By Daniel Holz | March 14, 2011 10:35 am

The magnitude of the disaster in Japan is starting to sink in. The photo that drove it home, at least for me, was the one that graced the front of yesterday’s New York Times (see right). The Japanese prime minister tells us that it is Japan’s worst crisis since World War II. He has ordered the largest mobilization of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces since World War II. Emphasizing the magnitude of the event, Japan is now measurably closer to the US. As if recovering from an earthquake and a tsunami were insufficient, the people of Japan are now confronted with their worst nuclear accident ever. There are officers in radiation suits scanning residents near affected nuclear power plants with Geiger counters. The authorities are evacuating over 200,000 people, and are preparing to hand out iodine pills (so that the thyroid is flooded with “normal” iodine, rather than radioactive Iodine-131). According to news reports, three people are already showing signs of radiation sickness (if it has manifested itself so quickly, it is probably a very bad sign for these individuals).

Information about the ongoing nuclear crisis is surprisingly scarce. Google, as usual, is operating as a clearinghouse for information (including details on the rolling blackouts and a person finding database). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is doing its best to keep the world apprised. There is also Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Other places to check are Reuters and the BBC.

These are the sorts of events that highlight our shared humanity. There are many ways to help, including the Japanese Red Cross (donate through google) and Doctors Without Borders. Our hearts go out to the people impacted by this tragedy. Science is a particularly international endeavor. I have friends and colleagues in Japan, and thankfully they and their families appear to be okay (although shaken). Many thousands have not been so lucky.

We have scenes of complete devastation of the Japanese homeland coupled with ongoing concern of radiation exposure. Echoes of a previous time are unmistakable and unavoidable. I’ve put together the following montage (on the left is Hiroshima in 1945, on the right is Sendai today):

I am by no means trying to imply that these events are in any way equivalent. They most certainly are not. But the images are scary, and give a sense of the scale of the disaster.

  • Tony

    This side by side comparison photo really drove it home for me. Such utter devastation, and possibly more yet to come.

  • Mike


    I lived in Tokyo for seven years and I know from experience that if any people are capable of overcoming these terrible difficulties, it’s the Japanese. They have responded with courage and patience that is remarkable in the circumstances. My heart goes out to my friends there (who are all safe) and the all of the Japanese people.

  • Counterfly

    Please don’t fearmonger about nuclear power until there’s good reason to. Overreaction to Three Mile Island killed nuclear power development in this country for 30 years.

  • Andrew

    The nuclear crisis is obviously bringing up many concerns over the use of nuclear energy. For a long time I have personally felt that the clean electrical energy generated from nuclear reactors out weighs the negative repercussions of a potential disaster. In light of Japan’s ongoing crisis I have been wavering in my convictions, though I still believe that well built reactors are probably safe (the IAEA now is saying that all the reactors will be safe in cold shutdown soon).

    I’d really like to hear what the physicists are thinking regarding this topic. In 20 to 30 years or so we’ll reach peak oil and the necessity for alternative energies will become all the more evident (not to mention global warming). Should we start building more nuclear reactors or should we instead invest more heavily in solar cell science? I highly doubt wind will be a major supplier of world energy but I suppose it should be discussed. Thoughts?

  • hundun

    I don’t want to be nitpicky, but you might want to edit this part: “the people of Japan are now confronted with their worst nuclear incident ever.” I know exactly what you mean, but “nuclear incidents” may include being attacked with nuclear weapons.

  • Carl Brannen

    Humans don’t need nukes to devastate a region. Here’s the wikipedia article on the bombing of Tokyo 1942-1945:

  • daniel

    @Counterfly @Andrew (#3 and 4): I have a post on these issues half-written. Hope to finish it up soon.

    @hundun (#5): fair enough. incident->accident.

  • Mike


    I apologize for addressing my first post to Sean – just used to seeing his name up there. I wanted to let people know that the Japan Society has created a disaster relief fund to aid victims in Japan. 100% of the tax-deductible contributions will go to organization(s) that directly help victims recover from the devastating effects of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011.


  • Eugene

    The pictures of the hiroshima and sendai had me thinking : how much energy was unleashed? Here is a quick estimate :

    Sendai size ~ (30km x 30km) (from wiki, taking population density and population)

    wave velocity is about 100km/h (it was mentioned somewhere 60 miles/h).

    Assuming wave is about 20m (from amateur movies I saw)

    Water has density 1g/cm^3

    The total energy released is (1/2)mass v^2 ~ 10^15 Joules

    Littleboy is 10^13 Joules.

    So the tsunami was 100 times more powerful.


  • David

    A wave speed of 100 km/h is not the same as the water moving 100km/h, just as a sound wave in air is not the same as a wind of 1000 km/h.

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Should we start building more nuclear reactors or should we instead invest more heavily in solar cell science? “

    False dichotomy. One should invest in R&D for all sorts of clean, renewable energy, including fusion. Not just solar cells, but solar power via heating something and driving a turbine. Orbital tower and solar power in space in the longer term (unless fusion becomes practical).

