I had originally intended to write about North Africa and America’s historical interest, but the extent of Friday’s Pacific earthquake and its effect on Japan takes priority.
Seven decades ago, Japan was our most hated enemy. There was a racial component of the Pacific war that wasn’t present with the European war against Germany. Today, Japan is one of our most trusted allies and trading partners. Time heals most wounds.
Japan is an island nation, with four main islands housing most of their population. In a space a little larger than California, nearly 140 million people live, three times the population of the Golden State. It is a mountainous nation so most of the people live on the coastal plain which makes them very vulnerable to a tsunami wave. Tokyo with a population of 35 million is the most crowded metropolis on earth.
From the ashes of World War II, Japan was rebuilt with American know how and the energy of their people. Today, it is a highly industrialized nation with a vibrant economy. The Japanese people understand earthquakes because their homeland lays on the Pacific “Rim of Fire” stretching from New Zealand up the western edge of the Pacific, thru the Aleutian Islands to the Pacific east rim (our west coast) southward to Chile.
Japan’s building codes and civil defense preparation insures against their vulnerability. In Friday’s massive 9.0 Richter earthquake (fifth largest in recorded history) a hundred miles off Honshu’s northeastern coast, their structures stood up very well. What they could not withstand was the 23 foot tsunami wall of water that swept at speeds approaching 500 mph over their coastline. I have said on more than one occasion that “water kills” and you witnessed that in the remarkable video clips seen this past weekend.
The scale of damage and death primarily in the prefecture of Miyagi is staggering. Some officials have said that the death toll will exceed 10 thousand. The Japanese have an excellent tsunami warning system which no doubt saved many people, but many more could not be prepared for the devastating wave – it was simply too big and moved too fast.
Too give you an idea of the power of this freak of Mother Nature, the wave traveled eastward across four thousand miles of Pacific Ocean to crash into the marinas on California’s northwest coast, wrecking many large boats and docks.
Following the twin disasters of the earthquake and tsunami, the third blow is to their nuclear power plants. Because they lack natural resources, Japan is highly dependent on nuclear power. The tsunami knocked out the power to the cooling pumps at several reactors leading to over pressure and fires. Some fear that the cores will get so hot that the fuel rods will melt through the containment vessel. To guard against this, Tokyo Power engineers at Fukushima are flooding the reactors with seawater, acknowledging they are ruined beyond recovery.
The problems that Japan faces in recovering from this horrible disaster are breathtaking to behold. It is still winter in northwest Asia and hundreds of thousands are homeless without power or water. There is the threat of nuclear radiation exposure and incredible damage to cleanup. Then, the rebuilding begins.
The American military is there to assist. We have considerable military presence in Japan and recovery teams have already landed at Misawa Air Base, about 100 miles north of ground zero. Two US Navy carrier battle groups are in place offshore assisting with helicopter operations, refueling, and medical facilities. Wherever there is a disaster such as this across the globe, expect our Navy to be on site with assistance. No other Navy in the world has this type of capability.
And let’s not forget the efforts of Christian charities and others who are mobilizing their resources to assist humanitarian efforts in Japan. No doubt Rotary International will be prominent in this effort.
Already we are hearing calls to stop building nuclear plants and close the 104 we already operate across the country, including five in Florida at three sites. This is fear mongering coming from those who oppose nuclear power anywhere and everywhere and inappropriate since we don’t have all the facts yet. The Japanese plants in jeopardy are older generation boiling water (BWR) reactors placed in service in the 1970s. Today, we have much more efficient and safer reactors. Perhaps we should replace the existing BWR plants based on what we learn from this disaster, but we must make such decisions after the problem is contained and the lessons thoroughly understood.
This much is clear; there is no solution on the horizon to replace nuclear power generation. The two drawbacks which must be addressed are safety and spent fuel storage. With every nuclear incident, we learn more about how to safely construct and operate these vital plants.