Japan earthquake info

By Phil Plait | March 11, 2011 12:25 pm

The magnitude 8.9 earthquake that hit Japan last night has done a vast amount of damage. I’m seeing lots of information scattered around the web, and figured a post listing them might help.

First, if you need info about the quake, CNET has a long list of links for finding lost loved ones, information on the quake in general, and more.

Second, our own Discover Magazine has an excellent article with the science behind what happened. The article notes that science and engineering prevented this disaster from being a lot worse.

There are many charitable, non-profit organizations that may or will be providing aid and relief. I asked on Twitter which ones people liked, and here are a few. I do not necessarily endorse these groups, but provide this for your information.

Before you donate, please watch this video of the tsunami crashing through Japan:

Yes, those are buildings on fire as they are being swept along with the water. That is one of the most terrifying, horrifying things I have ever seen.

Discovery News has more video of the tsunami and damage from the quake.

My co-blogger at Discover Magazine, Sean Carroll, has some info and thoughts on this as well.

Here is a false-color map of the tsunami height which will give you an idea of the far-reaching nature of this event.

I will try to add more links to this as more information becomes available.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Piece of mind
MORE ABOUT: earthquake, Japan

Comments (112)

  1. Futsetta

    All those little white cars trying to speed away.
    And the oblivious semi headed right toward it.

  2. Ian

    Thanks for posting on this and hopefully the worst is over.

  3. kurt_eh

    The power of water is amazing. Just a single cubic meter of water has a mass of 1000 kg. Now imagine a 10 m tall wall of water heading your way at high velocity…

  4. Thameron

    What gets me is to see the people driving in their cars as if life were normal, while this wall of water carrying ships and burning buildings comes at them. You can’t help but shout at them to ‘run!’ and root for them to get away. First New Zealand now Japan. I hope the people in Alaska are ready for their turn.

    Yeah I know they aren’t related, but pareidolia reigns.

  5. It boggles my brain to compare the tsunami effects to the aftermath of the earthquake just this morning. Horrifying.

    I’m waiting for MSF to get up info on how we can contribute directly through them to Japan relief. They tend to do good work.

  6. Nate

    Re: video
    It’s not the buildings on fire that I find horrifying. It’s the vehicles in motion. Knowing that each of them has at least one person in it that is trying to get to safety with that huge mess of Mother Earth coming in behind them. You can pretend that the buildings are empty, but you _know_ the cars are not.

  7. Jess Tauber

    One of these days Mt. Fujiyama…. why would anyone want to live on the coast there? Or Seattle for that matter. Its a trap.

  8. Thanks, this video really brings it home. Prayers and money going to Japan.

    Another place I heard of where you can donate. International Medical Corps (http://bit.ly/h8NdMF)

  9. Chris Winter

    Thanks for posting this information.

    There is plenty of video to Google up — all of it amazing and horrendous.

    The BBC has perhaps the best coverage. Here’s a link to maps of wave and earthquake activity: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-12715415

  10. That is NOT TOKYO, it’s 250 miles north of it.

  11. Pete Jackson

    There was a video on bbc where the water sweeps in over houses, carrying them along. The videographer is on a hill, and there is a large two-story building part way up the hill. The tsunami crashes right over top of the building which then collapses.

  12. @Nate,

    What gets me about the buildings isn’t knowing whether or not there are people inside but the sheer power it takes to move a building like that. Moving a car is impressive. Picking up a house and moving it along like it was a child’s toy? HOLY $&#*@!


    I agree about the yelling at the video of the people in cars. There was one video where I saw a car turn down what was likely a country road (surrounded by farmland) heading away from the incoming tsunami. I nearly screamed at the image of the car on my monitor to gun it. Sadly, as quick as the car could go pedal to the metal, I think the tsunami was going faster.

    In fact, after looking up figures for my reply to kurt_eh below, I see that it was going 800kph or about 500mph. Even if it had slowed to 25% of its former speed, 200 kph (124mph) would be enough to overtake most cars.


    Even if the wall of water was “only” 5m (I heard reports of 7m), that’s 5,000kg of water headed towards you. Reports I read said it was traveling at 800 kph (about 222mps). Given that Kinetic Energy = 1/2 mass x velocity^2, this means that the tsunami had about 123,210,000 kJ of energy. I’m not sure how to put that into any perspective but it seems like a lot to me, that’s for sure.

  13. L Fuller

    My 2 young sons and their mother are in Sendai at this moment, living about 5 miles from the shore. Their mother is a professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering with SUNY on sabbatical at a university there. Her graduate students in New York have been in contact with her and all three are fine, though without electricity. I just wanted to add that the State Department also has an email for those needing to check on their loved ones (US citizens) in the disaster area: JapanEmergencyUSC@state.gov

  14. River

    Awesome (good and bad connotations apply) footage.

    It runs home the idea how different a tsunami / tidal wave is from the 2012 style megawaves. These slow rising waves are more akin to floods, and are just as dangerous, if no alert is made and received.

    Hard to imagine how many more people would have perished if modern science didn’t provide us the tools to get out of the way!

  15. @Phil

    You should add a link to Google’s People Finder app: http://japan.person-finder.appspot.com/?lang=en

  16. KC

    Phil do you know if SHARE ( Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Efforts) will be collecting donations to support relief efforts?


  17. Stillwaggon

    Makes me think of the quotation attributed to Will Durant: Civilization exists by consent of geology, subject to change without notice.

    Years ago I heard a Japanese story of an elderly man in pre-technology days who became a local hero during a tsunami event. (I cannot vouch for the truth of the story.) He was old enough to remember from a previous event that water inexplicably recedes from the shore just before the arrival of the tsunami. One day he was sitting at his farmhouse high above the shore and most of the people in the area were at a festival on the shore. He could see the water recede but had no means of communication and time was short. To get the people away from the sea, he set fire to his fields, knowing that people would come to help, and so they were saved.

