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Volume 27, Issue 4

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Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Written by  Dr. Tom Phelan Tuesday, 15 March 2011 14:57

The earthquake and tsunami in Japan have caused unprecedented damage to a developed nation. This is the first incident where damage on the surface and damage underground both affected an area at the same time. The surface impact of the tsunami was devastating to people, structures, above ground infrastructure, ports and agriculture. The earthquake’s geophysical impact damaged subterranean structures under the surface – water, sewer, electric substations, and possibly nuclear reactors.

With the exception of human injury and death, damage on the surface is easier to see, record, assess, and repair. Damage underground takes more time to assess and repair. There are multiple facets involved in the recovery.  First, the electric power grid has been impacted at four levels – generation, transmission, distribution and customer-owned equipment. The automatic shut down at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station required electricity to be completed. When the power went out due to the tsunami’s damaging electric transmission and distribution, the shutdown was interrupted leading to the possibility of a meltdown. TEPCO acted quickly to use a contingency plan to cool the reactor with sea water. When a power grid loses a major source of generation (460 Megawatts from Unit 1; 784 Megawatts from Units 2 and 3), this creates an overload on the grid. To compound the situation, the destruction of customer demand for electricity reduced the demand side, or the load, on the system. These imbalances then affect the entire grid – other power generation facilities.

Secondly, with the grid in disarray, there is also the problem of damage to transmission facilities – the system that moves bulk power – and damage to the distribution system – the system that we are most familiar with as having utility poles and wires. There are also underground distribution cables.

Thirdly, the property of the customers has either been seriously damaged or washed away by the tsunami. The result is loss of generation, loss of transmission, loss of distribution, and ultimately loss of demand due to the destruction of customer property.

There is one other concern, the possible meltdown at Fukushima Dai-ichi.  Standard practice at any nuclear facility in the developed world is to activate an emergency plan when a plant is malfunctioning. The plan includes the safety and corrective measures taken by the TEPCO personnel and the evacuation of the EPZ, a 20 kilometer radius circle surrounding the plant. In this case, about 300,000 people due to dense populations around the plant. This is a matter for emergency management or the military, depending on the governmental structure in the country. Add a tsunami, and the entire process becomes extremely complex.  We normally think of evacuating an EPZ as occurring when nothing other than the nuclear plant has been damaged. This is NOT the case in Japan.

What is the impact for business continuity across Japan? First, the strain on the power grid will require fluctuations in the power supply. Businesses and data centers will be impacted. Business continuity plans will be activated and emergencies declared, possibly for months. The global impact of businesses connected to companies in Japan will be felt.

We can follow the situation in the news, but more reliable sources should be considered. TEPCO will do its best to keep customers and investors informed. See http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/press/corp-com/release/11031507-e.html .

In the meantime, as the rescue phase continues, the recovery phase will gear up. There will be countless lessons to be learned from this experience. In the U.S., there are exercises underway for earthquakes across the continent. One is the Great Central U.S. Shakeout Drill scheduled for April 28, 2011, with information available at http://www.shakeout.org/centralus/. Over one million participants are already registered. It’s time to prepare.

Dr. Tom Phelan is the director of emergency and disaster management at the School of Public Safety and Health, American Public University System. You may contact Phelan at tphelan@apus.edu