A succession of events initiated by a tremor has gone down in history as the biggest catastrophe the country has faced since the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
In 2004, the world faced a double tragedy of monumental proportions. A powerful earthquake in the Indian Ocean was followed by a destructive tsunami, which left more than 260,000 dead in 14 countries.
The fury of the sea, in turn, caused a nuclear accident at the Fukushima plant, 260 kilometers north of Tokyo. More than 18,000 people were killed by the tsunami, and the accident in Fukushima forced the evacuation of 160,000 people who lived nearby.
It was the biggest catastrophe faced by Japan since the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The great earthquake
March 11, 2011, a Friday, will hardly be forgotten by the Japanese. At 2:46 pm local time, at a point in the Pacific Ocean 130 kilometers east of the city of Sendai, an earthquake not only shook but also displaced Japan.
With 9 degrees of magnitude, the “Great East Japan Earthquake” – also known as “Great Sendai Earthquake” or just “Tohoku Earthquake” – the largest ever recorded in the country, pushed 2.4 meters to the east. Honshu island, the largest in Japan.
At the exact point of the earthquake, 24.4 kilometers below the seabed, the friction between the tectonic plates of Eurasia and the Pacific caused the largest earth movement ever recorded in a 50-meter earthquake – in the 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean. , it was 25 meters.
This movement forced the sea upwards, causing the tsunami – a series of giant waves. Accustomed to great tremors followed by large-scale destruction, as in Tokyo, in 1923, and in Kobe, in 1995, Japan was beginning to face a succession of events unprecedented in its history.
The earthquake itself was already exceptional even by Japanese standards. The area of the country most affected was the Tohoku region. In its capital, Sendai, people on the streets quickly realized that there was nowhere to run.
Video footage showed many trying to escape pieces of buildings that fell on the sidewalk and terrified workers in offices, where objects and furniture were thrown to the floor.
The long duration of the quake – about six minutes – made the moment even more frightening. “Oh, my God, the building is going to fall!” Says a man, in English, in one of the moments of greatest vibration of the place where he was.
Japan is considered the best prepared country in the world against earthquakes. After the 1923 tragedy, which killed 140,000 people, Japanese buildings began to be built to absorb the energy of a seismic shock and, thus, are able to remain upright.
The process, called “seismic isolation”, involves the presence of protections at the base of buildings, such as rubber blocks, and dampers in the structure of buildings.
Advances in technology, however, do not protect Japanese cities from harm – and in the case of the Tohoku earthquake, they were many and far reaching. There was destruction in the capital, Tokyo, 373 kilometers from the epicenter, where the quake rocked the national parliament.
East of Tokyo, in the city of Ichihara, the quake caused a refinery to catch fire and explode. None of this, however, would be compared to what was about to hit the east coast of the country.
Japan already knew tsunamis very well – the word is Japanese, formed by the union of “tsu”, which means “port”, and “nami”, which means “wave”. The United States National Oceanic Service defines the tsunami phenomenon as “a series of giant waves caused by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions under the sea”.
And the organ adds: “In the middle of the ocean, tsunami waves do not increase enormously in height. But, as the waves reach the coast, they acquire more and more height with the decrease in the depth of the sea”.
Japan already had a developed warning system and a broad protection structure. At 2:49 pm, three minutes after the earthquake, a first tsunami warning was triggered. This notification, however, underestimated the size of the problem. The magnitude of the earthquake was initially estimated at just 7.9, and it was believed that waves that could reach the coast would have heights between 3 and 6 meters.
In fact, as would be seen shortly afterward, the waves reached 10 meters in height, in some points up to 15, and the shock had been much more intense, of 9 degrees of magnitude. These flaws in the warning would become clear during an investigation into the tragedy. A report by the Japan Meteorological Agency, produced in October 2013, said that the errors in the initial alert may have contributed to the high number of victims.
“This may have led some people to think that the tsunami waves would not go beyond the protective walls and possibly contributed to delays in the evacuation.” A second alert was released at 3:10 pm, increasing the wave size forecast to 10 meters. At that time, however, the tsunami was already too close.
Half an hour after the earthquake, the waves reached the coast of Tohoku and other regions of eastern Japan. From the top of buildings, many Japanese saw helplessly the moment when the first waves beat the protective walls as if they did not exist. Walls of water invaded the coastal cities, carrying and destroying boats, cars, and houses, which from a distance looked like toys.
