No. 509 . 02 March 2011 
ArchitectureWeek

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Toyo Ito received the Praemium Imperiale in 2010 for his body of work, including the Sendai Mediatheque (2001). Photo: Nacasa & Partners/ Courtesy Toyo Ito & Associates

A huge earthquake of magnitude 8.9 or 9.0 and devastating tsunami hit Japan on Friday afternoon, with impacts centering in the vicinity of Sendai (see above pre-earthquake photo) (2011.0311, 2:46 PM Tokyo local time, 12:46:23 AM EST, 05:46:23 UTC).

Our ongoing coverage of the disaster in Japan is continuing in the current issue of ArchitectureWeek.

Update — Tuesday, 2011.0315.0105 GMT — Monday, 6:05PM PDT — Tuesday, 10:05AM Tokyo:

Japan's Largest Recorded Earthquake - Many Thousands Dead and Missing

Preliminary estimates of death toll are surpassing 10,000 (Reuters). "Tens of thousands for sure" (NHK). Thousands of deaths are confirmed so far across Japan, and a larger number of people are missing.

"Many areas of the town are simply gone" in Sendai (CNN) and other communities. Major tsunami damage is reported for a length of 500 km (over 300 miles) along the northeastern Japan coastline. To date, though losses due directly to earthquake shaking appear to be significant, the losses from tsunami inundation appear to be very much greater.

Communications are largely down and roads are blocked by debris in much of the disaster area. Water, food, and transportation fuel are in short supply. Nearly all train lines remain shut down in the broad disaster area, and all Shinkansen service northeast from Tokyo was suspended.

More than 300,000 people were confirmed to be in some 1900 evacuation shelters (NHK) across northeastern Japan, but the actual number may be much higher. Nights are cold and heating is in short supply in shelters.

People are also still waiting for rescue outdoors in large numbers, and are still stranded at flooded houses. Many smaller communities and parts of larger communities remain isolated by flooding, debris, and road damage. 32 bridges are currently reported damaged, and 66 landslides are reported (NHK). Widespread debris is even hampering helicopter rescues. As of Monday morning, 24,000 residents are identified as stranded in 80 isolated locations (NHK).

Monday night in Japan represents the passage of more than three days since the disaster started on Friday afternoon. The temperature overnight Monday was predicted at 33°F (+0.6°C), and Tuesday night is predicted to reach 31°F (-0.6°C) (Accuweather). Rain and snow are predicted from Tuesday and Wednesday in Fukushima prefecture.

Emergency shelters are reported to be running low on water, food, and fuel as of Monday night. Resupply efforts to the millions in the 500-kilometer-long disaster area appear to be fractional so far. Rescue efforts continue. Bodies have washed ashore in many areas.

Ongoing Triple Nuclear Accident

Partial reactor core meltdowns have now occurred at three struggling nuclear reactors at a power plant in Japan north of Tokyo (NYT). After an explosion at reactor #2 at around 6am Toyko time on Tuesday morning, radiation levels measured outside at the plant increased greatly, to 8200 microsieverts (NHK), or more than eight times the allowable annual exposure.

All three reactor units at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant (Fukushima Number One Power Plant) have experienced now experienced serious explosions, explosionsof vented hydrogen on Saturday (reactor #1) and on Monday (reactor #3), which destroyed the reactor containment buildings, but not the reactor containment vessels, and a less-well explained explostion on Tuesday morning at 6:10am at reactor #2, the latest reactor unit to go significantly out of control, with 2.7 meters of control rod exposure above coolant. An extremely dangerous level of cooling problems is now reported for all three reactors. At reactor #2, Tepco has said the inner containment vessel may no longer be intact.

Above-normal releases of radiation and radioactive material are now continuing from all three permanently damaged reactors, #1, #2, and #3, at Fukushima Daiichi. With containment buildings gone around two of the three badly damaged reactors, fuel cores damaged, and emergency cooling continuing with a "boil off" method, essentially unpreventable radioactive releases are likely to continue for weeks.

The U.S. Seventh Fleet reports that on Monday, 17 members of three helicopter crews from the U.S. Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, providing disaster assistance off the coast of Japan, returned with measurable radiation contamination and underwent decontamination procedures. Their aircraft also had measured radiation contamination and were washed down for decontamination. The radiation is believed to be from a plume of material released from the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant. The U.S. Navy ships have relocated to avoid being directly downwind of the damaged plant.

It is likely that Fukushima Daiichi is in the midst of a triple-Three-Mile-Island level of accident, but not — as of Tuesday morning Tokyo time — yet close to the level of a Chernobyl-type accident. (The threshold for that higher level of nuclear disaster would be a significant breach of one or more of the reactor containment vessels.)

The ongoing outcome of the triple-reactor nuclear accident will likely be determined by the degree of nuclear fuel damage — probably already very significant at all three reactors — at present, and how much further fuel melting can be prevented by emergency cooling efforts.

The emergency cooling with seawater is an open-loop process (unlike normal closed-loop reactor cooling), and it creates heightened radiation releases because the water pumped into the reactor vessel is contaminated there, and then as the water boils, pressure has to be relieved, and the radioactive steam is vented into the atmosphere.

At this point, apparently only the emergency cooling with seawater is preventing further nuclear fuel core melting, and the possibility of a runaway meltdown in any of the three crippled reactors.

