Tag Archives: tsunami

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.

Agency report praises Fukushima staff, slams TEPCO

Agency report praises Fukushima staff, slams TEPCO – environment – 21 June 2011 – New Scientist.

Workers 1, bosses zero. If independent verification were needed that staff at Fukushima performed heroically when disaster hit the nuclear plant in northern Japan, it came on Monday.

A report presented at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, praised the staff who struggled to bring the situation under control after the tsunami destroyed emergency power and cooling systems. “Given the resources available it is doubtful that any better solutions than the ones chosen could have realistically been implemented,” it concluded. The report was presented by the head of the fact-finding delegation, Michael Weightman.

But the IAEA document criticised the operator, Tepco, and the Japanese regulatory authorities for underestimating the tsunami hazard and failing to review protective measures at the plant. Its 15 conclusions and 16 lessons from the disaster include calls for all 440 nuclear plants worldwide to “harden” protection against external hazards, making sure that emergency backups can’t be destroyed by natural hazards. It also questioned whether Japan’s nuclear regulators were truly independent of the vested interests of the nuclear industry.

Yukiya Amano, director general of the IAEA, said in response to the report that the industry needed to create a global emergency preparedness and response system, and make sure regulators are “genuinely independent”.

Amano also warned the nuclear industry to increase safety standards everywhere. “Business as usual is not an option,” he said.

Quake shifted Japan; towns now flood at high tide

Quake shifted Japan; towns now flood at high tide – Yahoo! News.

ISHINOMAKI, Japan – When water begins to trickle down the streets of her coastal neighborhood, Yoshiko Takahashi knows it is time to hurry home.

Twice a day, the flow steadily increases until it is knee-deep, carrying fish and debris by her front door and trapping people in their homes. Those still on the streets slosh through the sea water in rubber boots or on bicycle.

“I look out the window, and it’s like our houses are in the middle of the ocean,” says Takahashi, who moved in three years ago.

The March 11 earthquake that hit eastern Japan was so powerful it pulled the entire country out and down into the sea. The mostly devastated coastal communities now face regular flooding, because of their lower elevation and damage to sea walls from the massive tsunamis triggered by the quake.

In port cities such as Onagawa and Kesennuma, the tide flows in and out among crumpled homes and warehouses along now uninhabited streets.

A cluster of neighborhoods in Ishinomaki city is rare in that it escaped tsunami damage through fortuitous geography. So, many residents still live in their homes, and they now face a daily trial: The area floods at high tide, and the normally sleepy streets turn frantic as residents rush home before the water rises too high.

“I just try to get all my shopping and chores done by 3 p.m.,” says Takuya Kondo, 32, who lives with his family in his childhood home.

Most houses sit above the water’s reach, but travel by car becomes impossible and the sewage system swamps, rendering toilets unusable.

Scientists say the new conditions are permanent.

Japan’s northern half sits on the North American tectonic plate. The Pacific plate, which is mostly undersea, normally slides under this plate, slowly nudging the country west. But in the earthquake, the fault line between the two plates ruptured, and the North American plate slid up and out along the Pacific plate.

The rising edge of plate caused the sea floor off Japan’s eastern coast to bulge up — one measuring station run by Tohoku University reported an underwater rise of 16 feet (5 meters) — creating the tsunami that devastated the coast. The portion of the plate under Japan was pulled lower as it slid toward the ocean, which caused a corresponding plunge in elevation under the country.

Some areas in Ishinomaki moved southeast 17 feet (5.3 meters) and sank 4 feet (1.2 meters) lower.

“We thought this slippage would happen gradually, bit by bit. We didn’t expect it to happen all at once,” says Testuro Imakiire, a researcher at Japan’s Geospatial Information Authority, the government body in charge of mapping and surveys.

Imakiire says the quake was powerful enough to move the entire country, the first time this has been recorded since measurements began in the late 19th century. In Tokyo, 210 miles (340 kilometers) from Ishinomaki, parts of the city moved 9 inches (24 centimeters) seaward.

The drop lower was most pronounced around Ishinomaki, the area closest to the epicenter. The effects are apparent: Manholes, supported by underground piping, jut out of streets that fell around them. Telephone poles sank even farther, leaving wires at head height.

As surrounding areas clear rubble and make plans to rebuild, residents in this section of Ishinomaki are stuck in limbo — their homes are mostly undamaged and ineligible for major insurance claims or government compensation, but twice a day the tide swamps their streets.

“We can’t really complain, because other people lost so much,” says Yuichiro Mogi, 43, as his daughters examine a dead blowfish floating near his curb.

