The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami: The Aftermath

This is part two of my reportage on the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, which began with my post, "Hawaii Tsunami, Again." To refresh your memory, a 9.0 earthquake struck off Tohoku (includes the Prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima), Japan with an energy value 600 million times more powerful than the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb, on the afternoon of March 11 (it was the night of March 10 in Hawaii), sending a 30 foot (later reports indicated a run-up of 124 feet) tsunami to the immediate environs, where thousands perished (in comparison, though, that slightly more powerful 2004 Indonesian earthquake killed more than 230,000) -- triggering partial meltdowns of three Fukushima (a prefecture just south of Miyagi, where Sendai is located) nuclear powerplants and stored fuel rods -- sending a tsunami up to five feet high as far away as Chile, where almost a year ago a similar 8.8 quake sent waves of about the same height to Japan. This was my HuffPost blog entitled, "Hawaii Tsunami?"

This is a rather long posting because the original intention was to only report on the early period after Day 1. I finally concluded this article on Day 13, with a length 4 times the normal 600 words. Should you wish to continue reading about Days 14 and later, click on Planet Earth and Humanity.

On Day 2 I flew into Narita. I can add that this flight was somewhat reminiscent of my Delhi to Munich journey a year ago, and I was supremely calm, with high anticipation of catastrophe. Click on Planet Earth and Humanity for this almost euphoric experience.

On this flight, it frankly occurred to me that I was probably at the peak of my life. One wonders when this will be, sort of like peak oil, but, no doubt, this was it. Things can only go downhill from here, and certainly must when I land in the chaos of Narita. I was mentally prepared for this next stage of my life.

We landed at around 4 p.m. after a flight of a little more than five hours. I had four bags with me, one very large, for I'm on a six week trip through hot and cold countries. After the customs check I looked around for the usual sign with my name, for I had arranged for a hotel pick-up. I saw none, so walked carting my bags and asked questions. Half an hour later after determining that there were no taxis, no airport limousines, no NEX, and no Tokyo Westin pickup, I tried to call the hotel, but failed. There was only one option next to walking 40 miles -- a very slow Japanese railway train from Narita to Tokyo. But thank heavens there was a way.

While the next five hours were agonizing, this was nothing compared to how much the tsunami victims were suffering 150 miles north of me. A particular irony is that the ride on three trains to the Ebesu Station cost me all of 1,000 yen (about $12), the same as the 300-yard taxi ride to the hotel.

I finally, finally arrived at the Westin at almost 9 p.m. It took me as long to fly from Thailand to Japan as to train from Narita to the Tokyo Westin. You need to go to my blog site to read about why I was in Southeast Asia. What an ordeal!

When I balance the good and the bad of the day, and consider that I am actually in this luxurious Tokyo hotel only a day after their largest earthquake in history, I feel blessed. I tend to shudder from a small aftershock every hour, one where my building actually swayed, but things are quickly coming together in this city.

I awake on Day 3 and see a glorious sunrise and am met with a smile from Mount Fuji in the far background... went down for an incredible brunch... and will next explore. However, don't expect any Anderson Cooper-like, CNN death-defying expose of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown or a Soledad O'Brien interview with a bedraggled tsunami survivor. I will report on life in general, perhaps on sake and bentos, and see if any cherry blossoms have yet bloomed.

In the meantime, we expect three-hour brownouts so one needs to be careful about when to catch the elevator or subway. But even the convenience stores seem now better stocked, and life in Tokyo edgily tries to return to normalcy. The Nikkei has immediately dropped 6% and at last glance was down to 9661. The damage has been estimated to be from $10 billion to $100 billion, if not double that.

My largest fear at this point are those compromised nuclear reactors in Fukushima, for Tokyo is only a bit further away than Washington, D.C., when I was working in the U.S. Senate during the Three Mile Island partial meltdown nuclear crisis. The winds today are said to be heading in this direction from Sendai. The French Embassy has actually already urged their citizenry to leave Tokyo just in case the worst happened.

Day 4 is another sunny morning, and as I walked to my brunch restaurant, I noticed an Airport Limousine bus outside the lobby. To make a very long story short, I skipped eating, packed, checked out early, caught that bus to Narita, talked my way on to a United Airlines flight to Beijing, and found my way to the St. Regis Beijing at midnight. Beijing felt that 9.0 earthquake, I hear, but I am 1,400 miles away from Fukushima. In the meantime, a second nuclear reactor exploded while I was at the airport. This is known as the Chicken and Chicken Little School of Reportage: take no chances and assume that the sky could fall at any time.