  18. Sven

    Maybe a stupid question but i’m seeing on different youtube vids that it would be caused by the comet Elenin.. Not believeing until reliable sources say so but.. Any comment on that?

  19. Listening to the news on the radio on the way home, they said 4 trains are missing. I have never seen anything so terrifying in my life. From what it appears, as far as those cars were concerned, at least on some of the video I saw, the road was raised up quite a bit, like a dike.

    Here on the west coast, Port Alberni on the West coast of Vancouver Island had several waves of 1 meter or more come in.

  20. OtherRob

    I don’t know why, but until I read the comments here it never occurred to me that there could be people in those buildings — I was only thinking about the people in the cars we saw on the road. I guess I just didn’t want to face up to what that would mean. I’m with Phil, this is one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen. It just didn’t stop.

  21. Caleb

    Does anyone know how fast the wave in the video was moving inland?

  22. john freeman

    Judging by the speed of the cars…. about 30 mph? total guess. The front edge of the wave as it sweeps over the land doesn’t look that tall to me, maybe a couple of meters then getting deeper?? You focus on the road when you drive…..

    The… i dont know, you can’t put that into words. Good god the people on the motorways, the poor guy in the truck the people in the houses…….

  23. mike burkhart

    I was in a earthquake when I was in high school, it was only 2 on the Ricter scale and only shook the building.Nothing compared to this . My worry is the nucler plants I just read in the news radition levels are incressing around one.Keep us up to date Phil

  24. Bruce T.

    Photos and videos from SFGate.com of the tsunami hitting the harbor in Santa Cruz, CA.


  25. efimija

    we must start to think what we are doing on this planet , we mast stop to poluted owr unike place and start to love each other.

  26. Tom

    Today, I have seen:
    -a Tsunami on fire
    -minivans and cargo containers floating like rubber ducks
    -a giant whirlpool that almost swallowed a boat
    -A dam fail
    -a nuclear reactor have a coolant failure
    The only thing missing is Mt Fuji erupting, and the appearance of a giant lizard

    (The strange thing is, I keep wanting to blame Michael Bay for going too far)

  27. Thameron

    @26 Humans certainly do plenty of crap to the biosphere, but you can’t pin earthquakes on human activity all you can do is help the survivors.

  28. 26. efimija Says:
    March 11th, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    “we must start to think what we are doing on this planet , we mast stop to poluted owr unike place and start to love each other.”

    While those are noble ideas, and I can’t say I disagree with what you are saying, however, this earthquake and tsunami have absolutely nothing to do with how humans are treating the planet with pollution and war. This is strictly a geological event. Earthquakes and tsunamis have occurred since before the time modern humans evolved, and would have occurred even if humans had not evolved.

  29. Myles

    @tom “…The only thing missing is Mt Fuji erupting, and the appearance of a giant lizard”

    Even in my sadness, knowing that many have lost their lives due to the quake and ensuing tsunami, your post gave me a chance to giggle.

    Thank you.

    on a more serious note, I stumbled on this link a while ago (courtesy of digg) http://translate.google.it/translate?u=http%3A%2F%2Fit.reuters.com%2Farticle%2FtopNews%2FidITMIE72A0GB20110311&sl=it&tl=en&hl=&ie=UTF-8

    I wonder if Phil will weigh-in on the spin axis change the article talks about

  30. alfaniner

    Anyone know of a link to a true HD version of this?
    I want to save it.
    To remind me.

  31. This time last year I was in Japan on a 6 week holiday that since then I’ve bored friends and family by saying over and over again how it was the best holiday eva!!111
    The Japanese are beautiful as is their country. I was overwhelmed by the Japanese friendliness, hospitality and generosity. I am so saddened by this event.

    The Tsunami looks as destructive as the Boxing Day Tsunami in Indonesia a couple of years ago. This time, though, we have unbelievable video of the flood as it occurred.

    I think the wave travels at hundreds of kph through the ocean but much of its speed is cut by the time it hits land. I don’t think it is travelling hundreds of kph across the land – maybe 100kph and probably less? Still an overwhelming force though. The images of moving cars being swept up is horrifying.

    Still, thank the Engineers for the building codes in Japan. The destruction could have been so much worse.

  32. Don’t forget about Foundation Beyond Belief. They’re raising money for secular relief agencies.

  33. Archie

    That may be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen!

  34. Gunnar

    @TechyDad #12

    “In fact, after looking up figures for my reply to kurt_eh below, I see that it was going 800kph or about 500mph. Even if it had slowed to 25% of its former speed, 200 kph (124mph) would be enough to overtake most cars. ”

    I have often admired your grasp of science and technology from reading your contributions to this blog, so I was more than a bit surprised to see that you apparently didn’t understand that when they say that the velocity of the tsunami wave is 500 mph, that does not mean that any of the water is actually moving that fast. When the wave is still out in the deep ocean, the water at each point that the wave passes only moves up and down and perhaps a short distance back and forth. The lateral movement of the water occurs only near and at shorelines as the waves pile up due to being restricted by the rising ocean bottom and the topography of the shorelines. Even then, the velocity of the water is not nearly as fast as the velocity of the wave, though it is certainly fast enough to be very destructive.

  35. Gunnar

    @18, Stillwaggon. Your story of the Elderly Japanesse hero who saved his neighbors reminded me of a similar story that occurred during the Indian Ocean Tsunami about a young Indian child (I think it was a little girl, if I remember correctly) who was quite well-versed for her age in science and history who realized the implication when the ocean near where she lived suddenly receded. She tried her best to warn those who started to explore the newly exposed ocean bottom and gather some of the stranded fish they found flopping around, and succeeded in saving the lives of her immediate family and those few who were not too arrogant to take seriously the warning of a small child.

