Saturday, March 12, 2011

Japan quake leaves hundreds dead

As Japan woke up on Saturday morning the true picture of damage was becoming clear. Hundreds have been declared dead, many more are missing and the damage is more extensive than initially believed.

Throughout the night the country experienced dozens of aftershocks exceeding a magnitude of 5.5 shaking residents and increasing panic and fear in the population.

In the north-east of the country efforts are underway to rescue those not washed away by the massive tsunami that swept as far as 10 km in land. At least four trains are completely unaccounted for and several small villages have entirely disappeared.

Fires continue to rage at an oil refinery in the Chiba prefecture to the north of Tokyo and there are growing concerns for Japan's nuclear power stations which were more extensively damaged than initially thought.

Nuclear meltdown fears

Japanese authorities have warned there could be a small radiation leak from one nuclear reactor whose cooling system was knocked out by the earthquake. Technicians at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, located about 270 kilometres north-east of Tokyo in Onahama city, are set to release vapour from the unit in question to lower the pressure and prevent a meltdown.

Reports quoted Japan's nuclear safety watchdog as saying radioactivity levels in the control room at the Fukushima plant were 1,000 times above normal. The concerns have prompted the government to order the evacuation of thousands living in the area surrounding the plant, increasing the evacuation zone from 3 km around the plant to 10 km [BBC / CBC].

While Japanese authorities have been careful not to overplay the dangers, there is real concern amongst those in the nuclear industry. "It has the potential to be catastrophic," said Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, and a former senior policy adviser to the Energy Secretary during the Clinton administration.

When an earthquake strikes, nuclear plants automatically shut down, but the radioactive material continues to decay and produce heat. Reactor cooling systems, which rely on electric pumps to circulate water around the nuclear core, are designed to prevent overheating and pressure buildups.

Venting may relieve some pressure and give workers more time to restore the emergency cooling systems, but they have only a 12 to 24 hour window, Alvarez says. "I don't think the venting is going to result in a catastrophic release, but it's definitely an indication that all is not well there."

If the cooling is not restored quickly, the core can overheat, causing the water to boil over and exposing the core to air. The interior could catch fire and cause a meltdown, releasing nuclear material into the concrete containment dome that surrounds the reactor, Alvarez says. "Is this barrier going to be sufficient?" Alvarez said. "It's a dicey proposition. The best you can say is, stay tuned."

If they re-establish a stable power supply and restore the cooling, "We should all breathe a sigh of relief," Alvarez said. "If they can't, it's very serious." [USA Today / Reuters]

Japan relies extensively on nuclear power and has some 17 power stations, containing 55 plants [Japan Nuclear Plants]. Eleven shutdown following the earthquake and Tokyo Electric Power Company [TEPCO] say they have also lost the ability to control pressure at some of the reactors at its Daini plant near to the Fukushima Daiishi plant.

Rescue and relief efforts underway

While scientists struggle to contain a potential disaster at Japan's nuclear plants, troops and emergency workers are being deployed to locate and rescue people trapped beneath debris.

About 400 people are known to have died and more than 700 are missing according to media reports. Japanese media says the death toll will exceed 1,000.

NHK said the scale of the death and destruction following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan was growing worse by the hour. Last night police found 300 unidentified bodies in the city of Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. In Kesennuma City, a major fire has engulfed wide areas facing the bay. The Fire and Disaster Management Agency says the flames may have been sparked after oil ran out of a tank following a tsunami.

In Iwate Prefecture, 74 people have been confirmed dead. Police there say more than 130 are missing, mainly in coastal areas. The government says the city of Rikuzen-takata is nearly completely destroyed.

In Fukushima Prefecture, 83 people are reported to have been killed and more than 480 people missing and in Aomori Prefecture, 2 people are missing in Hachinohe City. The scope of the damage wrought by the tsunami there is not yet known and it will be some days before the true scale of the disaster is fully established.

Tokyo was less affected but there too a number of people died. At least 28 people have been confirmed dead in the capital and neighbouring prefectures. There was superficial damage across the city and several fires broke out. In the capital itself 2 people were killed after a building partially collapsed and 2 died from inhaling chemicals at a plant.

Living with disaster

Japan is no stranger to earthquakes or even tsunamis. However, this is proving to be the worst in many years. At least in terms of magnitude, Friday's earthquake was the largest to be recorded. It is too early to say whether the death toll be as big as previous events. For many it is academic. The wounds left by the events on Friday will take many years to heal, both for individuals caught up in the disaster and the country as a whole.

The effects of the massive quake have been felt all around the world. Financial markets were rocked in the wake of the earthquake with insurance companies particularly affected. Economists said the economic impact could be "considerable", although it was too early to make any judgements. Oil prices were also down, as markets predicted lower demand from Japan, the world's third largest oil importer. US light, sweet crude fell by as much as $2.60 to $99.01 - the first time it had dipped below $100 a barrel in a week. In London, Brent crude fell by as much as $3 to $112.25 [BBC].

Tsunamis in other parts of the world were not as severe as feared. In Hawaii waves were only a metre higher than usual and in California larger tides were seen but damage and flooding was slight. However one person was reported missing [WSJ]. Chile remains on high alert and evacuation orders have been ordered for low lying areas along some 3,000 km of coastline.

Earlier this week some astronomers warned that an upcoming lunar perigee might precipitate massive earthquakes [Daily Mail]. The moon will be at its closest to the Earth on March 19th for nearly 20 years, at only 356,577 km. Lunar perigees have coincided with several natural disasters. The massive 2004 Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami which killed thousands came only days before such an event. Most astronomers have dismissed claims that a lunar perigee might bring disaster as pure nonsense. There will be some who will point to yesterday's event of proof while others will say it is pure coincidence [WSJ blog / DNA / Mirror / NY Daily News / Globe & Mail].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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