Although I am once again on the ground in Japan, I think it is likely that most folks in the Western Hemisphere, and probably quite a few in the Eastern Hemisphere as well, have a better grip on what happened in Japan over the past ten days than I do. When the Sendai earthquake and the resultant tsunami hit, I was in Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the southeast coast of Bali. Of course local TV programming was interrupted, and the screens filled with images of the disaster, but little of it was in English, and most of the Indonesian-speaking folks on hand didn’t have the English skills to translate that sort of thing. It is one thing to be prepared to respond to questions about local festivals, menu items, and the like, but another thing entirely to be able to translate technical details to an information-hungry international clientele. How strong was the quake? How long did it last? How soon after the quake did the tsunami hit? How fast does a tsunami move? And how does the Fukushima nuclear plant situation compare with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? No idea. I was able to receive a few short emails from Japan, but those were mostly concerned with status updates on family and friends, and very little on the overall situation.
I plan to comment only briefly on these few things, as all of the information is out there on the internet, analyzed and commented upon by those more learned than I; an appendix of source websites is included below for those who want to follow up in depth. How strong was the quake? As most everybody knows by now, the quake measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, the most powerful earthquake ever to rock Japan, and one of the five most powerful on record. For comparison’s sake, it was about 8000 times stronger than the one that levelled Christchurch, New Zealand, in February 2011. How long did it last? It varied from place to place, as is the nature of earthquakes. Basically, in the heavily damaged areas, it ranged from three to five minutes. How soon after the quake did the tsunami hit? The tsunami hit Sendai within eight to ten minutes of the earthquake, so quickly that even those with the presence of mind to plan an escape immediately would have had precious little time to effect it. Other towns along the Honshu coast had as much as a half hour. How fast does a tsunami move? In the open ocean, it can travel at speeds of 800km/h, about the same speed as a modern jetliner. And how does the Fukushima nuclear plant situation compare with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl? This is a complicated question, too much so to be addressed in any depth in this forum. A couple of brief observations, though: the Three Mile Island partial meltdown was a plant-related issue only; the surrounding infrastructure was intact. By this I mean that the roads were all perfectly usable, or at least as usable as Pennsylvania roads normally are; the supply channels were uninterrupted; there was no major issue with the residents, other than securing their orderly exit from the affected area. In Japan, there are tens of thousands of displaced residents, impassable roads, shortages of necessary supplies, and a heavy dose of wintry weather in case the other problems weren’t sufficient. Also, at Three Mile Island, only one reactor was at issue; in Fukushima, four of the six reactors are in trouble. By contrast, the reactor at Chernobyl was not surrounded by a containment structure, in retrospect a deadly oversight; a dramatic power surge caused two explosions, releasing some 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere.
At this writing, there is news here of a recent pressure spike in one of the reactors; only time will tell how that part of the scenario will play out.
Tomorrow is a national holiday in Japan, Syunbun No Hi, the day when people gather to visit the gravesites of their departed loved ones. It speaks volumes about the heart of a nation that a day would be set aside for this, and it is unspeakably sad that so many loved ones departed so recently.