  36. Donovan

    Hey Phil,

    Thanks for once again being a good source of reliable information when we need it.

    One note for some of the readers here: the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s Non-Believers Giving Aid is collecting money for this disaster. All money collected goes directly to secular relief organizations.

  37. Brian

    The earthquake that devestated Christchurch here in New Zealand two weeks ago was bad but this one is far worse. Japanese USAR teams came to NZ to help us and now our USAR teams are off to Japan to help them. My thoughts go to both the victims and the rescuers.

  38. tacitus

    For all the worries about “Death From The Skies”, I have long suspected that “Death From Beneath” is a more likely and troubling problem.

    No only do earthquakes and tsunami kill hundreds of thousands of people every decade, but we have to be concerned over two more, far greater threats from beneath our feet.

    One is the specter of underwater landslides — the shedding of the flanks of island volcanoes like those of Hawaii and the Canaries. There is evidence from as far away as New Zealand that the tsunami generated by the collapse of millions of cubic meters of rock could reach tens of meters in height all around the Pacific/Atlantic basin. It would make the Indian Ocean tsunami look like a ripple in a bathtub.

    The other threat is in the form of super-volcanoes, like the one under Yellowstone right here in the USA. When that blows, and it will do eventually, then American’s heartland will be all but wiped out, buried under feet of ash, and the USA as we know it today might simple cease to exist. On the bright side, we wouldn’t have to worry about global warming for a good while afterwards as global temperatures plummet and mass famine and starvation hit home across the planet.

    Fortunately these events are extremely rare, and the odds of either of them happening within our lifetimes are very low, but in the long term I suspect they will be a far greater worry than an asteroid strike. Why? Because we’re already very close to closing the window on the chances that a major asteroid strike will happen. Within the next few decades, we should be tracking just about every single object out there that could potentially hit us, and we should have the capability to divert the ones that we find on a collision course with Earth.

    On the other hand, I find it very difficult to believe we will ever be able to avert a super-tsunami or super-volcano if they are about to go off, at least not until we’re a mature, space-faring species several hundred years or more from now. And even then, it might just be easier to get everyone out of the way instead of trying to bottle up or defuse the colossal energies involved.

  39. I live in Japan near Tokyo, and this is the most unbelievable thing I have ever experienced. The earthquake started out quite like most other earthquakes I’d felt, but the shaking steadily became stronger and just would not stop. I work on the 4th floor, and I was in the middle of teaching a student. We immediately evacuated the building. There were many aftershocks afterward, including a 7.1. We canceled classes for the day, but we were stranded at work. No trains, taxis were too busy, buses too busy. Finally got to go home when the train started running again after 9pm, more than 6 hours after the earthquake. When I got home, I was glad to find that there was no damage, just a few things knocked around and all the sliding doors were open. We’re still getting aftershocks, and will continue for quite some time. The nuclear power plants have been shut down, with a possible meltdown in progress. There will be blackouts this evening, as the power company, TEPCO, shifts the power supply from different regions every 3 hours. We’re hoping we can resume work at the beginning of the week.

  40. andy

    Hubris … Nemesis

    We are now getting an object lesson in why building nuclear power plants on a subduction zone is a terrible stupid idea. I have to wonder just how much denial was going on when this was approved. Past idiocy in a malign combination with present tragedy…

  41. DrFlimmer

    @ #2 Ian

    Thanks for posting on this and hopefully the worst is over.

    I’m afraid, it’s not. The Fukujima nuclear power plant most likely suffered a core meltdown and a major (hydrogen-gas) explosion. It could spawn a second Tchernobyl. Let’s hope, it does not!

  42. Nick L

    andy Said: “We are now getting an object lesson in why building nuclear power plants on a subduction zone is a terrible stupid idea.”

    It’s not that stupid an idea when you take into consideration the fact that Japan has no other choice if it wants to have an economy.

  43. andy

    It’s not that stupid an idea when you take into consideration the fact that Japan has no other choice if it wants to have an economy.

    Sorry, do you have any evidence for that? As far as I am aware, nuclear power accounts for roughly 25% of the electricity generation in Japan, certainly not an insignificant fraction but not the majority, and there is a rapid expansion of the number of gas-fired power plants. This does not suggest to me that Japan is necessarily dependent on nuclear power.

  44. @andy

    Depends on what you mean by dependent. It is almost totally reliant on imported fuel – gas, coal, oil and uranium. Nuclear power is about reducing dependency on the other imported fuels especially oil. Something like 40% of Japan’s energy comes from oil. 90% of the oil comes from the Middle East. Hardly the most stable suppliers at the moment. Remember we’re supposed to be rapidly heading towards peak oil too.

    France is more than 70% reliant on nuclear power too.

  45. tacitus

    Let’s see what happens first before we pass judgement on the Japanese nuclear power program. All reports say that even if there is a meltdown, it’s unlikely that it will be another Chernobyl because of the extra design safeguards in place.

  46. Monu

    I heard Google launched a “People Finder” app, where survivors or loved ones can leave notes and view notes left by others, Phil should add that to his list.

    EDIT: Whoops, #16 already mentioned this. Sorry.

  47. Radwaste

    I’m not impressed by commentary I’ve seen, professional and otherwise, about the nuke plant. I haven’t any sign that the commenter knows how they are built.

    When you know why a fission plant generates power for a while even after it’s shut down (SCRAMmed), you’ll be close.

    I’m debating the usefulness of a full page of text explaining this, because, although you don’t need an engineering degree to understand how a nuke plant acts, it’s tedious to explain.

