Triggered by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake, the tsunami in Japan that struck a 1,300 mile stretch of the country’s eastern coast on Friday (2:46pm local time) has presented a second potential disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant near Tokyo.
Damage from the quake caused the cooling system of the plant to fail, prompting Japanese officials to issue the first ever state of emergency for a nuclear facility. About 3,000 people living near the facility were evacuated after power outages and a failed backup generator was preventing cooling water from functioning properly in the reactor, forcing workers to shut it down hot.
Nuclear power plants like the one at Fukushima are designed to contain nuclear material even if the cooling system fails. In addition, the Japanese defense ministry said it had dispatched dozens of troops trained to deal with chemical disaster to the plant in case of a radiation leak. Officials, however, said there was no sign of leakage at present
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has been deployed to transport coolant to the plant. Said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “Japan is very reliant on nuclear power and they have very high engineering standards but one of their plants came under a lot of stress with the earthquake and didn’t have enough coolant.”
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, three other plants in the nation have been shut down as a precaution.
Japan’s Emergency Preparedness
The earthquake tremor bent the upper tip of the Tokyo Tower, a 1,093′ steel structure inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris. But while news is still developing, there have been few reports of collapsed buildings — Japan’s stringent building codes may have contributed to this absence.
Since 1923, when a 7.9 earthquake hit their nation, the Japanese people have made emergency preparedness a priority. When rebuilding from that disaster, many city buildings were constructed with concrete and steel, rather than with wood and brick. Later, in 1981 Japan updated its building guidelines with an eye to earthquake science.
The 1995 Kobe earthquake, in which more than 5,000 people died, initiated another round of research on earthquake safety and disaster management. In 2000, building codes were revised again, this time with specific requirements and mandatory checks.
Every year since 1960, the country marks Disaster Prevention Day on September 1, the anniversary of the 1923 Tokyo quake. The culture of earthquake preparedness has permeated the local level as well. Between 1979 to 2009, the Shizuoka prefecture (governmental bodies larger than cities or towns) alone poured more than $4 billion into improving the safety of hospitals, schools, and social welfare facilities.
Emergency drills are another ingrained part of Japanese culture. From very early on, schoolchildren learn how respond to a major earthquake. At home, citizens in cities and towns of all sizes are exposed to emergency procedures, and their surroundings are usually outfitted with communications equipment that will alert them to an event.
Communities along the coastline, especially in areas that have been hit by tsunamis in the past, tend to be the best prepared. Local authorities can usually contact residents directly through warning systems set up in each home; footpaths and other escape routes leading to higher ground are usually clearly marked.
Additionally, during the 1980’s and 1990’s, there were many concrete seawalls built in many communities, some as high as 40′. Some coastal towns have set up networks of sensors that can sound alarms in every residence and automatically closed floodgates when an earthquake strikes to prevent waves from surging up rivers.
According to the national broadcaster NHK, waves from Friday’s tsunami spilled over some seawalls in the affected areas. But it was too soon to say whether other seawalls or regular evacuation drills — or a combination of the two — prevented casualty figures from climbing higher. Friday’s earthquake is the largest that Japan has experienced to date.