura presented research concerning another great tsunami that had appeared more than a millennium ago, in the year 869 (the Jogan earthquake and tsunami). Soil analysis and other work indicated that the waters from this tsunami had penetrated as far as three to four kilometers inland into the area of the modern city of Sendai. Sendai lies between the coastal zones to the north decimated by the great tsunamis of 1933 and 1896 and Fukushima No. 1, about 100 kilometers to the south of the city. The March 11 quake and tsunami are thought to bear many similarities to the Jogan monster of 869. Okamura asserted that TEPCO’s plans were inadequate to protect the Fukushima complex against tsunami waves of the size and location generated by the great Jogan quake and demanded better defenses. Like Cassandra’s prophecies, however, Okamura’s warnings were laid aside, perhaps to be considered another day.

According to comments of a Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) official published by the Associated Press after the disaster, NISA had never demanded that TEPCO explain its tsunami protection measures and had not conducted its own studies of what degree of protection might be “appropriate.” Various published reports indicate that TEPCO assumed that tsunami waves would not exceed 5.7 meters. This official further said that NISA was about to begin a study of tsunami risks this year.

The story of the Fukushima reactors is intimately tied to Japan’s postwar pursuit of rapid economic growth. The most fundamental cause of the disaster is the boundless appetite for power needed to drive the economy.

Surely the die was cast when the first Fukushima reactors were built. Japan’s nuclear industry was in its infancy. Contractors followed blueprints and designs provided by General Electric (GE), and GE sent technical staff to Japan to advise on construction. Perhaps the GE design team was not familiar with local tsunami risk and the Japanese contractors were overly focused on successfully completing their work according to GE’s plans. Some have even suggested that the Fukushima No. 1 complex was a “learning experience” for Japanese engineers.

In accordance with the GE plans, the emergency power generators and water pumps were placed between the reactor buildings and the sea. Fukushima No. 1 continued in operation for more than 40 years. Despite local knowledge of tsunami history, the better plan developed for Fukushima No. 2 and a senior official’s specific objections to the TEPCO report in 2009, neither TEPCO nor any agency of the Japanese government took action to address the risks at Fukushima No. 1. Just before the disaster, NISA renewed TEPCO’s license to operate the complex for another 10 years.

The evidence suggests that regulators are under the thumb of the regulated and that critical voices are ignored. Japan’s present regulatory apparatus is weak and constrained by profound conflicts. It is simply not up to the role of contending with the dominant force of the nuclear power village. Coastal communities built seawalls on the assumption that another great tsunami would come one day. TEPCO operated its Fukushima No. 1 reactors on the assumption that it would not. As long as the facility continued to generate power and profits, institutional resistance to change overcame the faint glimmering of tsunami risk. The people relied on public officials to protect them, but the officials failed.

The obvious lesson from the Tohoku disaster is that if we continue to rely on nuclear power, we must establish independent regulatory agencies free of the control of private corporations driven by profit and of the bureaucratic mindset that denies all challenge to conventional wisdom. It’s not clear that this is possible. Humanity may have learned the science necessary to dominate the forces of nature to produce nuclear power, but it has not yet evolved the human structures needed to ensure that this science is applied safely.

Lawrence Repeta is a professor of law at Meiji University.

Andrew Horvat: How American Nuclear Reactors Failed Japan

What does Astro Boy have to do with the failed nuclear reactors at Fukushima? Plenty. The rise in popularity of the pop culture icon starting from the early 1950s closely parallels the gradual acceptance by the Japanese public of nuclear power as a source of electrical energy. Astro Boy both promoted and reflected optimistic visions of prosperity through atomic energy typical both in Japan and the United States in the latter half of the last century. After all, the cute little robot with rockets for legs is known in Japan as Tetsuwan Atomu (Powerful Atom). His little sister is Uran (uranium), and his brother is Kobaruto (Cobalt). There is hardly anyone in the “nuclear family” not entirely radioactive. All these characters offered pleasant distractions from the political infighting and bureaucratic turf wars that ultimately saddled Japan with nuclear generating equipment that was neither the safest nor the most efficient but that, at least until March 11, proved to be highly profitable for this country’s entrenched utilities.

The decision against importing the CANDU, a highly stable Canadian-made brand of nuclear reactor, after more than a decade of vacillation offers an opportunity to analyze Japan’s policy priorities in nuclear energy. They would appear to be close ties with the United States, diversification of sources of energy supply, strong bureaucratic control and localization of foreign technology with a view to promoting future exports. Safety and efficiency do not appear to be on the list.