  48. Azkyroth

    Given that Kinetic Energy = 1/2 mass x velocity^2, this means that the tsunami had about 123,210,000 kJ of energy. I’m not sure how to put that into any perspective but it seems like a lot to me, that’s for sure.

    I didn’t check your math for finding the energy for the unit you describe, but unit conversion utility puts that at about the equivalent of 29 tons of TNT.

  49. flip

    #28 Thameron and #29 MichaelL

    I was reading an article recently (IIRC in “Cosmos”, one of last year’s editions) about how global warming may impact on the number of earthquakes and volcano eruptions. The article noted that ice and glaciers keep pressure on the mantle and on volcanic structures; less ice means less pressure; less pressure means more room for the plates to move.

    Not sure how solid the science is there, but it’s worth reading up on. We may very well be causing these earthquakes to happen.

  50. DrBB

    @49 Radwaste: I for one would appreciate the effort! The NYTimes online has been running a banner headline about an explosion at one of the power plants but the article itself has virtually nothing about what might have exploded, or why, or what the implications would be depending on which scenario occurred. What you’re suggesting is exactly the kind of info I’ve been looking for, not being any kind of expert on this stuff myself.

  51. Flip, do you have a link to the article? I seem to recall reading something similar, but I think it was more along the pseudoscience angle. If you have the link, I’d love to give it a read.

  52. shawmutt

    I gave $50 to Red Cross. I know it’s a tiny bit, but every little bit helps–certainly more than “keeping them in my thoughts and prayers” or “sending good thoughts their way”–whatever that means.

  53. Kimpatsu

    Things here in Tokyo have settled down, so please don’t worry about us so much as the people in Sendai (epicentre) and Fukushima (nuclear plant going critical).
    Thank you again for all your empathy.

  54. Thameron

    @51. Radwaste –

    I am with you on that. I am an HPT/RCT and although my BWR exprience is limited I have at least a vague idea of what is happening, and what isn’t. These comparisons to Chernobyl are especially irritating although certainly no surprise. That being said the hydrogen explosion we saw was rather dramatic and certainly didn’t do them any favors. From the status reports I read over at nukeworker it seems like all the cores are covered and they have AC power now. Perhaps the worst of it has passed without any major fuel damage.

  55. Elmar_M

    It could spawn a second Tchernobyl

    I see the anti nuclear power mafia is already spreading its disinformation again.
    Nothing has happend and even if there was a meltdown, it would not be another Tschernobyl. This reactor has a much different and safer design.
    According to the current official explanation and information (the real information, not the disinformation spread by the coal power lobby), the explosion was caused by hydrogen that built up inside the cooling pump system. This was quite a big explosion and it damaged the building arround the reactor. HOWEVER, the CONTAINMENT VESSEL AND THE REACTOR VESSEL INSIDE THE CONTAINMENT VESSEL ARE UNDAMAGED.
    Even if a meltdown occurred and even if the steel reactor vessel got damaged by it, the containment vessel would catch it and mechanisms in place inside the containment vessel would stop the nuclear reaction. This is what the containment vessel is designed to do.
    Considering that there are 55 nuclear reactors in Japan and only one of them has any signifficant problems at all in the worst earthquake in Japan in recorded history and the 5th worst in the world, one can say that nuclear power plants have once again shown to be incredibly save. That is, if all the available information is correct, which I believe it is.
    Yet, the anti nuclear lobby is having a field day and the sensationalist mass media is completely blowing the situation out of proportion.

  56. Thameron

    @ 59. Elmar_M

    Fear inducing headlines get attention and sell ad copy. Complicated truth doesn’t. I am just waiting for the headline that says – ‘Japanese reactor meltdown will vaporize the Pacific Ocean and set the atmosphere on fire!’ And wake Godzilla of course, but that goes without saying.

  57. Joe Resowski

    If, hypothetically, there was a meltdown at one of the Japanese nuclear reactors, would there be any danger to the U.S.? I know the jet stream passes over Japan towards the west coast, but am ignorant as to how radiation works in such a circumstance.

  58. Nick L

    Joe Resowski Said: “If, hypothetically, there was a meltdown at one of the Japanese nuclear reactors, would there be any danger to the U.S.?”

    It wouldn’t be a danger to North America; although, economically might be another story. You really need a fire in the core for large amounts of radioactive particles to be thrown high enough into the air so that they can travel long distances. That’s why Windscale and Chernobyl were so horrible since both combined melting fuel with a graphite fire and why modern reactors have eliminated graphite from the core entirely.

    To put it another way, a reactor meltdown is a nightmare. A reactor meltdown with the core on fire is a biblical nightmare.

  59. Thameron

    62. Joe Resowski

    No there would be no danger to anyone in the U.S. If there was a full melt down (a very remote possibility according to what I have been able to glean) then the molten core would melt its way into the ground. Which would play hell with the local groundwater to be sure. Unlike Chernobyl these plants have a very substantial re-enforced concrete structure above.

  60. katwagner

    The MSNBC site says the core is partially melted. The pellets containing cesium melt at 2800 degrees Celsius or 5000 degrees Fahrenheit. The concrete containment building had its roof blown off and the walls crumbled. The steel skeleton remains standing as does the steel containment around the reactor.

    I’ve always wondered – a power -plant needs steam to turn the turbines and water boils at 212 Fahrenheit. So isn’t a nuclear reactor kind of overkill? All we gotta do is boil water. Can we go solar now? Wind generators anybody?