    Yes, coal releases CO2, but it is only one source of CO2, so that is bad, but not a reason to stop it now unless long-term, global CO2 reduction is possible. Yes, coal actually releases more radioactivity than nuclear power in normal operation. That is bad, but not the issue. The issue is that if there is a problem, coal doesn’t get much worse, but nuclear power can. The main issue, though, is long-term storage of nuclear waste.

    We got to the Moon in less than 10 years with a concentrated effort, even though slide rules were the most advanced computing aids used for the project (as far as I know). It helped the economy as well. What we need is something like the Apollo programme for alternative energy. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but the difference is that there was no substantial opposition to Apollo, but there are many vested interests in the energy status quo.

  • Lab Lemming

    Daniel, are those photos at the same scale? The Hiroshima pic looks like it has a larger field of view.

  • Andrew

    @Phillip I completely agree that we should invest in all sorts of alternative energy, including solar, nuclear, zero-net carbon biofuels, and thermal, etc. However, I have the feeling that the most significant generator of clean electricity in the future will be either nuclear or solar (heating or solar cells). If nuclear energy poses as great a risk as many fear then it would be prudent to invest more heavily in solar technology, however if there are safer nuclear reactor designs (I’m thinking pebble bed reactors and thorium fuel to name a couple options) or the reactors now can be considered essentially safe enough then maybe nuclear is a better bet for hedging the coming peak oil crisis as well as global warming. I’m a molecular biologist, not a physicist, so I plead ignorance when it comes to issues of nuclear energy and climatology… I’ll leave it up to you physicists to convince me that nuclear is either safe enough or not at all as well as what the best alternative options should get the greatest share of funding.

  • Joseph J Veverka

    I don’t think it is a fair or, accurate statement to say that the Japan home land was devastated. 80% of Japan is still functioning and will be able return to the world community as soon as they can. The Japanese are a strong and resourceful people and we should watch them to help and study their climb out of this massive set back.

  • Juan

    My own thought as a physicist is that the nuclear energy can be necessary in some cases but it can not be the definitive answer for the energy demand of civilizations. It presents too many risks as the Japan incident shows. It is necessary to discover new energy sources, and invest on solar cells and other known sources too. We can not allow corporations control energy researches as they have done till now…

    Uranium is like oil, we can not simply change our dependence on hydrocarbon fuels into atomic fuels, at least not with our present knowledge. Atomic trash will be there for centuries or milleniums. We need to find new resources with less risks. Atomic energy should be used only whenever it be useful: medicine, space probes, maybe in future manking missions to Mars or Europe, …But it can not be a solution. What Nature has probed to us is that unprobable events happen, and thus, catastrophes happen, and then we should not risk the future of new generations by our inabilities or egoism. As a physicist,too, I would like someone find a new energy source “free and clean” but at this moment, we are far away of that. And the global demand of energy and the global warming are driving us to a hard puzzle to solve very soon…

    I have some hopes that LHC discovers something truly new and fundamental who can hint us to a new world of energy. However, it is only a dream…

  • Shamino

    I agree with Mike. Though the Japanese have been hit with one-after-another catastrophes that would not be wished among the most evil, I am filled with a strong feeling of optimism that the Japanese will recover from this. This is not to encourage sitting back and letting problems fix themselves, but they are approaching everything very wisely.

  • Jay Fox

    It seems to me that as nuclear plants get bigger, they get potentially more dangerous. Apparently, that would be one reason they build several at each site. Several smaller plants should be safer than one giant one. And you can take one off-line for maintenance while the others slave on. What appears to be the case from this lay-man’s point of view is that these nuclear facilities are built pretty close to “as big as we can handle.” That doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. For all the safety planning done beforehand, the Japanese seem to operating on “plan C or plan D.” They so far have avoided “the big one,” but it seems that on-the-fly ingenuity is what’s keeping them safe. Time will tell.

    It’s amazing just how many nuclear power facilities there are already in the world. Most of them you never hear about. Then there is the military. They have plenty of nuclear powered ships that no one hears about. There is a lot of energy already being produced with nuclear, and as others have pointed out, far fewer have died in the nuclear industry than the coal or petroleum industries.

    The answer seems to be more, but smaller, nuclear plants. And keep working on those other altenatives, especially solar. Andrew, you molecular biologists are a big key to this puzzle, the alchemists of the 21st century. Incorporation of biological systems into solar devices is beginning to show promise. Keep working on it. There is also work being done on bioremediation of nuclear wastes. Keep working on it. Borrow from nature to solve our current problems.

    We need energy now. Carbon, soot, mercury, nuclear waste, all of it. We must invest this *dirty* energy wisely on research into more sustainable methods of energy generation. The current system is not sustainable.

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  • Tinman

    The A-bombs devastated about 15 sq km of populated area. This tsunami probably devastated 10 times that.

    No matter how safe you think you’ve made it, Mother Nature can find a way to destroy it.

  • Andrew

    Nuclear power only works when heavily subsidized by taxpayers. We subsidize the costs as well as the insurance. Current technologies are a non starter. Nuclear needs more R&D to become a real solution.

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