Were one to be rude, one might add that greed and complacency also played a role. We now know that TEPCO had enormous financial resources and that executives had every opportunity to increase safety at the aging Fukushima plants. TEPCO had been warned to prepare for a tidal wave significantly higher than Fukushima Daiichi’s 5.6-meter retaining wall. The poor design features of the Fukushima plant — the fact that spent fuel was stored inside the reactor housing and that emergency diesel generators were installed in the basement of the turbine buildings where they would be flooded — were all pointed out at various times.

A nonmainstream publication, Shukan Kin’yobi (Weekly Friday), accused TEPCO of spending money not on emergency preparedness but on payments to 25 prominent public figures to appear in advertising aimed at persuading consumers that safety was a high priority for the electric utility. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano demonstrated that he understood public sentiment when he said on television that TEPCO and not the taxpayer should be made to pay for the damage and disruption caused by the failed reactors. His statement came roughly at the same time as news reports detailing the real estate and other holdings TEPCO would sell off to raise Y100 billion ($1.2 billion) just to stabilize four damaged reactors. The assets included some 33 holiday resorts and retreats for use by TEPCO employees, including senior executives. The utility also promised to eliminate 21 directorships, given to former executives and company friends who were required to do little to deserve lavish remuneration and copious perks.

Serious nuclear engineers such as Heinrich Bonnenberg are also upset and with good reason. Bonnenberg echoes the remarks of Atsushi Kasai, former laboratory chief of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, when he writes, “The energy industry and politicians valued profitability over safety. They built unsafe nuclear power plants with light-water reactors based on a faulty design.… Due to the disaster in Fukushima, people have lost confidence in all nuclear energy technologies.”

It is not a coincidence that the relatively safe HTR reactor that Bonnenberg champions and the latest version of the CANDU are being built in China. Renewable energy may be the wave of the future, but safer nuclear reactors are needed to fill the gap. In the 1980s, Osamu Tezuka, the cartoonist who created Astro Boy, replaced the nuclear reactor in his robot hero’s chest with a reactor using deuterium, the D in CANDU. Had TEPCO executives only paid more attention to the exploits of Astro Boy.

Andrew Horvat is a Japan-based journalist who worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the Independent of London.

Paul J. Scalise: Can TEPCO Survive?

For the past 10 years, TEPCO’s generated cash flow has slowly but surely declined. Falling electricity prices in a liberalized market, stagnant demand growth, rising operating costs and unforeseen natural disasters plague the company. Little by little, TEPCO has been forced to increase its borrowing to meet its obligations. Perhaps the most ironic of all, TEPCO has been forced to trade on its brand name. The remarkable loyalty of its customers, creditors and regulators guaranteed that virtually any cost in the siting, licensing and construction of controversial power plants could eventually be passed on to its loyal customers while the company relied on low-cost corporate bonds, bank loans and commercial paper to fund mounting capital expenditures in the short term.

The Law on Compensation for Nuclear Damage suggests that “the government shall give a nuclear operator … such aid as is required for him to compensate the damage, when the actual amount which he should pay for the nuclear damage … exceeds the financial security amount and when the government deems it necessary in order to attain the objectives of this act.”

TEPCO is well aware of its legal rights. It is also well aware of the market and commercial realities. Press too hard and you risk alienating your customer base and the delicate tapestry of public opinion. Don’t press hard enough and your company’s viability, its shareholders and eventually its legacy will be lost. What to do?

At the time of writing, TEPCO now trades at only Y200 a share. Both the market and the country increasingly view this situation with dread. Time is running out.

Paul J. Scalise is nonresident fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan campus. This article is an expanded version of the original titled “Looming electricity crisis: three scenarios for economic impact,” Oriental Economist, Economic Outlook, Vol. 79, No. 4, April 2011, pp. 8-9.

