Saturday, March 12

The Recent Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Power Plant Updates

A view of the Tsunami waves striking Japan's Eastern coast
*Updates in Bold
Updated 10:30pm 3/27 (Tokyo Time)

On March 11th, following the catastrophic 9.0 magnitude earthquake of the eastern coast of Japan, waves of tsunamis greatly affected most of the eastern seaboard of Japan. Residents are quoted as being surprised not by the intensity of the earthquake, but the over 3-minute duration. The earthquake is the biggest in Japan's history and tied for the 4th strongest ever. Considering the overall magnitude, damage and people affected, this is the worst earthquake to date.

The seabed off the coast of Japan was split into an over 100 meter long crevice. Also, the Earth's axis is said to have been tilted 10 cm (Japan Times). The Meteorological Agency said more than 250 aftershocks have occurred so far, more that a dozen over 6 on the Richter scale. After shocks are still continuing. The Bank of Japan estimates 235 billion dollars of damage from this "Great East Japan Earthquake".

Generally, the Tohoku region was hit by waves up to 24 ft high sweeping inland dragging cars, houses, factories, boats and burning debris. Record 46 ft tsunami waves have been measured at the Fukushima Power Plant. Scientists say a record 52.5 ft. tsunami wave hit a coastal town in Miyagi Prefecture. The tsunami traveled at around a mile every 6.5 seconds and waves surged over 6 miles inland in the Tohoku region and over 12 miles inland north in Hokkaido. Examining before and after pictures in the Fukushima area, it is clear the Tsunami created new bays and waterways where whole towns once where. Check NY Times for before and after shots.

 Here is an animation of the tsunami wave propagation in the Pacific provided by NOAA.

The earthquake, occurring at 2:46pm local time, has done massive damage especially around the Tokyo, Chiba, Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. Although Japan is specially adept at handling earthquakes and other natural disasters prone to such an area (with stringent building codes and widespread use of advanced seismic dampening technology), 10,901 are confirmed dead and 17,649 people are still missing. There are currently 500 foreign nationals reported missing. Around 285,000 people are staying in approximately 2,000 emergency shelters, both of which have decreased. 23 people have died in the shelters, most sick or elderly with lack of medications. The National Police Agency says at least 18,000 houses were destroyed by the quake and tsunami, and about 140,000 homes were damaged.

The marine products industry on the Pacific coast of central and northern Japan suffered serious damage in the March 11th earthquake and tsunami. The fisheries ministry says 2,338 fishing boats had been reported damaged across the region as of Sunday. The ministry says the number of damaged boats is certain to rise, adding that it has yet to form an overall picture of the damage. It says almost all the fishing ports in the 3 northeastern prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima have suffered severe damage.

The red X was the epicenter of the quake, but lower inland was the worst tsunami impact (credit)
The earthquake epicenter is marked with a red X on this map. The tsunami advisory warnings in Japan have markedly decreased but still remain. The aftershocks of the earthquake are expected to occur for months to come. The tsunami's bark seems to have been louder than it's bite as it's waves spread to other countries. 

Japan's Meteorological Agency is urging people to continue to be alert against powerful aftershocks following the March 11th earthquake. The initial quake had a magnitude of 9.0 -- the country's highest ever. The agency says it observed more than 60 aftershocks in a wide area of eastern Japan that registered 4 or more on the Japanese seismic scale of 0 to 7 through Monday evening. On Saturday, a 5-plus aftershock jolted Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo (NHK).

(credit: BBC)

Fukushima Nuclear Reactors
The current concerns are with the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The earthquake and consequent tsunami impaired the cooling system of several nuclear reactors. All people have been evacuated from the 20 km radius surrounding the Fukushima 1 Power Plant (refer to map above). The Fukushima 2 Power Plant has been stabilized. People from 20 to 30km have been asked to stay indoors. The US Embassy has just advised a 50 mile radius evacuation due to .17 millisieverts per hour measured 18.6 miles Northwest of the plant. The NISA has prepared iodine tablets to hand out to residents in order to limit the thyroidal intake of radiation.

