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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

3rd Anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake


The Great East Japan Earthquake struck three years ago today. The quake entailed not only the cataclysmic physical destruction caused mainly by the tsunami that scoured a section of the north-east coastline of Honshu, but had a social, political and economic impact that shook Japan to its foundations, which aftershocks are still being felt today.

The National Diet Building, or Kokkaigijido, of Japan.
The Japanese government still fearful of the consequences of Fukushima

Over 15,000 people died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, over 125,000 buildings collapsed, with tens of thousands more damaged. However, the aspect of the disaster that continues to make headlines today is the outcome of the damage visited on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Complex by the tsunami.

While the power plant stood up to the force of the deluge itself, it had an Achilles' heel. The switching stations for the emergency diesel generators needed to power the back-up cooling system of five of the six generation units were not watertight. Notwithstanding the power plant's earthquake-proof design, officials at the headquarters of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which ran the plant had argued against the need for increased tsunami protection that an in-house report had recommended in 2008. This inability to maintain cooling systems led to three of the plant's six nuclear reactors melting down.

The aftermath of the meltdown was the mass evacuation of over 300,000 local residents for fear of radiation exposure. Even though the actual amounts of radiation released at the time were minimal, the water being used to this day to cool the plant is significantly radioactive, and hardly a week goes by without news of yet another leak in tanks storing that water on the plant.

TEPCO's reputation as a responsible company has been destroyed, and, considering the size of the company - the biggest utility company in Japan and fourth biggest in the world, capitalized at over USD6 billion - the image of corporate Japan as a whole has suffered immensely. A history of lax safety measures before the disaster and constant blunders following it have been met in Japan with a sense of despair.

The Japanese government has fared little better, particularly for the numerous instances on which it has been shown to have withheld important information or even denied facts relating to the disaster. Japanese government support for the phasing out of nuclear power, voiced by then prime minister Naoto Kan, has been replaced by support for the nuclear status quo with the election of Shinzo Abe in December 2012.

The tens of thousands of people who have been denied access to their former homes constitute a huge pool of discontent, especially now that three years later the worldwide and nationwide outpouring of support for their plight has been reduced to a trickle as those not so directly affected return to life as normal.

One measure of the fear the government has of public dissatisfaction in the wake of the Fukushima disaster is the scores of policemen that are lining the streets surrounding the Nagatacho government district today. Thinking that perhaps some particularly important person was visiting Japan, I approached one of the policemen to ask what was going on, and was told that it was in case of any trouble, today being the third anniversary of the disaster.

See the JapanVisitor blog about the second anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake disaster.

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