First things first. By now even the gauchos in Patagonia are completely aware that on Friday, March 11, 2011, at 02:46 AST, 18 Japanese Prefectures were severely rattled by a 9.0 earthquake that originated at a depth of only 32 km (20 miles) for about 6 minutes, with an ensuing series of tsunamis that reached heights of 10 meters (33 feet) racing as far as 10 km inland, destroying everything in its path, using the flotsam that was created by the first wave of destruction to act as battering rams.
All told, over 20,000 human souls were lost, many of their remains never to be recovered. But that was only the beginning of this mega-disaster, which became known as the Tōhoku disaster, taking its name from the Tōhoku area of the Pacific Ocean. The epicenter was approximately 72 km (45 miles) east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tōhoku. In spite of seawalls, the physical destruction equaled that of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Most unfortunately, right in the way of the tsunami was a 6 reactor General Electric nuclear power plant, owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), using 1950’s technology and taking shortcuts around recommendations and regulations that were supposed to be in effect, such as storing spent fuel rods on site and having the power generators required for the cooling pumps located at ground level. Of course, with the 20/20 hindsight that we all are born with, this should have never been allowed to happen, but rather than dwelling of the cause and effect of this catastrophe, let us look at the short and long term consequences of what happened, and how it may affect everyone on the planet in one way or another.
First, the very short-term implications: The loss of human life is deplorable of course and any and all assistance you may render through the Red Cross and other reputable institutions will help some of the worst affected. But the mission of this article is to show the possible long range manifestations that are, like Reaganomics, trickle down. (Sorry I could not resist)
The big talking heads of business and finance have already declared this to be a negligible disaster in terms of the long range outlook, but I beg to differ with the “experts,” just as I did when they were dismissing the economic indicators of a deep recession back in 2008. This is a disaster unfolding that first of all will affect an untold number of Expatriates living and working in Japan, and then with the ensuing energy problems caused by the nationwide rolling blackouts, the entire supply chain of hundreds if not thousands of items that have parts manufactured in Japan will also be affected. It will be impossible to bake silicone chips or make touch screen glass and many other components and items used in everyday products. One so-called financial “expert” claimed that this crisis would reduce the price of crude oil as Japan’s consumption was reduced. He actually had facts and figures showing, falsely, that the price of crude would drop to below $100 by the weekend. (It closed at $108.31 on April 1st, up by US$1.22 per barrel.)
Many manufacturers of high-end automobiles throughout the world have shut down their assembly lines because the manufacturers of extremely important subassemblies such as instrument clusters and sensors have been impacted to the point where many have had to curtail or outright shut down production in Japan.
Already US manufacturers of automobiles have advised their dealers not to order cars in some colors, as the pigment factory in Sendai that formerly supplied them was destroyed by the tsunami and over 50% of their workforce is missing and presumed dead. The same goes for the Nikon Optical and Camera factories, which already announced a postponement of the introduction of their new high-end models, due to the destruction caused to their facilities.
Automotive assembly plants in Mexico are starting to suffer from parts shortages, and the true cost of “just in time” inventory control is beginning to manifest itself. Of course with the millions in savings that have been accumulated over the last few years, you would think that they can absorb their losses easily, but the fact of the matter is that, with the world economy being in the shape that it is in, the human toll of extended unemployment in any industry, wherever it may be, will have great economic impacts on local economies worldwide. The interconnected planet lives a hand-to-mouth existence.
As for all the displaced expats who are out in the cold at the tail end of the Japanese winter, my sympathies are with you, after all, you relocated to a place where people are very civil to each other, crime is very low, and your job was superb. You had congenial colleagues you were working with and more sushi bars than 7-11’s. Who would have thought, less than a month ago, that you had settled into a potential nuclear disaster? Not you, not me, and certainly not the Alien Overlords who transferred you to Nippon.
As far as the immediate future is concerned, many of you in the financial and technical sector will be transferred by your companies to other locales, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, China, or Taiwan, where the subsidiaries of some of the Japanese industrial giants are working feverishly, recreating infrastructure to replace the output lost from their Japanese facilities. That of course will take time and great effort, and I am sure that engineers of the world will be called upon to recreate and rebuild that which was destroyed.
The many of you who are in Japan as ESL instructors, other teaching positions, or as independent agents, your futures are much more uncertain, should a mass evacuation become mandatory. One can only hope that the valiant efforts being put in by the brave men at the Fukushima nuclear facilities will bear fruit.