The earthquake and tsunami left more than 25,000 people either dead or missing, and many more lost their homes and possessions.

Mogi noticed that the daily floods were slowly carrying away the dirt foundation of his house, and built a small embankment of sandbags to keep the water at bay. The shipping company worker moved here 10 years ago, because he got a good deal on enough land to build a home with a spacious front lawn, where he lives with his four children and wife.

Most of the residences in the area are relatively new.

“Everyone here still has housing loans they have to pay, and you can’t give away this land, let alone sell it,” says Seietsu Sasaki, 57, who also has to pay off loans on two cars ruined in the flooding.

Sasaki, who moved in 12 years ago with his extended family, says he hopes the government can build flood walls to protect the neighborhood. He never paid much attention to the tides in the past, but now checks the newspaper for peak times each morning.

Officials have begun work on some embankments, but with much of the city devastated, resources are tight. Major construction projects to raise the roads were completed before the tsunami, but much of that work was negated when the ground below them sank.

The constant flooding means that construction crews can only work in short bursts, and electricity and running water were restored only about two weeks ago. The area still doesn’t have gas for hot water, and residents go to evacuee shelters to bathe.

“We get a lot of requests to build up these areas, but we don’t really have the budget right now,” says Kiyoshi Koizumi, a manager in Ishinomaki’s roads and infrastructure division.

Sasaki says he hopes they work something out soon: Japan’s heavy summer rains begin in about a month, and the higher tides in autumn will rise well above the floor of his house.

Fukushima leak is plugged, TEPCO in more hot water; other Japan disaster updates

Short Sharp Science: Fukushima leak is plugged, TEPCO in more hot water.

Read more:Special report: The fallout from Fukushima

The leak spewing highly radioactive water from reactor unit 2 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has finally been stoppered.

Engineers had been struggling for days to identify and plug the leak, exposing the owner of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), to a barrage of criticism for its poor handling of the crisis and lack of openness.

This morning, the company, whose share price is at an all-time low, hasn’t done its image any favours: it has announced that two weeks ago, when the nuclear crisis was at its height, it officially applied to build two new reactor units at Fukushima.

But closing the leak will be a relief. This morning, at 5.38 am Japanese time, the leak from a pit close to the reactor unit stopped gushing water into the Pacific Ocean, where levels of radioactive iodine-131 had recently peaked at 7.5 million times the legal limit.

Engineers finally stemmed the leak by pouring a fast-hardening glassy liquid containing sodium silicate into a cabling tunnel that was draining highly radioactive water from within the reactor unit to the ocean via the pit.

Two earlier attempts to plug the leak, first with concrete then with an absorbent polymer, had failed. The water from is so radioactive because unit 2 the only reactor of the six at the plant to have sustained damage to its radioactive core.

A plan to pump out and safely dispose of the 60,000 tonnes of water in the unit is under way. To free up space at the facility for storing the highly radioactive water, TEPCO has begun a controversial operation, begun yesterday, to dump 11,500 tonnes of more mildly contaminated water directly into the ocean.

Yesterday, the government of Japan apologised to its neighbours, including South Korea, for having to take such a drastic step. It says that it hopes the radiation will quickly be dispersed, rapidly restoring levels to normal.

Despite the assurances, fishing in the region has been suspended, and the government has agreed to compensate all the fishermen affected by the moratorium.

Although radioactive iodine-131 will rapidly decay away without contaminating seafood, caesium-137 could pose more of a long-term problem because it takes 30 years for half of any portion of it to decay away. Radioactive caesium-134, which has a corresponding half-life of two years, has also been detected.

Meanwhile, TEPCO announced a plan yesterday to avert a possible hydrogen explosion in reactor unit 1 by pumping inert nitrogen gas into what remains of the containment building. The hope is that this will avoid any further releases of radioactive material into the atmosphere, as happened days after the quake and tsunami on 11 March. Some plumes from Fukushima dumped so much radiation in nearby villages, particularly Iatate, that villagers have been advised not to eat locally grown vegetables, schoolchildren are being monitored for radiation and children and pregnant women have been advised to leave the area.

Now the leak has been plugged, the hope is that there will be no further releases of radiation either to the atmosphere or to the ocean. But levels of radiation in the four worst-affected units remain high – so high that, according to one recent report, they’re “off the scale”.

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Japan plant operator says may have slowed radioactive leak

TOKYO | Tue Apr 5, 2011 7:19pm EDT

TOKYO (Reuters) – Engineers have stopped highly radioactive water leaking into the sea from a crippled Japanese nuclear power plant, the facility’s operator said on Wednesday, a breakthrough in the battle to contain the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

However, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) still needs to pump contaminated water into the sea because of a lack of storage space at the facility.