  61. Joseph G

    Good lord. I think I saw a person on a bicycle. I don’t think s/he was fast enough. The camera didn’t pan that far…
    Like others had said, one can pretend the buildings were empty. I’d like to think that everyone evacuated ahead of time, but then you see those cars… I want to use a frownie emoticon, but it just doesn’t seem adequate or appropriate.
    And Japan has devoted more science and industry to earthquake preparedness then anyone. Where did the very WORD “tsunami” come from?
    I mean, if it did this to them, what would it have done to a nation that was relatively unprepared?

    My mind always boggles when I read this blog, but it’s usually the pleasant kind of boggling. Today, the boggling is of the horrified variety…

  62. Joseph G

    @59 Elmar: Very good points.
    I hate to focus on something else in the face of so much human suffering, but in the long term, the anti-nuclear crowd is just as dangerous to our society as the anti-vax crowd, if not moreso. We need to get off oil, and yesterday, and nuclear is the only tech that we have that can generate that much energy. If the anti-nukers manage to spin this and frame the public debate, it’s going to set nuclear R&D/construction back 15 years.
    And as you point out, 10 percent non-catastrophic failure in the face of the biggest quake in recorded Japanese history is a damned enviable record. You hear about engineers designing bridges to handle a “50 year flood” or structures to handle a “hundred year storm” (as in, once in a hundred years). Well, this was a >2,000 year earthquake.

  63. Hi, Phil! I have some links to ad to your collection. These organizations are accepting donations to assist pets and animals displaced by the tsunami and earthquake. They are:

    SPCA International: https://www.spcai.org/support-shelter-programs.html

    Okinawa American Animal Rescue Society: http://www.oaars.org/?page_id=49

    Tokyo Animal Refuge Kansai: http://www.meetup.com/The-Tokyo-Animal-Refuge-Kansai-ARK-Meetup-Group Contact the owner of the group to make your donation.

    Please mention Japan’s earthquake or tsunami so these organizations can allocate your donations accordingly.

    When I hear of more groups I will let you know! Thanks.

  64. Elmar_M

    No, there would be no danger to the US, or anyone in case of a meltdown. Only if the material actually escaped the containment vessel, then there might be danger to anyone.
    Though still not to the US. Think about how many nuclear bombs were exploded on US soil in the 50ies….

  65. Found another link. World Vet is preparing veterinary supplies and a first-responder team to deploy to Japan. http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=6691608&id=75896151570 Click the link to donate.

  66. Joe Resowski

    Unfortunately, given the tsunami that occurred in 2004 you don’t have to wonder what would happen to a relatively unprepared country. I believe the death toll then topped 300,000.

  67. Joel

    The NOAA wave-height map has taller waves spreading out like narrow fingers across the ocean. Why is that?

  68. I’m getting more links than I can keep up with! LOL They’re listed on my blog. If anyone’s interested in helping animals in Japan please take a look. Thank you! operationfuzzymice.wordpress.com

  69. The magnitude has been revised to 9.0.

  70. Ganzy

    Having followed the storyline in Japan from shortly after the chain of events occurred, one of the last news items I heard was that the nuclear Fukushima power plant was in trouble because the reactor core coolant circuit was out of action because of a power outage as a result of the tsunami?? The core coolant cycle would be kept in circulation by the intervening of emergency back up diesel generators, which if they were to fail, then battery backup would supply power to the coolant pumps. Giving enough? time for engineers to revive the diesel generators.

    As I understand it, were every back up system to fail, then the ‘cold’ water surrounding the core would start to boil uncontrollably and to such a point that the primary circuit would start to vent steam into the airspace of the surrounding concrete ‘jacket’ of the containment vessel??

    If I understand it correctly, and this how this particular reactor core works, I have a couple of questions that I hope someone can give me some answers to:

    Does the concrete containment vessel incorporate some kind of pressure release valve, either triggered automatically, or manually by human decision, or both?

    If so, what form does this pressure release valve take? a concrete ‘plug’ held in and sealed by its own weight? or a hydraulically operated ‘hatch’, with a manually operated cable winch should hydraulics fail?

    I was a little bit staggered when I came in from work tonight to see the shockwave and dust cloud emanating from the top of the Fukushima plant containment vessel. The first question that ran through my head was “Why didn’t they vent it?”

    I understand that controversy was building in regards to venting a release of radioactive steam to the atmosphere, but surely that would be more beneficial than letting the entire containment vessel rupture uncontrollably thereby potentially exposing the damaged core to the atmosphere?

    A commenter I read somewhere else, said that it would be better if the core was exposed to the open air so that it may cool down. But fission doesn’t require oxygen to generate heat, and ‘cooling’ liquid being denser than air is more efficient at carrying away heat than air alone, wouldn’t it be better to pump/flood graphite or gadolinium/zirconium/hafnium impregnated water into the containment vessel to slow the core right down? would this be possible even?

    Would the company who ran the reactor, realising that it was bleeding money due to the ‘act of god’ that had happened, let the reactor fail catastrophically, knowing the danger this would present?

    That last question to my mind is total conspiracy theory, because I can’t and don’t want to believe that someone could choose to let such a thing happen.

    If someone in authority, did choose responsibly to let such a thing happen, and for good reason, can anyone grounded in nuclear chemistry/power generation/reactor design explain to me how such a decision could have been arrived at and why?

    4 people were killed in that explosion I believe?

  71. Nick L

    Anyone here familiar with MOX reactors? I’m asking because Reactor 3 at Fukushima is one and it may be undergoing a meltdown right now.

  72. fred edison

    My heart goes out to the people of Japan affected by nature’s wrath. You can prepare and prepare, but the natural forces are overwhelmingly powerful and will deal a sudden blow, sometimes beyond comprehension and calculated expectations.

    Before we rush to condemn nuclear power as an unsafe power generation alternative, we should weigh our decisions and remember that fossil fuels from coal burning power plants and the like, contribute far more long-term health effects – through various illnesses and premature deaths via pollution to the environment – than all of the nuclear utility accidents combined.