As of this writing, international “experts” have concluded that a meltdown is in progress. Those pesky experts! I, never having had the displeasure of actual radiation sickness, but having learned from the example of the courageous Madame Curie, decided a long time ago to not pay too much attention to what the “experts” say. After all, the day when 3 Mile Island had its minor incident, I was on the way from Hawaii to Europe, and my jet flew directly through the cloud of radioactive gases that were being vented at that very moment. Fortunately we were traveling at about 500 mph at 25,000 feet and only spent mere seconds in that toxic atmosphere. Another time I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, attending family matters and business meetings, when I got up in the morning and turned on the local news, to find out that during the night a Titan III nuclear missile exploded in its silo, and the warheads were missing, but the “experts” assured us that there was nothing to worry about. By 10 am, I was on a flight to Miami, connecting to Bogotá, Lima, and eventually Santiago de Chile, eventually ending up in French Guyana, where I spent several months eating great food, drinking mediocre French wine (it had not been stored properly), snorkeling, and sailing.
They eventually found the missing warheads, and the “experts” claim that there was never any danger.
So there are my feelings about such incidents, but I feel the situation in Japan could be quite serious. Infrastructure can be replaced or relocated, but what if? What if the whole thing went postal, blowing used fuel rods and all? With Tokyo being just to the southwest, radiation and radioactive iodine has already been detected in the water supply there, and a slaughtered cow has shown contamination as well. With the emergency introduction of salt water from the sea, additional problems are possible, such as salt encrustation of the fuel rods, thereby raising the internal temperatures even further beyond the danger level. So what would I do? I would leave on one of the first flights heading west, to Singapore or Hong Kong, leaving behind all my un-necessary accoutrements, to watch the unfolding scenario from farther afield. (All theoretical of course, as I am following this from Patagonia, Argentina)
What should you do? Act the courageous western entrepreneur and stick it out, after all, the “experts” said it was safe; or should you wait until you have to be evacuated by your home country, or best case scenario, it will all miraculously go away; or should you consider using some of your hard earned expat money to leave while there are seats available?
My correspondent from Tokyo reported to me tonight that the streets are relatively empty, and in neon-light-crazy Japan, most lights are out. Fuel is severely restricted, and every few hours the power goes out for 2-3 hours. The people tend to spend more time indoors, glued to their TV’s listening to the calming denials of the officials from TEPCO, as well as an assortment of health and other government officials who are being dragged in front of the cameras to assure the citizens that Godzilla has been captured, and soon everything will be back to normal.
Here, in its full text, you can see, what the status of the plant was, as of April 1st, according to TEPCO’s press release. http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/press/corp-com/release/11040107-e.html . By the time you read this, they will have new updates on this site, as well.
In personal conversations I have had with an engineer on the site, who insists on confidentiality because he is not an authorized spokesperson (I generally hate these disclaimers, but as he is a friend’s brother in law, I feel I must comply),
“The situation here is grave. No one really knows what is going on inside the reactor vessels. We are receiving expert advice from all over the world, but no country has ever had to deal with a situation such as the one we are experiencing here. The sea is contaminated, the soil is contaminated, and the ground water stream beneath us is contaminated. I feel like I am sitting on the world’s largest disaster to be, caused by nature’s fury and man’s incompetence and lack of respect for the immense power and danger that was created with minimal safeguards and oversight. We are still in the building up of the catastrophe mode, and will be for several more weeks. My colleagues and I believe that we are in for several months of intense work, and that some of our more senior associates will bear the burden of much of the containment work, as with their advanced age, they are less likely to suffer the effects of radiation. We are also receiving new radiation suits from France, as well as their best experts. I have evacuated my family to Okinawa, where my wife’s family originally came from in 1946. Everyone here is scared!”
When I asked about the potential for a meltdown, his reply was that most engineers on site think it is in progress already, and that with the amount of people that will be exposed, there will likely be many casualties.
I have a feeling that this will bring a temporary freeze to the growth of the nuclear industry, accompanied by a chorus of protest from the lobbyists representing the industry group, and soon construction will resume. Today’s technology is vastly improved over that of 30 years ago; if only the world’s nuclear engineers could come up with a final solution for the storage and disposal of the spent fuel rods, everything would be OK. Until then I guess we have to satisfy our hunger for energy with more deep water drilling around the planet, and take our chances on another BP Macondo disaster, or maybe another ageing series of nuclear plants going senile.
About the author: Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. He is always available for assignments and new adventures. [contact him ]
Post Script: If anyone really wants to hear why “Only an Expert can deal with the Problem,” I highly recommend Laurie Andersen’s latest conceptual album, Homeland, which contains the cut, “Only an Expert.” Laurie is married to Lou Reed and she is one of my true musical heroes, because as a performance artist, she writes things that not only make sense, they make you think!