Andrew DeWit and Masaru Keneko: Moving Out of the “Nuclear Village”

Long dismissed as a dwindling has-been, a “fly-over” between China and America, Japan has suddenly been catapulted into an energy future that all nations face.… The need to reconstruct a good part of the Tohoku region, including much of its electrical grid, opens the possibility of doing the power part of the Y20- to Y30-trillion job “smart,” sustainable and distributed (broadly dispersed) rather than conventional and centralized. The monopolized utilities, including the “nuclear village” of industry insiders and regulators, have been working behind the scenes over the past two years to impede domestic progress on installing smart grids and evolving smart-city urban forms. This obstructionism derives from generalized inertia as well as fear of losing their dominance to distributed power. But now Japan has the chance to leapfrog its own sunk costs and incumbent interests.

The balance of power in energy policy-making is fluid and hotly contested, but the sustainable-energy policy option is rapidly moving to the center of Japanese public debate. The discourse in the media, reconstruction committees and elsewhere increasingly recognizes that the centralized system focused on nuclear power is too costly and dangerous. Highly complex, centralized systems per se are inherently and disastrously vulnerable to shocks, something as true of financial regimes and supply chains as it is of power generation and transmission. By contrast, Germany and a host of other countries and regions prioritize sustainable energy. They distribute increasing amounts of small-scale generating capacity among the myriad rooftops, yards, rivers and open fields of households, small businesses, farmers, local communities and so on. This strategy not only spreads the wealth and political influence created by a growing energy economy; it also bolsters the generating network because it is less vulnerable to the concentrated shock of an earthquake and tsunami. Natural disasters do not hit everywhere at once.

Andrew DeWit is professor of the politics of public finance and chair of the graduate program at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Masaru Kaneko is professor of public finance in the faculty of economics at Keio University in Japan. DeWit thanks the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for its generous research funding.

Robert Dujarric: Why a Nukes-Free Future is a False Dream

The emotional reaction to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster has failed to take into account the risks and costs inherent in the alternatives to atomic electricity generation.

Opponents of nuclear power often suggest that the solution is consuming less energy. This is a worthy goal, but there are limits to what can be achieved without accepting a fall in the standard of living except if one accepts a return to the Stone Age. Moreover, there are still billions of human beings on the planet who live in poverty. If they are to enjoy a better life they will need to consume more energy to light and heat their homes, wash their clothes, keep their food cold and travel to school and work. They will — rightly — want to have access to goods that require manufactured energy and to energy-consuming services. Therefore, though they mean well, the more extreme antinuclear groups in the developed world want to deny a large percentage of humankind the benefits of a modern technologically advanced standard of living that they themselves enjoy. Their message to the world’s poor is “Sorry, the boat is full, have a nice day, it was nice knowing you.”

Another alternative to nuclear plants could be solar- or wind-based electricity production and other sources of energy such as biomass or hydroelectricity. Unfortunately there are severe technological and economic obstacles to be overcome to allow these techniques to make a much greater contribution to the world’s energy needs. Additionally, some of them, such as biofuels, turn out to have ecological and other costs that make them far from perfect. Questions are often raised about the unintended ecological consequences of the dams that produce hydroelectricity. In several cases, such as the dams Turkey has built upriver from Syria and Iraq, hydroelectricity can fuel international conflicts between upstream and downstream nations. Investing more in these options makes sense. Regulatory changes and effective tax incentives could help a lot. But we cannot expect renewables to “solve” the energy question in the foreseeable future. Moreover, if they come online, the priority should be to use them to decrease oil consumption.

Thus, though they seldom mention it, those who seek to abandon nuclear power are arguing in favor of greater reliance on fossil fuels. Their prescription is “let’s burn more oil and let’s drill everywhere.” Unfortunately, there are costs associated with this option. One that is often forgotten is the geopolitical price. The inescapable fact is that the largest reserves are located in politically volatile regions, principally but not exclusively the Persian Gulf and North Africa. West Africa, where oil is also plentiful, is not particularly stable, and few can predict with certainty that Kazakhstan will remain the steady autocracy it has been since the breakup of the Soviet Union. With regard to natural gas, countries such as Russia and Qatar are not the ideal suppliers. In fact, of the major oil and gas exporters, only Norway and Canada (for gas) qualify as countries that offer stability, the rule of law and foreign-policy ambitions that are compatible with world peace.

Thus, as a consequence of the distribution of petroleum reserves, the United States and its allies have had to sacrifice the lives of their servicemen and women and spend trillions of dollars over the past decades to sustain a military establishment that could, in case of emergency, take control of the Persian Gulf oil fields. The self-destructive U.S. invasion of Iraq has understandably discredited American intervention in the region. But the fact remains that should a dreadful contingency — be it a global Shia-Sunni war, an Iran-Saudi conflict or an al-Qaeda uprising in Saudi Arabia — threaten to shut off the Persian Gulf oil fields, even the most devoted pacifists in Japan would want the U.S. military — perhaps helped this time by China and partly funded by Japanese taxpayers — to take control of the region to prevent a Great Depression II.