  73. John Bennetts

    There’s no need to wonder whether TEPCO let their old reactor be damaged on purpose. In a nutshell, there are plenty of sites which explain better than I can, why, even after fully inserting the control rods that stop the reaction, there is still heat being generated. This heat is liberated by the decay of short-lived isotopes within the fuel rods and tapers off quite quickly, from perhaps 5% of the previous output to nothing much after a week or so. There was about 20MW of heat power to get rid of.

    This 20MW was OK while the diesel pumps were available, but they were destroyed by the tsunami.

    For perhaps another 4 hours, battery power kept circulating water via coolers and injecting makeup water to ensure that the level didn’t boil down, thus exposing the fuel rods, which could then become involved in the reaction and, while not driving the reaction supercritical, would delay the overall cooling and stabilisation program.

    So, after 5 – 6 hours, the next line of defence (I probably missed a few significant things, but bear with me) – the next line of defense included using sea water and whatever pumps were available to inject water into the reactor vessel.

    By this time, boric acid was also being injected, because boron, which absorbs radiation, will help to slow the reaction. Note that these continuing reactions are not at a critical level, where things spiral upward: things are simply not slowing down quickly enough.

    That’s where Unit 1 and, perhaps, Unit 3, of Fukushima’s older power station is now at.

    The hydrogen probably is a by-product of the residual nuclear reactions mentioned above, as they slow down. Normal methods of capturing this hydrogen are not available because power supply has been lost. The government is on record as having directed TEPCO to vent this very slighty radioactive hydrogen, to prevent pressure buildup in the reactor vessel. Unfortunately, there are only a few ways to do this with a 1971 vintage reactor and the fans which would normally get rid of it before concentrations built to the LEL (Lower Explosive Limit) were inoperable due to there being no power. The result was a buildup of hydrogen under the metal clad roof of the penthouse above the reactor’s concrete containment box. Then, even the smallest spark, probably static electricity. Then KA-BOOM.

    I have witnessed the results of exactly this type of hydrogen explosion on two occasions. In those cases, the hydrogen was manufactured and stored for use as a generator coolant in coal fired power stations. The Japanese film shots and the resulting damage are exactly what I would expect, under the circumstances.

    In short, what we are witnessing is a very old nuclear reactor, 12 months from retirement, demonstrating that even the safeguards of four decades ago have done a great, but imperfect, job of protecting against a much worse hypothetical event.

    Let’s hope that the wind-down of this reactor does not include failure of the reactor vessel (steel) or of the concrete containment vessel, although even that would probably result in nothing worse than an ongoing slow reaction and a messy situation where the core burns and evaporates its way through the floor of the structures and eventually comes to a poisonous, radioactive halt underground.

    I hope that this explanation is fairly accurate and that it makes sense to those who have not been lucky enough to have been trained as science or engineers.

    At this stage, it appears that structural failure of a crane has caused one death on site. Hopefully, the only one. The pain from the thousands of lives lost due to quake and tsunami are horrid enough.

  74. Gunnar

    @Shane #39

    Thank you for setting me straight on the story of the girl who saved lives by knowing something about Tsunamis. I should have refreshed my memory by searching for the original story before commenting on it. I guess my senility is progressing faster than I thought! :)

  75. Joseph G

    Bloody FSM’s meatballs!
    I’m watching a CNN piece about the (relatively inconsequential*) detonation of the hydrogen gas that was released from one of the damaged nuclear power plants, but the “headline” on the bottom of the screen says “FEARS ABOUT SECOND NUCLEAR BLAST”
    Seriously!? WTF?

    *Someone mentioned deaths from the explosion, but I can’t find any mention of it in the news. Hopefully there were none, but there are a lot of conflicting stories out there

  76. David Christensen

    Nuclear energy 101
    “”The extent of my knowledge on nuclear power plants is pretty much limited to what I’ve seen on The Simpsons”.”
    Here’s a primer, via Boing Boing:

  77. Ganzy

    @John Bennetts:

    Thanks for taking the time to explain all that John. I am going to go and read up on reactor design types to get a better understanding of their construction.

    @Joseph G:

    *Someone mentioned deaths from the explosion, but I can’t find any mention of it in the news. Hopefully there were none, but there are a lot of conflicting stories out there.

    I mentioned that in my post above Joseph, but I was wrong about there being 4 deaths. The were 4 people injured in the blast.

  78. Elmar_M

    So far nothing bad has happened yet. Nobody got killed and no second Chernobyl has happened. Yet the anti nuclear crowds are already rallying against nuclear power again. Most of all the green party. Of course they are the kinds of nuts that would love us all to return to the trees and get rid of technology all together. Or so one would have to assume by the fact that there does not seem to be a single means of energy creation that satisfies them.
    That without sufficient energy billions of people would die within a couple of years seems to elude them, or they dont care…

  79. katwagner

    @ 83 Elmar. Right. Well, now the NYTimes is reporting a fourth nuclear reactor may be in the process of partial meltdown. The writeup was easy to understand – the Japanese have built in several backup cooling systems in their nuclear plants but for some reason – stress? – there are now four reactors in trouble.

    I’m all for technology Elmar, but I have a problem with the fact that nuclear radiation lasts a long time and can cause damage for a really long time. Is that responsible stewardship of our planet? The Native Americans had it right, the land does not belong to us – it’s only on loan for now.

  80. katwagner

    Update: MSNBC is saying Japanese officials are now watching six (count ’em) nuclear reactors with troubling signs. A watchdog group is saying they warned about this scenario: tsunamis on top of a severe earthquake.

    Ewwie, I feel awful for that island country.