The earthquake that hit Japan was 8 times more powerful than the worst earthquake the nuclear power plant was built for (the Richter scale works logarithmically; the difference between the 8.2 that the plants were built for and the 9.0 that happened is 8 times, not 0.8). So the first hooray for Japanese engineering, everything held up (BNC).

Before and after of Fukushima's Daiichi reactor (BBC)

The quake disrupted the electric power the reactors used to run their cooling facilities, which pump water into the reactor core to cool the fuel rods there. The reactors switched to backup diesel generators, but the tsunami then swept in and shut down the generators used for the second nuclear reactor at Fukushima Daiichi. The unit then tapped excess steam in the core to power a turbine and switched to battery power, which would last only a few hours (WP).  Japan, bereft of oil and gas reserves, has developed an extensive nuclear power industry.

Due to high temperatures, high pressure, lack of fuel/batteries and general havoc, Reactors 1 through four have all experienced serious problems. Due to the high temperature and resultant high pressure, slightly radioactive steam has been released from all reactors in turns as a preventative measure. The radiation in the Fukushima power plant area is currently unsafe limit and has at times jumped to the height of 3 years worth of normal exposure in one hour at 8.2 millisieverts at 8:31 AM Tuesday. It is 4 times the healthy limit of radiation and such levels can lead to the loss of white blood cells (NHK).

NISA has been measuring cesium and iodine levels in the surround area to monitor radiation. All reactors at the Fukushima 1 Power Plant have overheated at one point since Friday causing either an explosion or fire. Workers are currently using firetrucks filled with sea water and boron to cool the exposed rods. The current cooling system is running on borrowed batteries and the supply seems limited.

Video of explosion at First Reactor, and explanations

The Number 1 Reactor was the first concern. While the air-release and water-pumping work was continuing on Saturday, the housing of the No.1 reactor suddenly exploded. The building's ceiling and walls were blown off, and 4 workers sustained injuries. The explosion was due to the build-up of hydrogen and is now releasing hazardous radioactive material.

The Number 3 Reactor had the biggest explosion at 11am Monday. It was also a hydrogen explosion and the wall of the building collapsed. 11 were injured including TEPCO workers and Self Defense Force members. The reactor is now releasing hazardous radioactive material. Firefighters have spent over 25 hours spraying water on the waste pool. It has been releasing gray smoke recently.

The Number 4 Reactor, although out of commission for maintenance, had an explosion at 6am Tuesday. The fuel rods were left in a nuclear waste pool. The pool was naturally giving off heat and due to the cooling system having failed, a fire occurred and the roof was damaged. The reactor is now releasing hazardous radioactive material.

The Number 2 Reactor currently has the most serious radioactivity. After running out of fuel to pump water to the fuel rods, the rods became fully exposed for 2 hours on Monday. There was a hydrogen explosion 6:10am Tuesday. TEPCO says it is highly likely the containment vessel has been damaged. The radiation has reached 400 millisieverts per hour--enough to affect human health. The Japanese government has instructed 47 prefectures to report daily radiation measurements. It has been releasing white smoke recently (most likely water vapor).

Some are fearing a Three Mile Island or Chernobyl disaster re-occurrence. Why is this not like Chernobyl? 
  1. The Chernobyl reactors' design was very unstable compared to today's standards and allowed for massive release of radioactive material. The Fukushima reactors (as most modern reactors) have safe-stops for such possibilities. 
  2. The Chernobyl reactors had no containment whatsoever. The Fukushima reactors have 2 lines of containment. The explosions have happened within the outermost containment.
  3. The Chernobyl reactor core was exposed. This is very, very unlikely at Fukushima.
  4. The Chernobyl reactor was designed to speed up power as the heat rose. This is the opposite of the Fukushima "light water type boiling water reactor", or BWR (SMC).
While American media is over-dramatizing the situation, some are worried the Japanese officials may be watering down the severity of the situation. TEPCO has been supplying late information to the Japanese government.