Nuclear power itself is not without its disadvantages. These include storage of radioactive waste, control of highly dangerous substances that can be used to build nuclear weapons and the potential for lethal accidents. Policies that encourage conservation and development of alternative sources of energy are highly desirable. But overall, countries that decide to abandon nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi accident may well be embarking on a road that will do more harm than good to their economies and the environment.

Robert Dujarric is director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan campus. He gave a paid lecture at Areva University in 2008.

Gavan McCormack: Building the Next Fukushimas

March 2011 is set to mark a caesura in Japanese history comparable to August 1945: the end of a particular model of state, economy and society, both marked by nuclear catastrophes that shook the world (even if the present one seems likely to be slightly muted and the meltdown kept to partial, the regional consequences may be broader, the number of people disastrously affected greater). Where the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki signaled the end point of the path chosen by the young officers of the Kwantung Army in the 1930s, the chaos and apocalyptic apprehension of postquake and tsunami Fukushima in 2011 is the end point of the path chosen by senior state bureaucrats and their corporate and political collaborators in the 1950s and steadily, incrementally reinforced ever since. Their legacy is today’s nuclear state Japan. 1945 was a purely human-caused disaster. 2011 differs in that it was occasioned by natural disaster, but human factors hugely exacerbated it.

Japan’s “Hiroshima syndrome” of fear and loathing for all things nuclear meant that cooperation with U.S. nuclear-war-fighting strategy had to be kept secret, in mitsuyaku or “secret treaties,” especially in the 1960s and 1970s, that have become public only in the past two years. The nuclear energy commitment, also pressed by the U.S., had likewise to be concealed, never submitted to electoral scrutiny and continually subject to manipulation (extensive advertising campaigns), cover-up (especially of successive incidents) and deception (as to risk and safety levels). The extent of that too is now laid bare.

The way out of the current disaster remains unclear. The debate over Japan’s energy and technology future will be long and hard, but what is now clear is that Japanese democracy has to rethink the frame within which this elite was able to overrun all opposition and push the country to its present brink. The crisis is not just one of radiation, failed energy supply, possible meltdown, the death of tens of thousands, health and environmental hazard but of governability, of democracy. Civic democracy has to find a way to seize control over the great irresponsible centers of fused state-capital monopoly and open a new path toward sustainability and responsibility. A new mode of energy generation and of socioeconomic organization has to be sought. Ultimately it has to be a new vision for a sustainable society.

It is of course a paradox that nuclear victim Japan should have become what it is now: one of the world’s most nuclear-committed, if not nuclear-obsessed countries. Protected and privileged within the American embrace, it has over this half century became a nuclear-cycle country and a plutonium superpower, the sole non-nuclear state committed to possessing both enrichment and reprocessing facilities and the fast-breeder reactor project. Its leaders chose to see the most dangerous substance known to humanity, plutonium, as the magical solution to the country’s energy security. While international attention focused on the North Korean nuclear threat, Japan escaped serious international scrutiny as it pursued its nuclear destiny. One bizarre consequence is the emergence of Japan as a greater nuclear threat to the region than North Korea.

Just over a decade from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at the time of Eisenhower’s “atoms for peace” speech, Japan’s Atomic Energy Commission drew up its first plans. The 1967 Long-Term Nuclear Program already incorporated the fuel cycle and fast-breeder program. By 2006, the Ministry of Economics, Trade, and Industry’s “New National Energy Policy” set the objective of turning Japan into a “nuclear state” (genshiryoku rikkoku). Nuclear power generation grew steadily as a proportion of the national grid, from 3 percent of total power in 1973 at the time of the first oil crisis to 26 percent by 2008 and around 29 percent today. The country’s basic energy policy calls for the ratio of nuclear, hydro and other renewables (nuclear the overwhelming one) to be nearly 50 percent by 2030. Under the Basic Energy Plan of 2010, nine new reactors were to be built by 2020 (none having been built since the 1970s in the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl) and 14 by 2030, while operating levels of existing reactors were to be raised from 60 percent as of 2008 to 85 percent by 2020 and then 90 percent by 2030.

