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Japan's continuing history of seismic disasters

By Michael Evans - 28 Mar 2011 21:16:0 GMT
Japan's continuing history of seismic disasters

Throughout its history Japan has learnt to live with earthquakes and although the majority are so small that they hardly draw comment, from time to time the country gets hit by a major disaster, resulting in enormous loss of life.

The earliest major earthquake on record was in 1293, when over 23,000 died, but in 1703 nearly 109,000 lives were lost, 100,000 of these deaths attributed to the accompanying tsunami.

This figure was dwarfed on 1stSeptember 1923 by the Great Kanto earthquake that devastated Tokyo, the port of Yokohama and the whole surrounding region. The estimated number of deaths was 142,000, including 40,000 missing presumed dead. 1stSeptember was later designated ''Disaster Prevention Day''.

In the knowledge of what might happen, Japanese building controls have progressively been made more robust, with Japan becoming the best-prepared country in the world for this sort of disaster.

This was put to the test in January 1995 when an earthquake hit Kobe. Nearly 6,500 people died and many older buildings were destroyed, but buildings designed to withstand earthquakes generally survived. Electricity and other main services were fully working by July and the trains were all back in service by August. New even stricter building laws were passed.

Then came the unprecedented events of 11thMarch 2011. Nobody had ever contemplated a disaster of such proportions where an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 could be followed by a tsunami more than 10 metres high.

The country now finds itself looking at large areas of devastation and a probable death toll of some 28,000, but it is acknowledged by experts that this appalling loss would undoubtedly have been much higher had it not been for Japan's well functioning warning systems.

As if this catastrophe was not enough, the crippling of the Fukushima No 1 power plant has exposed a mortifying catalogue of complacency and shortfalls in safety procedures. Conflicting stories and evasive explanations became the norm once it was clear that things were going badly wrong.

After initially being assured that everything was safe, the Japanese people and the world eventually learnt that there had been a complete failure of the emergency power sources for the reactor cooling system. In short this meant the loss of the last line of defence against a nuclear disaster.

For more than a fortnight amazingly brave workers have been struggling to bring under control a situation that could still result in a global catastrophe.

The Daily Mail reports that contaminated cooling water showed radiation levels that were 100,000 times above normal. The BBC and the Daily Telegraph both reported that there is now concern that contaminated water has been found just 180 feet from the sea. BBC report is here and Telegraph one here.

A spokesman from Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) speaking to the Daily Telegraph, said that ''they do not believe'' contaminated water is leaking into the ocean, but the Independent reports that during the past week, radioactivity in seawater close to the plant has climbed from 1,250 to 1,850 times higher than normal.

Clearly the crisis is far from over and it could get a good deal worse.