  81. Elmar_M

    katwagner. BBC and CNN dont say anything the like MSNBC is of course a biased station. I would not trust them more than I trust Fox news.
    So far no signifficant amounts of radiation have been released. The radiation levels that I have heard of are several orders of magnitude below savety levels.
    E.g. there were increased radiation levels reported nearby Onagawa nuclear plant.
    The levels were 0.000,021 sievert and only for a few minutes before the levels went down, due to the material released having extremely short halflife.
    The allowed levels for a worker at e-.g. a nuclear plant is 0.05 sievert a year.
    This is considered normal and save for a worker to be exposed to such levels of radiation with all the savety margins possible considered.
    A dose of 1 sievert per hour has a 5% chance of killing a person if untreated. Of course that means full exposure of the body, not partial exposure, etc, etc.
    So again, lets put that into perspective:
    0.000,021 sievert for a few minutes was the actualy measured radiation level.
    0.05 sievert is within worker savety regulations.
    1.0 sievert for an hour has a 5% chance of killing a person with no treatment and full body exposure…

    Please go and count the zeroes.
    The biggest problems with the nuclear reactors in Japan are that if they had a meltdown, they wont be able to use them for power generation anymore. Also those that have been flooeded with seawater and boron will be broken and unreapairable. That means that they will have to be decomissioned. This might result in the loss of billions of USD and power shortages throughout the country.
    I am 100% certain that there were no lives at risk at any time from the nuclear reactors, or only those of certain personell within the actual reactor buildings (if at all).
    I am also 100% convinced that there wont be any lasting environmental damage, no matter what happens. The evacuations were a savety precaution, but they will all be able to return home within days without having to worry about radiation whatsoever. My word on it.
    Given the scope of the desaster, the nuclear reactors all actually performed admirably and it is a testament to the savety of todays nuclear reactors. The ones at Fukushima plant are actually 40 years old by now. Mocdern reactors are built even saver than that.

  82. Joseph G

    @84 katwagner: I’m all for technology Elmar, but I have a problem with the fact that nuclear radiation lasts a long time and can cause damage for a really long time. Is that responsible stewardship of our planet? The Native Americans had it right, the land does not belong to us – it’s only on loan for now.

    Remember that all that uranium was buried in the ground all around us at some point. The thing about fissile isotopes is that, generally speaking, the shorter the half-life, the more radiation released by X amount of material in X time. In other words, if you have, say, 12 atoms of U235, and 12 atoms of strontium 90, 6 atoms of the strontium will have decayed (producing beta radiation) within about 28 years. The uranium-235 atoms, on the other hand, will have a 50% chance of decaying at about 700 million years (it also undergoes beta decay, but it’s obviously much less radioactive).

    So people see these elements like U238 with a half life of over 4 billion years, and they think “Damn, it’s going to be dangerous forever!” In reality, the stuff that’s really harmful, like the cobalt-60 (half life 5.27 years) and iodine-131 (half life about 8 days) won’t be with us for a hundred thousand years.

  83. Joseph G

    There’s also the absolute travesty that the US doesn’t reprocess its nuclear fuel. With reprocessing and fast reactors, we could close the fuel cycle (getting 60 times as much juice per gram of fuel) – with all the spent fuel we already have waiting for disposal, we could be energy self-sufficient for a substantial period of time! Apparently, anti-proliferation groups have been opposing all fuel reprocessing in the US, which I for the life of me can’t understand. So France and Japan reprocessing their fuel is a proliferation risk? So having casks of spent fuel sitting around is somehow safer? I don’t follow.
    Somehow, the US has gone from the world leader in nuclear technology to being 40 years behind the rest of the industrialized world, and ironically, the people who seem to be most afraid of nuclear waste are the very reason that we have so damn much of it.

  84. katwagner

    Well Joseph G, the Japanese around the Di-ichi reactors are out of there now. Everyone within a 12 mile radius. Everything I’ve read says those plants were built to withstand an earthquake, but not a 9.0 one. And the cooling systems weren’t built to withstand a tsunami because they didn’t think that would happen. But it did. So? You all think that’s OK because Japan needs the energy. Oh I see now.

  85. Elmar_M

    You all think that’s OK because Japan needs the energy. Oh I see now.

    Well nothing happened, at least not so far and with every hour that goes by, the risk of a larger failure gets lower. The evacuation is simply a savety precaution, though I dont really seee a chance for any dramatic catastrophies happening. Considering that the earthquake and the Tsunami probably killed 10,000 people, the nuclear reactors have proven to be rather save.
    Oh, btw, I think that this is absolutely OK, because Japan does need the energy. I mean nobody complains about the coal power plants in their backyards and coal causes much more deaths every year than nuclear power (as reactors) ever has.
    Here is a very nice comparison of the different energy sources and the deatsh per Twh. It is a real eye opener. On this list, nuclear is among the savest, by far!

  86. Elmar_M

    Here is another link, that might be of interest to you all. It explains very well what happened in Fukushima:

  87. flip

    #55 MichaelL

    I’ve lost my copy somewhere in my mess of a house… but I’m pretty sure this is the same article I read:

    Note: it starts by talking about avalanches, which leads into the discussion on glaciers and earthquakes.

  88. katwagner

    Oboy Elmar, you don’t even want to get me started on coal. Take a look at the piece in the NYTimes titled My Polluted Kentucky Home, published last week. You know, it’s not just our lives I’m talking about here. You know about mountaintop removal, right? Kentucky, West Virginia – about 450 mountains removed for the coal underneath; fouling creaks, streams, and water supplies. Songbirds are losing their habitat so we are losing, no, the world is losing some of them.