“The leaks were slowed yesterday after we injected a mixture of liquid glass and a hardening agent and it has now stopped,” a TEPCO spokesman told Reuters.

Desperate engineers had been struggling to stop the leaks and had used sawdust, newspapers and concrete as well as liquid glass to try to stem the flow of the highly-contaminated water.

Japan is facing its worst crisis since World War Two after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit its northeast coast, leaving nearly 28,000 people dead or missing, thousands homeless, and rocking the world’s third-largest economy.

Samples of the water used to cool reactor No. 2 were 5 million times the legal limit of radioactivity, officials said on Tuesday, adding to fears that contaminants had spread far beyond the disaster zone.

The government is considering imposing radioactivity restrictions on seafood for the first time in the crisis after contaminated fish were found.

India also became the first country to ban food imports from all areas of Japan over radiation fears.

Workers are still struggling to restart cooling pumps — which recycle the water — in four reactors damaged by the earthquake and tsunami.

Until those are fixed, they must pump in water from outside to prevent overheating and meltdowns. In the process, that creates more contaminated water that has to be pumped out and stored somewhere else or released into the sea.

TEPCO has offered “condolence money” to those affected in the Fukushima region where the plant is based. But one city rejected the money and local mayors who came to Tokyo to meet Prime Minister Naoto Kan demanded far more help.

“We have borne the risks, co-existed and flourished with TEPCO for more than 40 years, and all these years, we have fully trusted the myth that nuclear plants are absolutely safe,” said Katsuya Endo, the mayor of Tomioka town.

He was one of eight Fukushima prefecture mayors who went to Kan to demand compensation and support for employment, housing and education for the tens of thousands of crisis evacuees.

There is a total of 60,000 tonnes of highly contaminated water in the plant after workers poured in seawater when fuel rods experienced partial meltdown after the earthquake and tsunami hit northeast Japan on March 11.

TEPCO on Monday had to start releasing 11,500 tonnes of low-level radioactive seawater after it ran out of storage capacity for more highly contaminated water. The release will continue until Friday.

Radioactive iodine of up to 4,800 times the legal limit has been recorded in the sea near the plant. Cesium was found at levels above safety limits in tiny kounago fish in waters off Ibaraki Prefecture, south of Fukushima, local media reported.

Iodine-131 in the water near the sluice gate of reactor No. 2 hit a high on April 2 of 7.5 million times the legal limit. The water, which was not released into the ocean, fell to 5 million times the legal limit on Monday.

TEPCO said it had started paying token “condolence money” of 20 million yen ($238,000) each to local governments in towns near the reactors to aid people evacuated from around its stricken plant or affected by the radiation crisis.

It faces a huge bill for the damage caused by its crippled reactors, but said it must first assess the extent of damage before paying actual compensation.

“We are still in discussion as to what extent we will pay on our own and to what extent we will have assistance from the government, TEPCO executive vice-president Takashi Fujimotohe told a news conference.

Fishermen from neighboring Ibaraki prefecture saw prices for flounder and sea bream tumble by 65 percent as buyers shunned their catch. Their union said they, too, would see compensation from TEPCO and from the government.

India on Tuesday announced a three-month ban on imports of processed foods, fruits and vegetables from the whole of Japan, becoming the first country to introduce a blanket ban.

The quake and tsunami have left nearly 28,000 people dead or missing, thousands homeless and Japan’s northeast coast a wreck.

The world’s costliest natural disaster has caused power blackouts and cuts to supply chains, threatening Japan’s economic growth and the operations of global firms from semiconductor makers to shipbuilders.

($1 = 84.040 Japanese Yen)

(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg, Leika Kihara, Tetsushi Kajimoto, Chikako Mogi in Tokyo and Ratnayjyoti Dutta in New Delhi; Writing by Paul Eckert; Editing by Miral Fahmy)

 

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Michael Marshall, environment reporter

With no sign of the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi being resolved any time soon, plans are now afoot to spray a resin over the embattled nuclear power plant.

Kyodo News explains:

Within the compound, masses of debris are strewn about the plant as a result of explosions, and this is making it very difficult for plant workers to bring the crisis under control. While frantic efforts are under way to cool reactors and remove water contaminated with high levels of radiation from facilities in the plant, the government hopes to facilitate the task by making it safe for workers to perform. The resin is designed to prevent dirt containing radioactive substances being scattered in the wind, the officials said.

