The Situation in Japan

I have been watching the tragedy unfold in Japan after their recent 8.9 earthquake and resultant tsunami. As the cable news has shown so well, the devastation is widespread, particularly in the low-lying areas along the northeast coast of the country. I send the Japanese people my condolences for those who have died and who were injured in this tragedy, and my deep hopes that they will soon be on the road back  to recovery.

It’s probably no surprise to readers of this blog that I am especially interested in the events unfolding around the three Japanese nuclear reactor plants closest to the epicenter of the earthquake: Fukushima Daiichi, Daini, and Onagawa. There are currently 54 operating reactors in Japan, and together they provided the country with about 30 percent of its electricity before the quake hit.

While the three reactor plants closest to the quake all declared states of emergency, it appears that the situation at the Daiichi plant is the most serious. In the aftermath of last week’s earthquake, power to the plant was immediately cut off, and the tsunami that followed in the earthquake’s wake disabled the plant’s backup diesel generators. The steam turbine backup functioned, however, generating the power required to keep pumping water through the reactor vessels. Unfortunately, the system was severely compromised, and it appears that the reactor cores were exposed.

At the time of the quake, there were three functioning reactors at Daiichi. It is now believed that Reactor 1, built in 1970, and reactor 3, built in 1974, have both suffered partial meltdowns. You have probably by now seen the video of the explosions that took place when hydrogen gas was vented into the secondary containment buildings of reactors 1 and 3, where it combined with oxygen and detonated, blowing the roofs off the buildings and releasing some amount of cesium-137. It is thought that the control rods in Reactor 2, built in 1973, are fully exposed. Technicians at Daiichi are struggling to bring the situation under control, flooding the reactor cores with seawater doped with boron.

I hope that the technicians are soon able to get the reactors fully under control. According to the reports I have read, more than 200,000 people have been evacuated from the area around the reactors, and that at one point radiation levels in the Daiichi area were 1,000 time normal levels, exposing at least 160 people to high levels of radiation. In addition, 17 sailors returning to the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan from disaster-relief missions were found to have been exposed to low levels of radiation, receiving a month’s worth of normal radiation exposure in about an hour. As I write this blog post, the radiation levels in the Daiichi area have fallen considerably, but iodine is being distributed to evacuation centers in the area in the event of a large-scale release of radiation.

What this experience points out to me is that no matter how much we might prepare for a disaster of this magnitude, the human race is of little consequence when the full power of Mother Nature is brought to bear. If anyone is prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis, it is the Japanese people. However, despite all these preparations, the sheer power of nature quickly overwhelmed their best efforts, and potentially tens of thousands of people have lost their lives, with many thousands more injured. The country’s economy will surely take a severe beating as well, the Japanese Nikkei stock exchange lost about 6 percent of its value on Monday, and many manufacturers have shut down production.

If there is a silver lining to this unfolding story, it is that all of Japan’s preparation did make a difference. Many more people would have died and many more would have been injured without these preparations. We should also now redouble our own efforts to be prepared for our next natural disaster. We can’t afford to wait until “the Big One” hits.

— Bob