I awake on Day Five to a beautiful Beijing morning, but see on CNN that the number of confirmed deaths has risen to 2,400 and a third reactor exploded at Fukushima Dai-ichi (4.7 GW or 4,700 MW). It is possible that the containment vessel has been damaged. Luckily, three more nuclear reactors there were undergoing regular maintenance and were not active. But this is not all! There are three more nuclear power plants (a fourth seems to be okay) at Fukushima Daini (4,400 MW) and three at Onagawa (2179 MW) all in various states of emergency.

The particularly frightening aspect of nuclear power in the Orient is that many of these reactors are located at the seashore. Thus, every one is potentially vulnerable to tsunamis. There will be a massive effort to build higher and stronger walls, plus overkill on battery and emergency power supply systems to insure that this does not happen again. But the future of the nuclear industry is in high jeopardy. The government of Germany could well be threatened and President Barack Obama does not now need to be too complimentary about nuclear power.

The Japan Nikkei, which stood at 10,500 last week, experienced a 20% two-day drop today before recovering a bit and will end the day at 8605, while the Nikkei futures for June have dropped below 8000. Thus, the stock value decline at something on the order of $700 billion now dwarfs the predicted damage, now said to be at least $100 billion, but no doubt will double and triple. Worldwide, the stock value of companies associated with nuclear power has precipitously dropped while renewable energy stocks all jumped. With Peak Oil looming, energy supply attitudes can only worsen, and worries return for a grander global recession. Can green energy save the day?

Day Six in Beijing is again sunny, with the current prevailing wind heading away from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean. The situation has worsened at Fukushima. It looks like those spent nuclear fuel rods just being stored are now becoming a major concern. Be more and more aware of Cesium-137. It is snowing in Sendai.

Japan has 55 nuclear power plants, while France has 58, with 80% of their electricity from these reactors. Many don't realize that the U.S. has 104 nuke generation plants, with a MW capacity just more than 100,000 (France 63,236 and Japan 47,130). China has 10,234 MW, but has 27 new ones in some stage of planning and construction. The whole world has 220 in these stages. It is safe to say that the future of nuclear is now in great doubt.

The Japan Nikkei jumped 489 to 9094, but Tokyo Electric Power Company fell an additional 24%.

On Day Seven the death count was approaching 6,000 and the nuclear situation remains extremely serious. At 76.54 yen to the dollar, an all-time low was reached. This means that a visitor from the U.S. to Japan will be at a financial disadvantage, but American products are a better value for the Japanese. The Nikkei dropped another 3.6% to 8765. At least it was sunny today in Miyagi and Fukushima, but it will get below freezing tonight and snow is predicted again for Sunday.

Day 8 saw deaths surpassing 7,000, and 4.4 million households without electricity, 1.5 million without water. TIME magazine indicated today that the deaths have exceeded 10,000. While this figure is premature, it will almost surely be reached by the time this issue is actually read. There is a hopeful sign, though, that, perhaps, the worst might have been averted from those Fukushima nuclear reactors, even though recent robotic and helicopter views convinced authorities to raise the nuclear danger to level 5 (on Day 15 was upgraded to level, coincidentaly, the day I left Tokyo for Nagasaki. ), similar to Three Mile Island in 1979. (TMI had two nuclear reactors, with the 906 MW reactor suffering a partial meltdown. It was decommissioned. The other one at 802 MW will operate until 2034. Chernobyl had four 1000 MW nuclear reactors and suffered their cataclysm, gaining the highest level rating of 7, in 1986. The entire area was abandoned.)

People are still leaving Tokyo, foreigners returning home and Kanto (wider Tokyo) residents to Kansai (Osaka, etc.). The Japan Nikkei closed the day up 244 to 9,207, and is "only" about 1000 below what it was when the earthquake hit, and down 10% for the year, as compared with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which is up a bit more than 2% in 2011.

Narita and Haneda Airports are crowded with people wanting to leave the country. Me? I today flew from Beijing to Seoul, as my blogging capability is stymied in China. My airline schedule has me returning to Tokyo on Day 12.

Day 9, I'm in Seoul, and getting advice on my Narita flight in three days. The death toll is now in the mid-7000, but all signs still point to five digits for sure, and, maybe even 15,000. This 9.0 earthquake and tsunami has shot past the deaths from the 6.8 Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which devastated Kobe. I was there only a few days after that disaster and the city was already recovering. It has been 16 years, and Kobe now looks completely normal and vibrant. However, the Fukushima nuclear fallout adds a tragic dimension that will not be erased for generations. I would imagine that many of the destroyed cities will become monuments to this experience and national parks. No explosions today, and there has been enhanced seawater spraying into the #3 reactor, important, because this is the only one that has plutonium.

