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Japan's historic catastrophe just beginning

Posted By Barbara Simpson On 03/14/2011 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Sometimes Mother Nature just needs to get our attention, and when that happens, it’s like getting the attention of a mule. Hit him in the head with a 2×4 first. Then he’ll pay attention.

“Mom” did it again last Friday, when all the plans of human beings got that big smack in the head. This time, she did it with a massive double whammy – a mega, catastrophic earthquake followed by a tsunami of unimaginable force and destruction.

In reality, it’s turned into a triple whammy because in the aftermath of the shaking and water, which was bad enough, there is a catastrophe facing not only Japan, but also the world.

We all face the unknown consequences of a nuclear accident of monumental proportions – reactor shutdowns, explosions, loss of core coolant, and as I write this, at least two core meltdowns.

Statics tell the story – the quake struck at 2:46 Friday afternoon off shore, north of Tokyo. Estimates of the intensity vary from 8.9 to 9.2 on the Richter Scale, but regardless of the number finally decided upon by scientists, it is clearly the most powerful and destructive quake that country has ever endured, and one of the top six in recorded world history. It’s also the most photographed disaster in history with commercial and amateur videos of almost everything as it occurred.

The quake was caused by the offshore rupture of the earth’s crust, a slippage of tectonic plates, which lifted the ocean floor some 50 feet for 180 miles. According to early estimates, the massive power of the movement not only moved the main island of Japan eight feet, it also shifted the planet four inches on its axis.

The quake caused destruction across the country. High-rise buildings in Tokyo swayed, fires erupted and structures were damaged.

Closer to the epicenter, the damage was extensive for all structures. Fires erupted at oil refineries, and storage tanks of natural gas burned in cascades of flames.

But there was more. Within minutes, the second salvo from the earthquake was the massive tsunami, ravaging hundreds of miles of Japan’s coastline and spreading across the ocean causing millions of dollars of damage in Pacific islands, South America, other countries and, ultimately, the west coast of the United States.

The waters rolled into Japan with a speed and ferocity that took your breath away. When I first saw the early video of a roiling mass of “something” moving across farmland, I didn’t know what it was.

It didn’t look like water, but then I got a closer look as the camera zoomed in: It was a speeding wall of water, dirt, debris of all kinds, cars, planes, boats, ship containers, houses and probably animals and people. It seemed unreal – but, unfortunately and tragically, it was all too real.

The death toll grows in leaps and bounds as hundreds of bodies are found and thousands remain missing. It’s hard to imagine how authorities will ever reach a “final” number when the devastation is so massive.

But this wasn’t the end because it quickly became evident another catastrophe was in the making. Early on, it was reported that five nuclear reactors at two power plants were shut down because of the quake. But the news report also mentioned, almost as an aside, that the reactor facilities had lost power, meaning the back-up emergency generators couldn’t work to keep the unit cooling systems operational.

For a while, emergency diesel generators provided back-up power for the systems, but then they stopped too, meaning there was no power at all for the critical cooling systems.

It was more than a news-report “aside” – it was a full-blown emergency at the plant 170-miles north of Tokyo. Nearly 180,000 people in the vicinity were evacuated as plant operators worked feverishly to keep the system “cooled,” prevent a meltdown and keep radioactivity contained.

It didn’t help that there have been more than 200 aftershocks in the vicinity, some with intensities higher than five.

To add to the fear and misery, Sunday morning at 10:26, a 6.2 magnitude temblor struck 111 miles east of Tokyo – closer than the Friday shaker.

Ultimately, because of the Friday quake and the damage to the nuclear facilities, states of emergency were issued, the evacuation area expanded and officials confirmed loss of cooling ability at six reactors at the Daiichi site and three other units at the Daini site.

Radioactive vapors were vented to reduce pressure inside the reactor, and indeed one building housing a reactor exploded, blowing away the roof and walls. Officials said that unless reactor cooling was resumed, there would be a core meltdown.

All day Saturday there were conflicting reports about what was happening; as I write, it appears two core meltdowns are in progress. That’s a worst-case scenario, with the main concern being a radiation leak if the containment building walls are breached.

Whether that can be stopped, or what happens if it’s not, isn’t clear. Memories of the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents are fresh in the minds of many, even though those were different types of reactors. For the average person, a nuclear reactor is a nuclear reactor and radiation is radiation.

There are reports of some workers already having been contaminated and scattered reports of increased radiation limits in the plants as well as some increased readings outside the facilities.

This historic catastrophe, regardless of the final numbers: deaths, injuries, dollar losses, homes and animals destroyed, crops and businesses lost, infrastructure crumbled, the effect on the Japanese economy and the damage to the nuclear facilities, will be remembered most if there’s a massive release of radioactivity into the atmosphere, affecting the world.

But even without that, these reactor accidents will damage the worldwide development of nuclear power for domestic use for decades, if not forever.


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