  89. Elmar_M

    I am more concerned about the 10,000 + people in the US allone that die of lung cancer every year because of the dirt those coal power plants blow into the air. The anti- nuclear movement is completely unfounded. Chernobyl was an exceptional accident made because of exceptional mistakes during botht he design and the operation of the reactor AND during the desaster itself.
    Anyway, the world has two options: Nuclear power, or global warming. Which one shall it be?

  90. @Gunnar,

    I was actually hoping someone would correct my math because something felt off about those figures. I wonder what kind of actual force that tsunami hit with. There was one video that the news kept playing that showed it hit a two story building and destroy it like it was made of toothpicks. Has the force of the tsunami been estimated at all?

  91. Messier Tidy Upper

    Overwhelming. Dreadful. Beyond words.

    I stayed in Japan for 6 months – Okayama towards the southern part of the main island (Honshu) near the inland sea area. That was many years ago now. Still really feel for the people affected. For the tens of thousands who have lost property and, worse, lost family and friends. For those still fighting the nuclear reactor problems or the areas at risk there. My thoughts go out to you.

    First the floods in Queensland & Victoria in my nation, then the Christchurch earthquake just across the ditch from us & now this. What a horror start to the year with so many natural disaster bringing so much death and suffering to so many. Anything I can say or do seems utterly inadequate against all this. :-(

  92. Messier Tidy Upper

    @94. Elmar_M :

    Anyway, the world has two options: Nuclear power, or global warming. Which one shall it be?

    We’ll have both – actually we already do. Anthropogenic Global Warming is already occurring – and, yes, we need to forget our phobias and adopt nuclear power as one small step in mitigating it and as an alternative preferable to burning coal and oil with the consequences of doing that.

    On this issue I agree with you, Elmar_M.

  93. Ken

    I’m very worried for some of my family there. I lived in Japan for 10 years up until May of 2009 when my wife (who is Japanese) and I decided to come back to the US so that I could finish up school, and introduce our children to their American grandparents. I’m very close to my wife’s family, as being an American with no American family members over in Japan, I relied on them for many things (helping us get through two miscarriages, and other issues that life tosses randomly at people). In fact, her Aunt lives near where the quake and tsunami hit, and we haven’t been able to get any information on how her Aunt or her Aunt’s family are doing, or whether they are alive or not.

    It’s very stressing and worrisome… ;-(

  94. Elmar_M

    This is an interesting comparison for people that are having a problem grasping the concept of radiation and how bad it is.
    Simply measure the radiation in “bananas”. Many things we eat are naturally radioactive. Bananas are quite radioactive due to a rather high concentration of potassium and therefore also the radioactive isotope potassium 40.

    So if you do the math, then the radiation at the Fukushima plant spiked up to 30 bananas a day and then fell back down to 1 to 2 bananas per day.
    I think we all can live with that 😉
    Banana- quote courtesy of Next Big Future (nextbigfuture.com).
    I have to remember that one!

  95. Joseph G

    @98 Ken: I’m sorry! That sounds like an awful situation to be in.
    We’re all hoping for the best for your family.

  96. Joseph G

    @94 Elmar: I read somewhere (and this may be totally apocryphal) that the usable energy content of the uranium, thorium, et al fissiles in coal fly ash is higher then the energy content of the coal that that it’s in! Not only do coal plants release radioactives into the environment, but it’s stuff we could actually be using. I think the only reason they aren’t doing so is that it’s still cheaper to mine it then to separate the stuff from the fly ash…

  97. I have to agree with Elmar_M here, people are overreacting. The banana allegory is quite precise, and try to think logically as well – do you think that if some big radiation catastrophe had to occur, the governments would let it slide? We’d all be evacuated by now, or dead.

    So yeah, I think we can all live a with a little bit of radiation (we already do) and if not…well..think of it as Fallout 4


  98. Elmar_M

    Joseph, it is true, coal power plants do release a lot of radioactivity besides all the other crap they do into the air. Of course this is usually not talked about.
    I dont have exact and official numbers, but one source once told me that for each and every coal plnat the amount of radioactivity relased during normal operation every year, was in the realm of the radioactivity released by the 3 mile island plant during the accident.
    About 30,000 people die of the effects of the crap blown into the air by coal power plants every year in the US allone…
    In comparison only some 4,000 deaths worldwide can be atributed to the radiation released by the Chernobyl desaster.
    People die of gas explosions pretty much all the time. When one or two people die in a gas explosion somewhere, it is usually not even more than a footnote in the local news, because it is so common. It almost never makes it into international news (unless many people got killed). People have absolutely no problem with having gas in their houses or condos…
    It is pretty irrational if you think about it.

  99. Elmar_M

    Here is an article from Scientific American on the topic:

    The Wikipedia article on fossil fuel power plants also has a paragraph on the topic:

  100. Sid


    Joseph. Recycling isn’t as easy or magical as you and the right wing think tanks want you to believe. France recycles zero these days and the act of recycling releases significant radioactive waste.

  101. Elmar_M

    Sid, where are you getting that information from? Both France and Japan are recycling a lot of fuel, regularily. I see the castor transports go to the refurbishing plants all the time.
    And the right wingers are generally against nuclear power and prefer oil and coal. I am definitely not a right winger, at least not for the US, for Europe maybe, but the world is different here.

  102. Joseph G

    @Sid: Teh Google is showing me that Robert Alvarez isn’t exactly a dispassionate observer – he’s anti-nuclear in every way, shape, and form. He also speaks about nuclear power as being a proliferation risk, even though that’s a vast oversimplification that only applies in certain cases.

  103. Thank you so much, Phil, for writing about this. I hope more people understand the magnitude of the dire situation in Japan right now. I’m writing my account on my website, if anyone is curious to know what it’s really like there now.


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