Tuesday, a University of Tokyo facility in Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, has reported radiation levels at 5 microsieverts per hour before 8:00 AM and the radiation level continued to exceed the yardstick figure designated by a law for 10 straight minutes. The facility 68 miles south of the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant. The facility says the radiation level later fell to 3 microsieverts per hour. It says normally the reading is at around 0.05 microsieverts per hour.

Wednesday, the radiation levels spiked to 10 millisieverts for 30 minutes and then fell to 2.7 millisieverts and hour. TEPCO has raised the "permissible level of radiation exposure" for workers to 250 millisieverts. Any exposure above this level is said to pose health risks.

TEPCO has tried dumping water on Reactor 3, but the plan was aborted after radiation levels above the plant were found to have largely exceeded 50 millisieverts (or 0.05 Sieverts) -- the maximum permissible for SDF personnel on a mission. 
The reactors are cased in primary and secondary containers. Recent explosions have only affected the secondary containment.
Thursday, efforts continued to cool the Number 3 Reactor. TEPCO has used riot fire hose trucks to spray 30 tons of water on the building and the nuclear waste pool for 30 minutes. The progress has been little. By installing high voltage power lines, TEPCO is looking to have power restored to the area as early as Friday. This will relieve the power situation and allow TEPCO to run continuous power to not only run the cooling turbines but also the circulation pump for the spent waste pool in the Number 3 building.

Friday, TEPCO has continued to douse the Number 3 reactor with water. The radiation has reportedly fallen slightly. TEPCO now hopes to reconnect power to two generators Saturday. They hope to finish laying cables Friday.

Countries are bracing for the nuclear leakage. Russia is currently checking radiation on an hourly basis. NHK reports that France has sent 12 nuclear accidents experts to Fukushima. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has also sent 10 experts to help. South Korea has agreed to send 53 tons of boric acid to help cool the reactors following Japan's request. General Electric in America will be sending 10 gas turbines to help cool the reactors.

The Japanese government raised its rating on Friday of the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to the same level as the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency revised upward its evaluation of the severity of the disaster by one notch to Level 5 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. Level 5 is the third highest on the 8-notch scale and the worst for any nuclear accident to have happened in Japan (NHK). The agency says it raised the rating because more than 3 percent of the nuclear fuel has been damaged and radioactive material is leaking from the plant. 

A "children version" explanation of the current radiation. Actually very helpful.

Friday, the World Health Organization said they find no public health reason to avoid travel to Japan, except to the affected areas, or to recommend that foreign nationals leave the country. Also, there is no risk that exported Japanese foods are contaminated with radiation.

External power was extended to the electricity distribution panels of the No.2 and No.5 reactors on Sunday, and power can now be supplied to reactors number 1, 2, 5, and 6. In order to get the electricity back on at the No.2 reactor, the power company plans to check various measurement devices and lighting systems in the central control room -- the heart of the plant -- and check for electricity leakage in the battery charging room. The No.3 and No.4 reactors, where high levels of radiation are forcing workers to exercise extreme caution. It may be some time before finally switching on the power.

Radiation scanning of evacuation shelters has begun. 22 people so far have been affected by the radiation. These individuals have been asked to shower and throw away their clothing. They are undergoing treatment in separate tents. Officials say these low levels of radiation will not pose health problems but they are taking all precautions.

The US Navy's 7th Fleet says 17 crew members have been exposed to low-level radioactivity released from a plume from the Fukushima power plant. The crew was aboard helicopters flying in relief missions in a 160km off the coast of Sendai. Their helicopters were also coated with particulate radiation that had to be washed off. The members seem to be in good health.

