2011 – a disastrous few months gets worse – floods, cyclones, quakes, tsunamis and now nuclear risk

Written by Gary on March 14th, 2011

2010 was the year the 12 year drought broke in south-eastern Australia thanks to La Nina.

But La Nina and tropical cyclones in northern Queensland brought the worst flooding in 100 years throughout much of eastern Australia, impacting vast areas of Queensland and north-western Victoria. 99% of Queensland now is covered by state and federal disaster relief arrangements.

Then Christchurch, New Zealand, was devastated by a second earthquake in a few months.

Now we have Japan being brought to its knees by one of the 10 most powerful earthquakes of the last century recording 8.9 on the Richter scale and which moved Japan’s main island an incredible 2.4m closer to the US and altered the earth’s spin.

Although causing surprisngly minimal structural damage to Japan’s earthquake-designed buildings, the resultant tsunami devastated the northern coastal cities and now, Japan faces a major risk of a nuclear meltdown at one of its nuclear power plants in Fukushima while a second one has leaked radiation, and suffered a hydrogen explosion at midday today and it too is at risk.

The tsunami caused a terrible loss of life with well over 10,000 thought to have died in one city of 17,000 alone.

Over 200,000 have already been evacuated from the nuclear 20km exclusion zone which has been put in place.

A nuclear meltdown would not only be an environmental catsatrophe, but will have  massive effect on Japan with a potential to make an important region of 30km diameter uninhabitable for many generations. Japan and the world can ill afford another Chernobyl.

One must question the wisdom of building nuclear power plants in regions at risk of severe natural disasters.

It seems the Japanese engineers were falsely reassured that in the past 300 years, no earthquake larger than magnitude-eight had struck in the Japan subduction zone. That, in turn, led to assumptions about how large a tsunami might strike the coast.

Many of Japan’s manufacturing plants have either been flooded or had minor earthquake damage, or just closed down as a precautionary measure pending further risk assessment and the outcome of the nuclear plant instability.

Affected manufacturing includes:

  • Sony has halted production at eight electronics plants in the Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures (including a Blu-ray factory which was flooded, stranding over one thousand workers who were forced to seek refuge on higher ground).
  • A Sony Technology Centre is also located in Sendai.
  • Panasonic revealed that falling building structures have caused minor injuries to several workers at its factories located in the Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. These facilities mainly dealt with digital cameras, audio equipments and electronic parts.
  • Panasonic’s Lumix camera factory in Fukushima is ~80km from Fukushima 1 plant.
  • Panasonic’s new EV Energy plant in Sendai (a joint venture with Toyota and run by the entity PrimEarth EV Energy Co) which makes metal hydride batteries for cars is said to have been destroyed.
  • Toshiba has shut down operations at its semiconductor plant in the northern prefecture of Iwate.
  • Sanyo is also said to have implemented shut downs.
  • Canon announced that although some damage occurred, it will not halt production.
  • Canon confirmed that around 12 employees suffered minor injuries at its lens factory in Utsunomiya which is 200km from Fukushima 1.
  • Nikon’s dSLR plant is in Sendai some 6km from Sendai airport (see this image for its proximity with Nikon’s factory marked as A) and 100km from Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant. It seems it has had little direct damage, but one could expect the regional devastation to surely impact its ability to be productive in the short term.
  • the Nikkor lens factory at Tochigi, is midway between Tokyo and Sendai
  • Olympus does not appear to have been significantly affected directly.
  • global production of LCD-related components may be severely impacted, as Japan accounts for a substantial share in the worldwide manufacturing of colour filters, glass substrates, polarizers, cold-cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) used in LCD panels and products.
  • The Japanese car industry has been hard hit with Nissan closing four car factories, Toyota closing three and Honda closing two.
  • It is estimated that 7% of Japan’s industrial output will have been wiped out with this disaster assuming the nuclear situation is stabilised.

Japan’s economic situation was not great prior to this disaster with debt levels at 200% of GDP,  government budget deficit at 7% of GDP and a recent downgrade of its credit rating last month. Japan’s stock market fell 5% today on the concerns of the costs of this disaster.

2 million homes in Japan’s freezing north are currently without power.

Japan’s transport infrastructure has been severely impacted as its rail system on which Japan is heavily reliant upon has been compromised.

Fortunately, Japan’s steel industry has not been significantly affected.

The rising oil prices due to the current Libyan civil crisis/war and other unrest in the Middle East will not help their cause.

There is a still risk of further severe after-shocks with a greater than 50% risk of a quake greater than magnitude 7.0 occurring in the next few days with possible secondary tsunamis.

Meanwhile, a volcano (Shinmoedake) in Japan’s south-west erupted again, perhaps due to the earthquake. It had erupted for the first time in 52 years in January 2011.

Some images of before and after the tsunami hosted on Australia’s ABC news website.

Post script 15th March 2011:

Further explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant has raised local radiation levels and heightened risk of nuclear meltdown resulting in Japan’s PM wideing the exclusion zone from 20km to 30km and the Japanese stockmarket falling over 10% today after the 6% fall yesterday.


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