The dream of eternal, almost limitless energy has inspired the imagination of generations of Japanese national bureaucrats. In the words of a panel at the Aquatom nuclear theme park-science museum in Tsuruga, close to the Monju plutonium fast-breeder reactor, “Japan is a poor country in natural resources … therefore Monju, a plutonium-burning reactor, is necessary because plutonium can be used for thousands of years.”

Trillions of yen were channeled into nuclear research and development programs and additional vast sums appropriated to construct and run major nuclear complexes. If the Federation of Electric Power Cos. estimate is even roughly correct, that the Rokkasho complex in northern Honshu will cost Y19 trillion over the projected 40-year term of its use, that would make it Japan’s, if not the world’s, most expensive civil facility in history. Japan is alone among non-nuclear-weapon states in its pursuit of the full nuclear cycle, building plants to reprocess its reactor wastes, burning plutonium as part of its fuel mix (as at the Fukushima Daiichi’s No. 3 plant since late 2010), storing large volumes of “low-level” wastes, and desperately struggling to chart a way forward to fast-breeder technology, something so prodigiously difficult and expensive that the rest of the world has set it aside as a pipe dream. At all stages — fuel preparation, reactor construction and operation, waste extraction, reprocessing, storage — its nuclear system was problematic long before the tsunami crashed into its Fukushima plant on March 11, 2011.

There are 54 reactors in operation or were till March. At Fukushima the reactor cores may have survived intact, but the management practice of leaving highly toxic and long-lived wastes in ponds beside the actual reactor has proven a terrible mistake. According to atomic specialist Robert Alvarez, such pools contain radioactivity between five and 10 times greater than that of one reactor core, with one pond holding “more cesium 137 than was deposited by all nuclear weapons tests in the Northern Hemisphere combined,” and “a major release of cesium 137 from a pool fire could render an area uninhabitable greater than that created by the Chernobyl accident.” Whether because of sloshing under the impact of the quake or leakage from structural collapse, the rods at several of the Fukushima plants were partially exposed for unknown periods, fires did burn with unknown consequences and the resumption of cooling using seawater by fire hose or helicopter bombing and ultimately by the reconnection of pumps has proven immensely difficult.

Once the immediate crisis passes, these plants will have to be decontaminated and dismantled, an expensive, difficult and time-consuming task that will take decades, while the electricity they once provided must be somehow substituted. Whether they can or will simply be cased in concrete like Chernobyl remains to be seen, but they will surely become a monument to the disastrous mistakes of the postwar Japanese nuclear plan.

Of the major complexes other than Fukushima, the most notorious are those at Kashiwazaki in Niigata and Hamaoka in Shizuoka. Kashiwazaki, with seven reactors generating 8,000 megawatts, is the world’s largest nuclear generation plant. The 6.8-magnitude quake it experienced on July 16, 2007, was more than twice as strong as the design had allowed for, and the site proved to be on a previously undetected fault line. Catastrophic breakdown did not occur, but multiple malfunctioning did, including burst pipes, fire and radioactive leaks into sea and air. The Hamaoka complex, 190 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, has five reactors, which, like those at Kashiwazaki, sit on fault lines where the Eurasian, Pacific, Philippine and North American plates grind against one another and where experts predict a strong chance of a powerful quake sometime in the near future. Company officials say the plant is designed to withstand an 8.5-magnitude earthquake, as that was believed to have been the most powerful ever known in the area. After Fukushima’s 9.0, however, the preconditions on which Hamaoka was based have collapsed. A Fukushima-level event here could force the evacuation of up to 30 million people.

Perhaps most controversial of the site plans is that for two reactors to be built at Kaminoseki, population 3,700, an exquisitely beautiful national park site at the southern end of the Inland Sea about 80 kilometers from Hiroshima, one to commence operation in 2018 and the other in 2022. After nearly 30 years of attempts to start these works, blocked by fierce local resistance, especially on the part of the fishing community of Iwaishima, the island that faces the reactor site across about four kilometers of sea, preliminary forest clearing and sea refilling works began late in 2010. With fierce confrontation continuing between fishing boats, canoes and kayaks on the part of the protesters and the power company’s ships, however, it is hard to imagine that after March 2011 the government will find the will to move in and crush the protesters. Indeed, the governor of the prefecture has demanded that work be halted (and in the wake of March 11 it has indeed halted, at least temporarily).