In short, this is a short-term measure to help the workers do their jobs in (relative) safety.

Meanwhile the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which owns and runs the plant, is running into all sorts of difficulties. Reuters reports that it is in serious financial trouble:

Tokyo Electric Power warned on Wednesday that a $24-billion bank loan was not enough to keep it afloat and pay for Japan’s worst nuclear disaster, adding to expectations the government will step in to bail out the stricken company. [The company’s] share price has crashed nearly 80 per cent since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that sparked the crisis.

The Washington Post notes that the company’s chairman has been hospitalised:

[Masataka] Shimizu, 66, has not been seen in public since a 13 March news conference in Tokyo, raising speculation that he had suffered a breakdown. For days, officials deflected questions about Shimizu’s whereabouts, saying he was “resting” at company headquarters. Spokesman Naoki Tsunoda said Wednesday that Shimizu had been admitted to a Tokyo hospital after suffering dizziness and high blood pressure. The leadership vacuum at TEPCO… comes amid growing criticism over its failure to halt the radiation leaks. Bowing deeply, arms at his side, chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata announced at a news conference that he would step in and apologized for the delay.

And in an unsurprising development given the amount of seawater that has been pumped into them, the company has announced that the four reactors at the centre of the crisis will be permanently scrapped. The BBC reports:

[TEPCO] made the announcement three weeks after failing to bring reactors 1-4 under control. Locals would be consulted on reactors 5 and 6, which were shut down safely.

Xinhua quotes Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano as saying that all six should be decommissioned.

Radioactive material from the plant has reached the Pacific Ocean. According to the BBC:

Radiation levels in the sea near the stricken Fukushima plant have risen to their highest yet, more than 3000 times above the legal limit. It is the strongest sign yet that highly radioactive water from the plant is leaking into the Pacific Ocean. The continuing radiation leaks are dismal news for people up and down the east coast of Japan who depend on the sea for their livelihoods.

So it should come as no surprise that Japan has ordered a review of safety procedures at its nuclear reactors. Reuters reports:

[Japan’s trade ministry] said on Wednesday that nuclear plants would be required by mid-April to deploy back-up mobile power generators and fire trucks able to pump water, while beefing up training programs and manuals, aiming to avoid a repeat of the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant. It will also look at longer-term solutions such as requiring higher sea walls at nuclear stations and will review its energy policy to encourage renewables, although it reiterated that nuclear power was expected to retain an important role.

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Japan Soil Measurements Surprisingly High

on 25 March 2011, 6:14 PM

Concerns about radiation in Japan have now spread to the soil surrounding the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. One level that was reported this week was high enough to suggest people in that area should be evacuated, an expert says. But he cautions that it’s hard to draw conclusions about these spot measurements without more data.

Today, Japanese officials told the population living up to 30 kilometers from the plant that they should consider leaving the area, expanding the previous 20-kilometer radius evacuation zone. But according to news reports, the advice stems from difficulties in supplying the region with food and water, not radiation levels.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday the Japanese science ministry began to report measurements of cesium-137 in upland soil around the plant. The levels are highest from two points northeast of the plant, ranging from 8690 becquerels/kilogram to a high of 163,000 Bq/kg measured on 20 March from a point in Iitate about 40 kilometers northwest of the Fukushima plant.

The soil measurements are more significant for evacuation purposes than radioactivity in the air, says nuclear engineer Shih-Yew Chen of Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, because cesium dust stays underfoot while air is transient. Levels of cesium-137 are also more important than soil readings of iodine-131, which is short-lived and more of a concern in milk and vegetables. “It’s the cesium that would prompt an evacuation,” says Chen.

Based on a rough estimate, a person standing on soil with 163,000 Bq/kg of cesium-137 would receive about 150 millisieverts per year of radiation, says Chen. This is well above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standard of 50 millisieverts per year for an evacuation. (Per day, it’s 0.41 millisieverts, which is equivalent to four chest x-rays.) But Chen adds, “one point [of data] doesn’t mean that much.”

The hot spot is similar to levels found in some areas affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in the former Soviet Union. Assuming the radiation is no more than 2 centimeters deep, Chen calculates that 163,000 Bq/kg is roughly equivalent to 8 million Bq/m2. The highest cesium-137 levels in some villages near Chernobyl were 5 million Bq/m2.

For our complete coverage of the crisis in Japan, see our Japan Earthquake page. For Science‘s answers to reader questions about the crisis, see our Quake Questions page.


 

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)

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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.”

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“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.”

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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

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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.

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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.

 

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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.”