Japan's Massive Earthquake

The earthquake and tsunami obliterates everything

On Friday, March 11, 2011, at 2:46PM, local time, a massive earthquake of 9 magnitude on the Richter scale occured off the north east coast of Honshu, Japan's most populous island.. The earthquake has been named the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. The epicenter was located at 38.322°N, 142.369°E, about 80 miles off the coast of Sendai, the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture. The earthquake was preceded by a series earthquakes ranging from 6.0 to 7.2 on the Richter scale, over the previous two days. The big earthquake made the earth shake for several minutes even as far south as Tokyo. The quake was so powerful it caused high-rise buildings in Tokyo to visibly sway. It moved the entire island of Honshu by 7.9 feet, it and affected the earth's rotation enough to shorten the day by 1.8 microseconds.

The earthquake resulted from thrust faulting by the subduction zone plate boundary between the Pacific and North American plates. The fault moved upwards of 98 to 131 feet and slipped over an area approximately 187 miles long (in the along strike dimension) and by 94 miles wide (in the down-dip direction). The earthquake was followed by more than 600 aftershocks, many of them with amagnitude greater than 6.0. This earthquake is the most powerful known earthquake to hit Japan and one of the five most powerful earthquakes worldwide since 1900.

USGS Earthquake Intensity Map Around Epicenter

Because of earthquake tolerant building designs, the direct damage from the earthquake was minimal. But the earthquake churned up huge tsunami waves, as high as 33 feet that struck the East coast of Japan and traveled as much as 6 miles inward in less than 10 minutes after the earthquake began. The tsunami inundated a total of 181.5 sq miles of land. It brought unbelievable damage and carnage as entire towns were wiped away, villages disappeared, farmland was inundated. Whatever the tsunami hit was completely devastated. Not devastation like a bombed out war zone where buildings that were not hit by bombs remain standing. But complete devastation where everything was reduced to rubble.

Six million households, more than 10% of Japan households lost electricity. More than 20% of Tokyo Electric's power generation was knocked out. The Fukushimi Daichi nuclear power plant, with six nuclear reactors, was crippled with reactors overheating and releasing radiation. Over 200,000 homes had no running water. Hundreds of thousands of cars were totally destroyed. Over 110,000 buildings were partially damaged. Over 25,000 were destroyed. One hundred buildings were destroyed by fire. Nearly 20,000 fishing boats and ships were destroyed. 17 bridges were washed away. 56 bridges were damaged. About 2,200 roads were damaged, 43 railway lines were severely damaged or washed away. 50 sewage treament plants were damaged, 5 completely destroyed. Telecommunications were damaged. At least five oil refineries were partially damaged.

Carnage Miyagi Prefecture
Carnage in Miyagi Prefecture

The earthquake and tsunami brought fires. The Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city burned out of control in an inferno fire that completely destroyed the facility. A fire also occured at JFE Holdings Inc's steel plant in Chiba prefecture. Large parts of Kesennuma city, with a population of about 70,000, and located 300 miles north east of Tokyo in Miyagi prefecture were engulfed in flames of a raging fire and burned down.

Sea Walls
Tsunami wave breaching a seawall in Miyako.

The seawalls, that were designed to protect the coastal areas from tsunamis were not high enough. As the tsunami wave went over the walls, boats were carried over it as well. When the water of the tsunami reached cars, the cars were floated and crashed into whatever was obstructing its path. The tsunami literally tossed around ships, boats, trucks, trains, airplanes, cars, and houses like children's toys.

One of the images below shows how the tsunami deposited a ferry on top of a two story house, clearly showing that the height of the tsunami was well above the height of the two story concrete house. The concrete houses were flooded but not destroyed. The wooden houses were just completely demolished reducing them to splinters and match sticks. Another of the photos shows the house splinters generated by the tsunami as well as some cars that it floated and carried to the Sendai Airport.

Tsunami puts a ferry on a house
in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture
Sendai Airport
Sendai Airport
Rubble parked alongside the airplanes

The Crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

The crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, run and owned by TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, is located on a 860 acre site in the towns of Okuma and Futaba in the Fukushima Prefecture. TEPCO is the largest electric utility in Japan and is the 4th largest electrical utility in the world. The plant has six boiling water nuclear reactors, the first one being commissioned in 1971. Its generation capacity of 4700 megawatts makes it one of the 15 largest nuclear power plants in the world.