Radiation in the form of iodine-131 has been found in levels over 3 times the standard in Fukushima drinking water. On Friday, iodine 131 at a then-record 1,250 times regulated standards was detected in seawater collected in the same place 330 meters south of a plant water outlet.  Whereas iodine quickly decays, the cesium's effect on marine life will have to be monitored. In areas 12 miles away from the crippled Fukushima Power Plant, radiation has been measured at 1,600 times the normal amount. Also, radiation has been detected in cow's milk and cabbage in the area. Japan's science ministry says radiation exceeding 400 times the normal level was detected in soil about 40 kilometers from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
View of reactors 1-4 from the sky

TEPCO says it has detected radioactive materials 100-million-times normal levels in water at the No.2 reactor complex of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. They measured 2.9-billion becquerels of radiation per one cubic centimeter of water from the basement of the turbine building attached to the Number 2 reactor. The level of contamination is about 1,000 times that of the leaked water already found in the basements of the Number 1 and 3 reactor turbine buildings. TEPCO surmises the extremely contaminated water may stem from damaged fuel in the reactor, and are trying to determine how the leakage occurred. The suppression chamber of the N0.2 reactor is known to be damaged and is currently the prime suspect for the recent leak.

TEPCO plans to pump the water from the reactor basements into the turbine condensers for storage. They are trying to drain the basement of the Number 2 reactor turbine, and are studying ways to drain the basement of the Number 3 turbine building. The problem is cleaning the water as well. At the troubled Fukushima Daiichi plant, workers continue to pump fresh water instead of seawater into the Number 1 through 4 reactors to flush out salt.Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano pledged all-out efforts to prevent the highly radioactive water from leaking into the ground water or the ocean.

Many other Japanese power companies are having troubles restarting their generators due to lack of government oversight and/or lack of proper fuel transportation. Other plants are wary of starting and are looking to up their safety specs.

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has reassured his country's people that radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant will not affect them.

On the first day, Naoto Kan is blamed for making TEPCO wait (before they could vent the reactors) while he flew his helicopter over the Fukushima Plant. Shortly after, the first explosion happened from releasing hydrogen too fast. Many suggest TEPCO's late start has snowballed things to the disaster it has reached now.
Money and Energy
The earthquake has led to the shutdown of 11 of the Japan's 55 nuclear power plants, representing nearly 20 percent of the country's capacity. Naoto Kan has asked the public to conserve as much power as possible. It has just been announced that Japan is 10 million kilowatts short and officials are asking residents to severely limit their electricity use. To conserve energy, Tokyo electric supplier TEPCO will hold scheduled blackouts in metropolitan areas. Also, due to the lack of energy, railways in the Tokyo region have been canceled.

The Sendai Airport was deluged by tsunami waters (credit)
The circumstances will deal an economic blow to Japan, which relies on nuclear power for one-third of its electricity generation, and could complicate economic recovery efforts. The economy is expected to drop and some theorize it will more than rebound with the jobs creating in the clean-up efforts.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said in regards to the emergency response:
Our priority is to save lives and we expect the 200 billion yen ($2.4 billion) budget reserve for the current fiscal year to suffice. We cannot comment on the size of the necessary extra budget for the next fiscal year (starting in April) for now, it will need deliberations in parliament. (Reuters)
Reuters also comments on the Japanese economy HERE stating there will be a temporary economic slump--the span of which can not yet be predicted. Here is a summary quote:
While few expect the damage to exceed that of the Kobe earthquake in 1995 when the economy shrank by 2 percent before rebounding even further, the concern is that Japan's economy is much weaker today. It also is weighed down by the largest public debt among advanced economies, double the size of its $5 trillion gross domestic product.
Also, some Japanese stocks plunged Monday morning. The Nikkei dropped 635 points, or five percent. On Tuesday, it dropped 10%. Asian stocks are also down across the board. Since Monday, the Bank of Japan have supplied around 490 billion dollars to the financial market to ensure ample market liquidity thereby avoiding further economic downturn. They are willing to supply more money if necessary. The Yen had risen to a record 76.25 yen per dollar. Government officials are worrying the Bank of Japan has been infusing too much money. Friday, the money officials have taken steps to stop the dangerously rising yen.

The G7 countries agreed on a coordinated intervention to curb the yen's surge following the disasters. On the Tokyo foreign exchange, the government and Bank of Japan immediately began selling yen and buying dollars on Friday. The Nikkei rose 2.72 percent since Thursday's close.