The port and airport of Sendai were completely washed over – boats, aircraft, helicopters, trucks, vans, and other automobiles were easily swept away by the waves. Many moments were recorded by Japanese cameras, in images that impressed the world. About 250 kilometers north of Sendai, the tsunami reached the city of Miyako, where the destruction was equally astounding. The mountain of black sea water soon overcame the 5 meter high barriers, dragging cars, boats, houses, and electricity poles with it.
The next day, March 12, rescue workers struggled to find survivors and evacuate people from flooded areas. According to the BBC News report, about a third of the town of Kesennuma, in Miyagi, with 74,000 inhabitants, was submerged, and there were several fires. In the province of Iwate, the city of Rikuzentakata, with 23,000 inhabitants, had been completely washed away – and more than 300 bodies had already been found.
Seismic earthquake monitoring services had recorded 125 aftershocks, resulting from the great earthquake – one of which was 6.8 magnitude. The total of buildings destroyed, completely or partially, reached 3.4 thousand. Five and a half million homes were without electricity, and another 200,000 people were in temporary shelters, among many other aspects of the tragedy.
The earthquake followed by a tsunami left a total of 15,853 dead and 3,282 missing, the majority due to the advancing sea. The region with the most fatalities was Miyagi.
A year after the disaster, 330,000 people were still living in some form of temporary accommodation. More than 300,000 buildings were destroyed, and another 1 million, damaged – by the tsunami, by fires, or by the earthquake -, in addition to 4,000 roads, 78 bridges, and 29 railroad tracks.
The devastation generated an impressive 25 million tonnes of debris. Part of them was taken by the ocean and ended up on the coasts of Canada and the United States. Among them, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a soccer ball, and small boats. The financial cost of the disaster reached about $ 200 billion.
The nuclear accident
The terrible images that came from Japan generated international solidarity, with leaders from around the world expressing support and announcing help to the Japanese. After the earthquake and tsunami, however, the tragedy would still have the third chapter.
On the 11th, shortly after the tsunami, the first concerns were raised about two nuclear power plants in the east of the country, close to the epicenter of the earthquake: Onagawa, in Miyagi Prefecture, and Fukushima Daiishi, in Fukushima Prefecture.
In Onagawa, the plant closest to the earthquake’s epicenter, a fire broke out in the turbine hall, an area separate from the reactor, but was quickly put out. In Fukushima, the situation would be much more serious.
The location of the Onagawa plant, protected by a 14-meter high wall and built on a higher part of the land, ensured that the building would not suffer major damage from the tsunami.
The structure that protected Fukushima, on the other hand, proved to be precarious. The Fukushima plant had four reactors, of which three – units 1 to 3 – were operating that day. With the earthquake, the three units shut down automatically, as their security systems predicted.
The quake damaged the six power transmission lines that fed the plant, which activated the operation of its diesel generators to move the pumps responsible for cooling the reactors.
At 3:42 pm on the 11th, however, the plant was hit by a first major tsunami wave – a second would come eight minutes later. The waves reached 15 meters in height, but Fukushima was not prepared for that.
Erected 10 meters above sea level, the plant was surrounded by a protective wall of just over 5 meters. The waters immediately flooded the building’s basement, exactly where the generators were.
The entire base of the plant was flooded, a situation that started the biggest nuclear disaster since the explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1985 – in the same country that suffered two atomic bombings in World War II.
With the flooding of the subsoil, the generators stopped working – other important equipment for the operation, such as pumps and batteries, also became inoperative. Without power and with damaged equipment, the cooling process of the three reactors stopped.
Access to the plant was also hampered, due to damage caused by the tsunami and earthquake on the roads.
On the night of the 11th, a state of a nuclear emergency and the evacuation of residents within a radius of 2 kilometers from the plant were announced. The area was soon extended to 3, then 10 kilometers, and the next day the evacuation reached 20 kilometers.
The picture worsened on the 12th, as BBC News reported: “A powerful explosion hit a nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan that had been seriously damaged in Friday’s earthquake and tsunami.”
The explosion occurred during attempts by emergency teams to resume cooling the reactors and ventilate the containment compartment.
As the World Nuclear Association, which represents the nuclear energy sector, explained in a report: “At 3:36 pm on Saturday, the 12th, there was an explosion of hydrogen on the service floor of the building over the containment of the unit 1 reactor, destroying the roof and the roof at the top of the building “.