It is not unusual to find that with size comes power, arrogance, and corruption. TEPCO has size and has conducted its business with arrogance. And it has had corruption and scandal. Recurringly, TEPCO has submitted fake safety and repair reports and did not report various incidents, including one that reached criticality. Investigative reports show that TEPCO failed to inspect more than 30 technical components of the six reactors, including power boards for the reactor's temperature control valves as well as components of the cooling system such as water pump motors and emergency diesel power generators. All this was revealed in August 2002 by the government of Japan. The government report stated that between 1977 and 2002 TEPCO had filed over 200 falsified reports of technical data to the Japanese government. Although this caused the chairman, the vice president and advisors of TEPCO to resign, no attempt was made by TEPCO to identify and punish those responsible for the falsifications.

Using only recent historical data, rather than the full historical record, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had been designed with a sea wall of 19 feet. Recent requests from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency for TEPCO to re-examine this design parameter were essentially ignored. On December 19, 2001 TEPCO perfunctorily filed a one paged document that simply ruled out the possibility of a tsunami large enough to knock the plant offline and gave scant details to justify this conclusion. The government regulators did not mind the brevity of TEPCO's response and made no moves to verify the report's assumptions and calculations and did not ask for further supporting documents.

The tsunami wave had a height estimated at 33 feet. The power plant was flooded. The flood knocked out the emergency diesel cooling system. The reactors, although in a shutdown mode, heated up. The nuclear fuel rods which needed to be covered by water became exposed. Within three to four hours the temperatures became high enough for a partial nuclear meltdown. The melted fuel rods fell down to the bottom of the containment vessel. At four and half hours, the temperature at the bottom of the containment vessels reached over 1600 degrees Celsius causing a breaching of the reactor containment vessels in reactors 1,2 and 3. Holes in these containment vessels may be as large as 4 inches.

Fukushima reactors 1 and 2 after the hydrogen explosions.

Hydrogen gas formed in reactions of water with the hot zirconium clad rods and caused explosions in these reactors. Meanwhile, outside the reactors, the spent fuel rods stored in special pools heated up as the pool water dropped due to cracks in the pool. The spent fuel rods became exposed. The combination of the reactor situation and the spent fuel rod situation caused large amounts of radiation to be released. The radiation level reached over 1,000 millisieverts per hour at the plant. Radioactive iodine 131 reached levels of over 65,000 times legal limit in the sea water outside the plant. Radiactive Cesium 137 levels exceeded legal limits in the sea water, on the ground, and between March 21 and March 26 were above legal limits in drinking water as far away as Tokyo.

Evacuation of 80,000 people within a 12.5 mile radius of the plant was ordered. Those people living between the 12.5 mile and 19 mile radius of the plant were told to say indoors. The radiation escaping from the reactor deposited across a wide area of crops and grazing pastures, making the plants and ground radioactive. The radioactive crops growing in the region around the plant were not allowed to be harvested or sold. Radiation increases were measured all around the world. In the United States increased radiation was detected in drinking water in many American cities. Cesium 137 has been found in American milk. Milk samples from Phoenix and Los Angeles contained iodine 131 at levels roughly equal to the maximum contaminant level permitted by the EPA in drinking water.

The Fukushimi disaster is rated at Level 7, the highest on the UN's International Nuclear Event Scale, and is considered the world's second most serious nuclear disaster, after Chernobyl. The cost to bring the 6 reactors to a cold shutdown is now estimated to be 200 billion dollars. As well, TEPCO is facing huge compensation costs. There is a high probability that TEPCO will become bankrupt and the government of Japan may have to nationalize it.

The official death toll is close to 15,000 with more than 13,000 people listed as missing. More than 300,000 people became refugees having to seek housing in temporary shelters. The enormous amount of debris and garbage, including homes reduced to wooden slats, like match sticks, and washed away destroyed cars is estimated to be 25 million tons and is estimated to take three to five years to clear away. The economic cost for clearing away the rubble and rebuilding has been estimated to be over 300 billion dollars. This has become the world's costliest disaster, surpassing both Hurricane Katrina that levelled much of New Orleans in 2005 and Japan's Kobe earthquake in 1995. Japanese Prime minister Naoto Kan said that this was the most difficult crisis for Japan since the end of World War II.