Japan is asking oil wholesalers to prioritize distribution to hospitals and shelters. Honda, Nissan, and Toyota have shut down all national factories and many other car companies have followed suit. Oil delivery has proven difficult as many roads are closed and many others are scattered with debris.

Help and Overseas
Currently, over 31000 people are taking shelter in schools and public institutions. Many residents were forced to wait outside and on roofs overnight through snow and below-zero temperatures. Currently, convenience stores and supermarkets are nearly out of bottled water stocks due increased panic. The lack of drinkable water seems to be the largest aide barrier. Many are struggling to find food as well as the demand far outweighs the supply. Supermarkets can only stock to about as high as 60 percent depending on late, and unavailable shipments. The cold weather and snow is now posing a threat to many of the survivors, many who are without heat.

A Japanese highway mysteriously ripped right on the road lines (credit)
Rescue teams from 12 countries have been sent to assist in relief operations. Collectively, 94 countries have offered assistance. US Ambasador John V. Roos spoke with the press on Wednesday saying:
In the military support area, we have delivered over 7,000 pounds of food and water to the disaster area and more is on the way. Nine ships are assisting in the relief operations, and helicopters and other aircraft have now flown over 50 missions to conduct survivor recoveries, transport passengers, and distribute food and water supplies in the most needy areas. With regard to some of the other assistance that's being provided by USAID, at this point in time more than 5.8 million dollars of United States aid has come to Japan so far and more is on the way. Urban search-and-rescue teams are working under the instruction of the Japanese and are coordinating with UK and Chinese teams to ensure a coordinated international response. So, this is just obviously a small piece of the incredible resources that the United States is providing to this human tragedy.
Naoto Kan has sent 100,000 Self-Defense Forces personnel into the devastated areas around Sendai, a city of 1 million people, for search-and-rescue efforts. About 190 aircraft and 45 vessels were deployed to transport injured people and supplies. 

The Japanese government and the Democratic Party say they will begin to prepare an extra budget first for the most urgent reconstruction projects next month, when fiscal 2011 starts. Allocation of funds for less urgent projects will follow that. The government has already allocated about 430 million dollars from a reserve fund for fiscal 2010, which ends on March 31st. The money was used to provide relief goods to quake survivors.

The scale of the extra budget is expected to exceed the 37 billion dollars allocated for reconstruction projects after the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake. But another emergency fund is needed for the clean up of debris, repairs to damaged roads and water supply and sewerage systems, and financial assistance to help small- and medium-sized companies recover (NHK).

Japanese search-and-rescue forces
Overseas, more than 35 boats have been crushed and destroyed by 6.5 ft waves hitting the California coast in Crescent City, 350 miles north of San Francisco, according to Cindy Henderson, the area's emergency services manager. Some individuals were carried out to sea by the tide. The cost of the damage is estimated at over $50m. Hawaii reported over 3 million dollars in damage.

These events have spurred debate, notably in France and Germany, over the stability of nuclear power.

Please refer to NHK World English before you check American media sources!


  1. Nice piece, few typos (ever-every) and informative.

  2. Only lame due to the situation. Great write up.

  3. Hi Dan, I have been thinking about you, and am glad you are all okay. Thanks for this write up, very informative about what is going on. The photo of the road is amazing.

  4. Yeah, have you seen the whirlpool yet? It's not exactly relevant to this article, as it's just a small freak occurrence, but it's very awe-inspiring to see the work of nature.

  5. Glad you are safe Dan. Please keep everyone updated...nice work on the blog.


  6. Great article Dan, I have linked it about 4 times already. Hopefully a lot of people find it useful.

  7. Thanks Greg and Denise. It's becoming harder and harder to update, haha. I feel like a one-man newsroom.

  8. oh yeah, not "Tokyo" hit by tsunami, "Tohoku"

  9. I would like to know who designed and built the Fukushima area nuclear reactors?

    Thank you.

  10. The reactors were built by GE, Hitachi and Toshiba. GE designed the reactors. 40 years ago they were top of the line technology, but after this crisis ends, I'm sure they will be rebuilt to withstand an even bigger earthquake with safer flooding standards.


You should probably engage in some conversation.