Over the days following the tsunami, radioactive vapor ended up being released into the atmosphere, both through leakage and in attempts to reduce the internal pressure in the reactors. There was also a leak of radioactive water in the Pacific.
In the first three days of the accident, the Fukushima reactor cores melted, and the radiation leak continued for six days. The work of the technical teams basically aimed to try to cool reactors 1, 2 and 3, using water and to stop the leak of radioactive material.
It took two weeks for the reactors to be considered stable again. There were no deaths from the accident – in 2018, however, the Japanese government would confirm the first death of a worker in Fukushima, from cancer due to radiation exposure.
The Fukushima plant has become unusable. Over the years, about 1 million tons of contaminated water were accumulated inside – rainwater and from the soil that was contaminated when it came into contact with the water used to cool the reactors.
In October 2020, nine years after the accident, the Japanese government was preparing to decide what to do with this material. The most likely option was to launch it in the Pacific Ocean, starting in 2022, a measure criticized by environmentalists and entities in the fishing sector.
The nuclear accident led to the evacuation of 160,000 people from the region, with the affected area extended from 20 to 30 kilometers at the end of March 2011. Most of them were allowed to return, with the risk reduction, but the areas closest to the plant of Fukushima remained closed.
Two small towns, Okuma and Futaba, with 11,000 and 7,000 inhabitants, respectively, have remained closed for years.
In 2019, authorities allowed residents to return to 40% of Okuma, considered safe after years of decontamination. Many people, however, still questioned the security and were not comfortable returning.
In March 2020, Futaba was reopened, but still only for the entry of workers involved in its reconstruction. The permanent return of residents was only scheduled for 2022.
After the accident, Japan initiated detailed safety inspections on all of its nearly 50 nuclear reactors. Due to the inspections, in May 2012 all plants in the country were closed and will be reopened gradually from 2015.
Among them, the Onagawa plant closed since 2011 and whose operation was expected to resume in late 2020. The pressure for the country to reduce its nuclear energy production has increased, and Japan intended to decrease the share of this source, from 30 %, at the time of the accident in Fukushima, foreseen 20% in 2030.
Japan more prepared
The effects of the Great East Japan Earthquake lasted much longer than previously thought.
In November 2016, a 7.4-magnitude tremor hit the regions of Fukushima and Miyagi. According to technicians, it was not a new earthquake, but a secondary shock still due to the great earthquake of 2011.
The event, which did not cause significant damage, was yet another reminder of the scale of the disaster five years earlier – and the need for the country to better prepare itself for future tragedies.
As of 2011, Japanese defenses against tsunamis along the country’s east coast have been expanded. Instead of being 5 meters high, the walls to contain future giant waves were now about 13 meters.
The geography of the city of Rikuzentakata, one of the hardest hit by the tsunami, was reformed as part of its reconstruction. The city center, completely destroyed by the sea, was redone on a huge embankment that covered the old structure.
The area, therefore, was elevated by 10 meters, making it much safer, more protected from the reach of possible giant waves.
In addition to tsunamis, Japan continues to prepare for another major tragedy: a new earthquake, possibly in its capital, Tokyo – a metropolitan region with 37 million inhabitants.
The last major earthquake to strike the city, in 1923, is about to turn a hundred years old, and experts estimate that a similar disaster is likely to occur about a century later. The chances of a new earthquake hitting the city before 2050 are estimated at around 70%.
While its buildings are prepared to withstand a strong earthquake, an earthquake in Tokyo would be a huge challenge for relief and rescue services, its transportation system, and the population.
That is why the city regularly tests its communication structure, which involves hundreds of loudspeakers scattered in public spaces.
The certainty that Japan will continue to be the target of earthquakes, some serious, means that the population in the country is always ready for an emergency.
In 2016, Brazilian Rodrigo Simukawa, a resident of the city of Hamamatsu, told BBC News Brasil that he had a backpack ready, with food, water, clothes, and medicines, in case he needed to run out of his house. “I participate in training and simulations and took a first aid course,” he said.
The innumerable natural disasters in Japanese history are always in the memory of everyone in the country – especially the 2011 tsunami.
Each earthquake represents a new test of survival. With its technology, its architecture and the resistance of its population, Japan is constantly learning, not least because it has no choice. Its permanent and eternal clash with nature is a reality from which the country cannot escape.