The triple disaster in Japan – March 11, 2011


We can cope with natural disasters to some extent, but we can not resolve the problems we create if we don’t know what we are doing.  We will be able to live with nature if we connect with respect, but we can not solve the problems we create if we don’t exactly know what we have created.  This is why the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power station is more difficult than the earthquake and the tsunami.

When I left Japan on May 15, newspapers reported that there were still close to 150,000 people staying in the temporary evacuation shelters, school gyms and community centres, and other public space.  The figure for the confirmed dead persons was about 14,000 and still missing, after two months, probably all dead in the seas, was about 9,000.  Aside from 4 persons died in the damaged nuclear power plant, most of the deaths occurred due to the tsunami, not by the earthquake itself.  I am saying this because on March 11th, 2011, the earthquake itself hardly killed people, but the tsunami did.  This is a different story from Haiti where most of the deaths happened because of the earthquake.

I started out with the above sentence because what impressed me most as the train went into the triple disaster affected region was the absence of destroyed houses and buildings from the view from the train window.   I wondered where the scenes I used to seeing in Haiti and New Zealand were.  Even in Sendai, which was the closest population centre to the epi-centre of 3/11 earthquake, I didn’t see collapsed buildings except sheets of blue plastic tarpaulin covering houses that lost some ceramic slates from the roofs.

 After the visit of the affected region, the ecumenical delegation met in a conference room of the Tokyo Christian Centre on the fourth floor for debriefing.  They told me that at 2 P.M. when the quake struck, they were in a meeting.  When the magnitude 5 quake struck Tokyo, the building shook so hard that people had hard time climbing down the stairs to the ground level to evacuate.  But when we met in the same room and were told what happened in the same room, I looked around and saw no crack on the wall neither did I see any broken window pane.  My sister was in the second floor of a supermarket in Tokyo.  The building shook so violently that she had to sit down on the floor until it stopped.  When I went there to shop two months later, the story was the same.  I didn’t see any cracked wall nor broken window.

Buildings and houses in Japan were earthquake proof.  The building code must be very strict.  So the primary disaster, earthquake, destroyed hardly anything, neither killed anyone.  Japan was prepared.  The death and destruction, the secondary disaster, tsunami, could have been far less if it was as estimated 8 metres high wall of waters, max.  Dikes were prepared for that height, and the warning system was in place.  They did not expect 15 metres high tsunami.  There was an extensive tsunami warning.  Deaths occurred because more than 40 % of people thought it was not so imminent.  So they continued cleaning the mess in the houses created by the earthquake which came 40 minutes to 1 hour earlier.  School children knew where to go, the third floor, when the tsunami warning sounded.  All in all, they were even prepared for tsunami, except the estimate was a few metres short.

The only remaining challenge is the nuclear disaster, the third.  It became clear that neither the industry nor the government knew what they were doing.  Only two days before I left Japan, which was a month and two days after the earthquake, did they find out that at the first reactor in the Fukushima Dai-ichi Power Station, the fuel core had melted down, and most of the water poured into, about 10,000 tons, to cool the disabled reactor disappeared.  They were not sure where it went, probably seeped into the ground.  That meant the containment vessel must have cracked with the earthquake.  All that radiation contaminated water went, but they still didn’t know where it went.  “Scary stuff!” is an almost unprecedented understatement.

On the day of the second month of the disaster, May 11, the Asahi Shinbun was reporting that of 54 nuclear reactors, 42 have shut down, including the five at the Fukushima Dai-ichi and a few more at the Hama Oka station.  The government ordered it to shut down for extensive anti-tsunami measures renovation/construction.  The nuclear power in Japan supplies close to 30 % of the current energy requirement, of which 10% will shut down for extensive inspection and complete closure like Fukushima.  Popular opinion is moving more and more towards renewable energy, and eventual weaning from nuclear.  The Prime Minister Kan began speaking about the nuclear option as a stop gap measure before the renewable energy option takes over.  This is a complete reversal of the energy policy of the current government party in power.  All this is saying to me that neither the industry nor the government have not known what they were in for when they opted for the nuclear power when it earnestly started to develop it.  All this poses an enormous challenge to the nuclear industry in the world.

The concept of every little car with a small motor, instead of one powerful locomotive pulling the whole train was a Japanese invention.  It began the world wide trend of adopting super speed trains, such as TGV in Europe or “Bullet Train” – “Shinkansen” is Japan.  Many small things collectively are more powerful than one big and powerful thing was a Japanese idea.  Why then it opted for the notion of the big is better than many small things?

Earthquake as such did not kill, because of preparedness.  Even the resultant tsunami can be stopped if the dikes were a few metres higher.  But the nuclear power is more troublesome, because nobody knows what exactly it led us into.

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