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Post-tsunami, Japan prays for resolution to nuclear crisis

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Post-tsunami, Japan prays for resolution to nuclear crisis

  • Tsunami damage at Sendai Airport.
    Roberto De Vido/TucsonSentinel.comTsunami damage at Sendai Airport.
  • Tsunami damage at Sendai Airport.
    Roberto De Vido/TucsonSentinel.comTsunami damage at Sendai Airport.
  • Tsunami damage near the terminal building at Sendai Airport.
    Roberto De Vido/TucsonSentinel.comTsunami damage near the terminal building at Sendai Airport.
  • Tsunami damage in the passenger drop-off zone at Sendai Airport.
    Roberto De Vido/TucsonSentinel.comTsunami damage in the passenger drop-off zone at Sendai Airport.
  • Tsunami debris on the tarmac at Sendai Airport.
    Roberto De Vido/TucsonSentinel.comTsunami debris on the tarmac at Sendai Airport.
  • Firemen search for bodies in Sendai's Wakabayashi district, devastated by the tsunami.
    Roberto De Vido/TucsonSentinel.comFiremen search for bodies in Sendai's Wakabayashi district, devastated by the tsunami.
  • A firefighter search team heads into Sendai's Wakabayashi district to search for bodies.
    Roberto De Vido/TucsonSentinel.comA firefighter search team heads into Sendai's Wakabayashi district to search for bodies.
  • Sendai residents wait for rationed gasoline.
    Roberto De Vido/TucsonSentinel.comSendai residents wait for rationed gasoline.

I returned last night from the tsunami zone in northern Japan to my home just southwest of Tokyo having learned a few things about the impact of the March 11th earthquake on that part of the country, and on the Japanese economy overall.

First of all, though the earthquake was truly enormous, with a magnitude of 9.0 that ranked it fourth largest on record, Japan’s stringent building regulations—developed with earthquakes very firmly in mind—undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives.

Aside from dislodged tiles on a few roofs, I saw barely any structural damage to buildings, and no one I spoke with had seen a single collapsed building. Sendai and most of the surrounding communities survived the fourth largest earthquake in recorded history without much trouble at all. [Yes, of course the event was frightening, and yes of course the property damage was significant, but earthquakes are a lot like airplane landings – every one you can walk away from is a good one.]

However, the tsunami was utterly devastating. In Sendai, the only place along the tsunami-ravaged coast I had time to visit, the wave powered inland unopposed until it reached an expressway elevated on a 30-foot-tall earthen berm.

The berm stopped the tsunami, and now serves as a clear dividing line between the earthquake-affected part of Sendai that is rapidly restoring power and water and municipal services, and the tsunami-affected part of Sendai, which has basically disappeared.

The seaward side of the expressway is an ocean of debris – timber, flooring, staircases, cars, children’s dolls, soccer balls, tires, shoes… you name it. And bodies, of course, which when I was there two days ago, the authorities were still working hard to recover. Thousands are dead, thousands are still missing and many bodies will likely never be recovered.

That’s what’s going on in northern Japan, and my words have not come close to doing justice to what I saw. I hope the photos that accompany this story will help with that, and of course you will have seen plenty of other images elsewhere.

But Japan is facing two crises. With the greatest respect to those who have been killed, and those who have lost friends and family and homes in the tsunami, the first crisis is well in hand. In the earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged Tohoku region, people are already digging out—on the ground already, recovering bodies and restoring services, are over 100,000 Japanese soldiers, thousands of emergency services personnel, a contingent of U.S. Marines, and disaster response teams from other countries.

Tsunami recovery in the north of Japan is now mostly a matter of logistics, and the authorities appear to be doing as much as they can, as fast as they can.

The second crisis, on the other hand, is the one causing real concern, and in the worst case, could affect Japan for several decades. As a result of the tsunami, Japan’s energy infrastructure had been badly damaged—the nuclear power plants in Fukushima that serve the northern part of the country have been shut down and are leaking radiation, and several oil refineries are crippled.