It was sunny in Tohoku today, and if snow comes again this year, it will be next Thursday. Tohoku has a population of almost 10 million and is the geographical region which includes the Prefectures (sort of like states) of Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate. It is appearing that this fatal event will now be called the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011.

Day 10 saw the death count rise above 8500, with at least 11,000 still missing. However, half the bodies have not been identified, so the total fatalities will probably now not rise above 15,000. Power has been restored to fuel rod cooling pools #5 and #6, with additional water flow now reducing the temperatures. More importantly, reactor #3 seems to be under control, a crucial improvement, as this is the one with some plutonium. Taiwan measured radiation from imported Japanese green beans and California has detected some low level radiation fallout, but this is one-billionth the hazardous level. Oh, Korea also reported on falling radioactivity, more specifically Cesium-137, which can only be made-made. However, all signs point this contamination from Chinese nuclear power plants. The most important development, though, is that this issue is losing newsworthiness, as both CNN and BBC now mostly reports of the Libyan "civil" war, with forays into Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.

The beginning of Day 11 took a sudden turn for the worse, as grey smoke began emanating from reactors #2 and #3 at Fukushima. Perplexingly, operators are not sure what is the cause. Worse, meteorological models show the ground level plume heading straight for Tokyo, but a little more than halfway there moving west, then north, therefore NOT getting to the city. At several hundred meters, Tokyo is also the direction, but halfway there, it turns to the sea or east. Yes, west AND east. I'm still scheduled to fly to Narita tomorrow, which is located mostly east of Tokyo, and according to the above somewhat safer at the ground level. The number of confirmed deaths is edging towards 9,000 and the Nikkei was closed, for Japan today celebrates the first day of Spring.

So was my flight from Tokyo to Beijing premature on Day 4? Hardly, for the metropolitan radiation level reached 20 times normality the day after I left...but is my imminent plan to return to Tokyo on Day 12 smart? Until that grey smoke, I was convinced all would be fine. Now, I'm not so sure.

Well, this is Day 12, and I'm back at the Tokyo Westin, where the hotel occupancy is 12%. The Asiana flight from Seoul was almost empty. Coming in from Narita Airport I noticed only a few cars on the road. The economy in this country surely must be taking a hit. Fukushima #2 and #3 nuclear reactors remain testy. I fear the plutonium from #3. The seawater 100 meters south of this stricken site was finally measured, and, no great surprise, but the radiation level was from 16 (Cesium-137) to 127 (Iodine-131) times higher than government standards.

The death count has passed 9,000 and there remains speculation that this figure will at least double. As half the bodies have not been identified, I still think the maximum will be 15,000. The Nikkei jumped 4.4% and Tokyo Electric Power Company soared up 16%. Someone must know something I don't. But this is good news for me, as I decide how far North to go over the next few days.

Day 13 concludes this post, and considering the gravity of the circumstances, a good number to terminate this series. I explored Tokyo today and it looked almost normal, save for store shelves bare of bottled water, as some serious radiation (210 becquerels per liter, more than double the recommended level for infants) was found in tapwater. I think I saw some snow flurries. It is chilly, meaning it is colder in the Tohoku region.

Fukushima #3 (the ONLY one with plutonium) is alarmingly, again, emitting black smoke, and Tokyo Electric Power Company has no clue as to what is happening. However, Tom Burnett, a Hawaii colleague, has informed me that this is burning control fuel rods, or, worse, maybe burning concrete, meaning the rods are melted. I gave some fleeting thought to visit Tohoku, but the Shinkansen (bullet train) remains blocked through the region.

The death count has passed 9500, with an expectation that a number in the range of 15,000 could well be topped. (10,000 deaths were surpassed on Day 15.) This could well be the costliest natural disaster ever at $309 billion, and the site around the Fukushima nuclear power plant will become eternal tombs. The 9.0 magnitude quake is the fifth largest ever and it now appears that the tsunami reached 77 feet at Ofunato City in Iwate Prefecture.

The Japan Times now shows radiation levels in various cities and Tokyo has slowly increased up to 0.155 microsieverts/hour. This means that if this exposure remains at this figure, you would accumulate 1358 microsieverts in a year, which, interestingly enough, is only about half the average annual exposure for ordinary people. Yet, I have chosen to leave Tokyo for Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Nara and Kyoto. I have a two-week Green Car Japan Rail Pass. The cherry blossoms should begin to bloom soon, I hope. Nagasaki Peace Park is both serene and beautiful at this time of year. One of my upcoming articles will attempt to link Fukushima, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, portending the future of Japan.

In closing, let me refer you to my HuffPosting on nuclear fission, which was published the same morning as this article.

Interesting that the comments are approaching 50, while this one has zero.