For the country whose scientific and engineering skills are the envy of the world to have been guilty of the disastrous miscalculations and malpractices that have marked the past half century — including data falsification and fabrication, the duping of safety inspectors, the belittling of risk and the failure to report criticality incidents and emergency shutdowns — and then to have been reduced to desperate attempts with fire hoses and buckets to prevent a catastrophic meltdown in 2011 raises large questions not just for Japan but for humanity. Could the rest of the world, for which the U.S. government holds out the prospect of nuclear renaissance, do better?

The “nuclear state Japan” plans have plainly been shaken by the events of March 2011. It is too much to expect that they will be dropped, but the struggle between Japan’s nuclear bureaucracy, pursuing the chimera of limitless clean energy, global leadership, a solution to global warming, the maintenance of nuclear weapon defenses (America’s “extended deterrent”) on the one hand and Japan’s civil society, pursuing its agenda of social, ecological and economic sustainability, democratic decision-making, abolition of nuclear weapons, phasing out of nuclear power projects, and reliance on renewable energy, zero emission, material recycling and non-nuclear technologies enters a new phase after March 2011.

Gavan McCormack is a coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Journal and an emeritus professor of Australian National University. He is the author, most recently, of Client State: Japan in the American Embrace (New York, 2007, Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing 2008) and Target North Korea: Pushing North Korea to the Brink of Nuclear Catastrophe (New York, 2004, Tokyo and Seoul 2006). This essay, which draws on and updates a 2007 Japan Focus article, was written for Le Monde Diplomatique, where it was posted online in French in April 2011.

3 nuclear reactors melted down after quake, Japan confirms – CNN.com

3 nuclear reactors melted down after quake, Japan confirms – CNN.com.

An aerial view of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

An aerial view of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Japan’s nuclear emergency agency goes further in describing the extent of damage
  • The Fukushima Daiichi plant was badly affected by an earthquake and tsunami in March
  • Tokyo Electric Power Co. has avoided calling the event a meltdown

Tokyo (CNN) — Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant experienced full meltdowns at three reactors in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami in March, the country’s Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters said Monday.

The nuclear group’s new evaluation, released Monday, goes further than previous statements in describing the extent of the damage caused by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

The announcement will not change plans for how to stabilize the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the agency said.

Reactors 1, 2 and 3 experienced a full meltdown, it said.

The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co., admitted last month that nuclear fuel rods in reactors 2 and 3 probably melted during the first week of the nuclear crisis.

It had already said fuel rods at the heart of reactor No. 1 melted almost completely in the first 16 hours after the disaster struck. The remnants of that core are now sitting in the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel at the heart of the unit and that vessel is now believed to be leaking.

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A “major part” of the fuel rods in reactor No. 2 may have melted and fallen to the bottom of the pressure vessel 101 hours after the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the plant, Tokyo Electric said May 24.

The same thing happened within the first 60 hours at reactor No. 3, the company said, in what it called its worst-case scenario analysis, saying the fuel would be sitting at the bottom of the pressure vessel in each reactor building.

But Tokyo Electric at the same time released a second possible scenario for reactors 2 and 3, one that estimated a full meltdown did not occur. In that scenario, the company estimated the fuel rods may have broken but may not have completely melted.

Temperature data showed the two reactors had cooled substantially in the more than two months since the incident, Tokyo Electric said in May.

The earthquake and tsunami knocked out cooling systems at Fukushima Daiichi, causing the three operating reactors to overheat. That compounded a natural disaster by spewing radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Tokyo Electric avoided using the term “meltdown,” and says it was keeping the remnants of the core cool. But U.S. experts interviewed by CNN after the company’s announcement in May said that while it may have been containing the situation, the damage had already been done.

“On the basis of what they showed, if there’s not fuel left in the core, I don’t know what it is other than a complete meltdown,” said Gary Was, a University of Michigan nuclear engineering professor and CNN consultant. And given the damage reported at the other units, “It’s hard to imagine the scenarios can differ that much for those reactors.”

A massive hydrogen explosion — a symptom of the reactor’s overheating — blew the roof off the No. 1 unit the day after the earthquake, and another hydrogen blast ripped apart the No. 3 reactor building two days later. A suspected hydrogen detonation within the No. 2 reactor is believed to have damaged that unit on March 15.