Courtesy of MCT
After one of the strongest earthquakes in the last century struck off the coast of Japan Friday, much of the nation was left decimated, as death counts continue to rise and the threat of a nuclear meltdown looms.
The official death toll stands at 1,700, but one senior police official in Minamisanriku, said the toll would “certainly be more than 10,000.”
Ohio State has heard either directly or indirectly through their families from all 13 students studying in Japan, said Grace Johnson, study abroad director.
Melanie Beaudette, a Ph.D. candidate in women’s studies, said her brother Joey, 25, contacted them after the initial earthquake on Friday, but she has yet to hear from him since the tsunami struck.
“The whole situation is basically horrifying,” Beaudette said. “It’s very hard on everyone in the family, especially because we feel so far away and so hopeless.”
The Japanese government has also declared a state of emergency at the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. A radiation leak at the plant — located about 60 miles from Sendai, the closest city to the earthquake’s epicenter — had forced the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people from the surrounding 12-mile radius.
Officials narrowly escaped disaster there, as power failure halted the plant’s cooling system, posing the threat of a nuclear meltdown. In a process described as a “Hail Mary,” officials flooded the reactor with sea water, which cooled the core and prevented a total meltdown. A meltdown threatens widespread radiation release when the reactor’s core fails.
Japanese media have reported similar problems at three other nuclear plants in the area, two of which experienced partial meltdowns. The government said radiation leakage at the plants had likely exposed 170 people.
John Carney, whose grandson attends OSU, was the vice president of property engineering at the American Nuclear Insurers, and visited the Fukushima plant around 1986 to inspect it.
“The location of this particular plant was near an earthquake-prone zone, so naturally this was a topic that was on my mind,” Carney said. “I asked them to present to me their design basis, and their approach to protect against an accident.”
Carney said those plans took into account the plant’s location on a major fault line.
“When they were showing me the anchoring system for the buildings and the piping systems, you would be impressed as I was at the magnitude and the size of these projects,” he said, pointing out that the building can actually slide.
Japan’s strict building codes have been praised in the wake of the disaster, with many officials claiming they saved thousands of lives.
Carney said the key to the plant’s survival was “overdesign.”
“You can raise questions about … locating power plants in earthquake areas as they have,” Carney said. “Japan as a country has a limited area and a huge population, and you do your damnedest to overdesign and live up to your goal.”
Carney said if a meltdown is averted, it could serve as a testament to safety precautions that designers of nuclear power plants take and could influence the use of the energy source around the world.
“There’s a resurgence of interest in this country, 24 proposals in this works,” Carney said. “People will start to recognize that nuclear power is not a mistake.”
The Japanese Meteorological Association upgraded the magnitude of the quake from 8.8 to 9.0, which doubles the recorded power. It is the largest ever recorded in Japan, and sits as the fifth most powerful since 1900, according to the United States Geological Survey.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called it the “worst crisis in the 65 years since the war.”
OSU geology professor Michael Bevis said Friday’s quake, and the 8.8-magnitude quake that hit Chile Feb. 27, 2010, which killed about 795 people, according to the Chilean government, are known as “megathrust events.”
“In this case, the Pacific plate underthrusted the continental plate Japan sits on,” he said. “That results in the continental plate thrusting upwards, which pushes the sea floor upwards. That just blows a shock wave that moves at the speed of sound in water.”
Bevis said that is 500 miles per hour in deep water. When it reaches shallower water closer to the shore, the surge slows down, bunches up and increases in amplitude, pushing water onto land.
“It’s not a wave,” he said. “It’s more like a wall of water.”
Bevis said that wall can continue coming for as long as 15 minutes.
“It just keeps coming and coming,” he said.
The quake and tsunami combination, which occurred about 30 minutes apart, have crippled the area’s infrastructure, leaving cell phone towers and landlines down, and severely halting transportation as many highways, airports and train tracks were submerged in rushing water.