Although the Fukushima reactors shut down automatically during the earthquake March 11, the systems that cool the reactor cores were damaged by the tsunami, and five days later the reactor operator has not only not been able to get the situation under control, but also has seen three reactor buildings explode (though leaving the internal containment domes intact), and radioactive steam escape into the atmosphere to be carried by prevailing winds toward Tokyo.

What we who live in the Tokyo area are wondering is when the reactors will be under control, or if.

We’ve been told there is no possibility of a Chernobyl-like explosion and leak, but explanations from the authorities to date have neglected to cover worst-case scenarios. We’re being told what is being done, but not what may happen if those measures do not succeed. As the man said, "What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.'

A few days ago, a Tokyo-based friend called me to ask if he should be thinking about moving his wife and newborn son "somewhere safe." At that point the authorities seemed to be getting the reactor situation under control, and I said I thought everything would be fine in Tokyo, which is around 135 miles southwest of Fukushima. [I live an additional 45 miles further southwest.]

We spoke again a day later, after several explosions in reactor buildings (but at that point before any radiation leakage had been detected), and I suggested he might want to think about visiting the U.S. Embassy to get an expedited passport issued. He did that yesterday—the embassy issued the document in 90 minutes—and they’re leaving tonight for Los Angeles.

When I returned last night from my trip to the tsunami zone, where I had been offline except for text message updates from friends and the occasional radio announcement, I found offers of refuge from a number of friends, both in Japan and overseas, who had seen there had been a further reactor explosion, a fire in another reactor, and a significant leakage of radiation.

My wife and I have two young children, and with answers in short supply, and the future uncertain, we decided the kids would be safer, and more comfortable (there are rolling blackouts and shortages of food and supplies all over northern Japan) if we moved in with a good friend in Kyoto (another 500 kilometers west).

My wife left with the kids by train this afternoon. I’ll follow with the car tomorrow or the next day (the refinery problems have meant gasoline shortages and rationing, which may translate to a trip many hours longer than usual). We’ll monitor the situation from there for a week or so, and then decide our next steps.

We foreigners are lucky, of course. We have links to friends and relatives overseas, and we of course speak languages other than Japanese, giving us opportunities to resettle in our homelands and elsewhere. Many Japanese have no links to other countries, and the majority of Japanese speak a second language very poorly, if at all. We can leave; they’re stuck.

Though many Japanese are leaving the Tokyo area now for the country’s second city, Osaka, or to hometowns where parents or relatives may live, the country’s future depends on a successful outcome to this nuclear crisis. Inadequate energy supplies are wreaking havoc on Tokyo now: Trains are running on reduced schedules, when they’re running, and businesses and homes are being subjected to rolling blackouts. That’s no way to run an economy.

To be clear, nuclear experts mostly agree that if the current situation does not worsen, there is no real danger to Tokyo residents from radiation. Yes, radiation levels are higher than normal, but they are still way below what is considered a health risk even to the most vulnerable groups—pregnant women and children. Unquestionably, however, if the situation in Fukushima spirals further out of control, and there is serious radiation leakage that mandates the creation of a permanent exclusion zone along the lines of the one surrounding Chernobyl, Japan’s economy will suffer a killing blow.

Of course, Japan has come back from worse—look up photographs of Tokyo (not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki) in 1945 and you’ll see that—but it will be a long, hard road, and will require strong leadership and determination. Japan’s post-war generation was extremely determined, and built one of the world’s greatest economies literally from rubble.

Recent talk here, though, prior to the tsunami disaster, and as China officially surpassed Japan as the world’s number two economy, was of a current generation of “grass-eating men” who are apathetic, more than content to be number three, and perhaps even fine with number five or eight.

For today, Japan’s future lies in the hands of the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Japanese government. But if TEPCO can’t get its reactors under control, from next week, or next month, Japan’s “post-tsunami generation” will have to step up.

Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant, writer, cartoonist and jack of many trades. The former chief of Tucson Sentinel’s East Asia Bureau, he now lives in California (make of that what you will).

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