Nuclear Crises Continuing

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (Fukushima Number One) includes six boiling-water-type reactor units. Reactor #1, which suffered a partial core meltdown (NHK) and lost roof and wall cladding in a hydrogen explosion on Saturday, seawater is being used to cool the nuclear fuel. The emergency procedure of cooling with salt water has apparently never been used before at a commercial reactor, over the 57 year history of the nuclear power industry (World Nuclear News (WNN)).

NHK World (Japan) reported at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi reactor #3, fuel rods were exposed "2.2 meters [6.5 feet] above water for two hours". Any exposure of fuel rods is disastrous. As of Monday morning, seawater was also being used for emergency core cooling at Fukushima Daiichi reactor #3. Around 11:01am om Monday, Tokyo time, a significant hydrogen explosion occurred at reactor #3 that destroyed much of the walls and roof of the containment building, with reports of additional worker casualties. The hydrogen explosion reportedly did not damage the reactor containment vessel.

Several people working on the Fukushima plants are reported to have radiation sickness. At least one nuclear plant worker is dead (WNN) perhaps from the explosion on Saturday that destroyed the roof of the reactor #1 building.

Fukushima Daiichi reactor units 4, 5, and 6 were already on scheduled shutdown at the time of the earthquake. These units remain stable in shutdown mode.

At the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant reactor #2, cooling problems were reported off and on since Friday or Saturday. As of 5:00PM Monday in Japan, cooling had again become ineffective, fuel rods had become significantly exposed (80 cm or more), and around 8:00PM seawater injection to the reactor #2 was "resumed" (NHK). Late Monday night the crisis at this reactor is continuing.

It is now clear this third reactor to break down badly is also permanently crippled. Like Fukushima Daiichi reactors #1 and #3, #2 is now also in an unstable state, with operators trying to get it cooled down enough to reduce the risk of an accelerating core meltdown — a challenging process which is likely to continue for days and weeks, even if the fuel melt situation does not get any worse along the way.

There are reports that one or more of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant uses "mox" or mixed-oxide fuel (NIRS). This type of nuclear fuel includes plutonium, has a lower fuel rod melting point, and is more toxic when released.

Some additional releases of radioactive material have been detected outside the plant late on Monday.

At Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant (Fukushima Number Two), where quake-related cooling problems had also been reported for three operating reactors, official reports have been that cooling systems are returning to proper function. (That had also been reported for reactor #2 at Fukushima Daiichi, which went on to completely lose normal operation.)

Reported numbers of evacuees from the surrounding area of the ongoing nuclear accidents range from 60,000 to 200,000, in a 20-kilometer (12-mile) radius. Evacuees are being screened for radiation exposure, and some are now being sent through field decontamination procedures.

Widespread Shortage of Electric Power

In addition to several nuclear crippled nuclear power plants which are now permanent liabilities, conventional thermal powerplants have been impacted by the earthquake and tsunami and are also offline.

The utility company Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) called for conservation efforts and announced rolling power blackouts starting Monday morning, with current generating capacity at 31 million kilowatts, compared to typical demand of 41 million kilowatts. Thermal power plants are offline due to quake damage, in addition to the problems at nuclear plants.

Planned outages in the Tepco service area, including Tokyo except its central area, and the prefectures of Chiba, Gunma, Ibaraki, Kanagawa, Tochigi, Saitama, Yamanashi and part of Shizuoka, are currently expected to continue until the end of April. Ongoing announcements are providing changing details as the situation evolves (NHK).

Intentional power outages started around 5:00PM on MOnday, and affected four prefectures during Monday evening.

Large Tsunami Overwhelmed Extensive Defenses

One of the tsunami waves was measured at 7.3 meters (24 feet) (NHK). "Sendai residents said the water reached the treetops as it swept into the town" (CNN). Given the scale of the waves, protective breakwaters built along the coast failed to provide effective protection, including the 10-meter (33-foot) seawall at Taro in Miyako City, which was heavily overtopped. Tsunami damage is reported at far as six miles (about 10 kilometers) inland, and can be seen more than 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from normal high water right in Sendai.

Some people were swept away after retreating to evacuation locations that were then inundated. One woman, interviewed on NHK on Sunday, described with tears the horible experience of being torn by the flood from the third story of a building, where she had evacuated with her daughter, who was then torn from her grip. The woman was grabbed by other survivors as she swept by, and pulled from the flood waters, but her daughter disappeared.

The quake magnitude has been upgraded to 9.0 by Japanese authorities (NHK). Aftershocks have included several quakes of magnitude 7.

Geologists at the University of Tokyo have estimated that ocean floor uplifted in the main subduction zone earthquake by several meters, with an uplift area of 200 by 500 km (125 miles by 310 miles).

An estimate by the Earthquake Research Committee of Japan is that the tectonic plate including Japan shifted eastward by about 20 meters (66 feet). The researchers also say the quake caused areas from Iwate to Fukushima prefectures to sink up to 75cm. (NHK)

Impacts Still Emerging

Heart-wrenching and horrifying live-witness disaster videos are continuing to be released as more surviviors make contact.

On Monday evening in Japan, there are reports of food stores closed and shelves empty even in Toyko. A mall in Tokyo is reported closed to save electricity. Some gasoline shortages are being reported in the Tokyo area.

Toyota has announced that 12 auto plants would be closed on Monday. Honda has also announced closure of some plants due to parts shortages.

The Bank of Japan provided massive support to Japanese banks and financial markets during the business day on Monday.

The Japanese government reported Monday evening that at least 6,200 buildings and houses collapsed in the quake or were washed away by the tsunami, and at least 63,000 buildings were damaged (NHK). These counts will continue to rise.

Behind the huge numbers are a million poignant, devastating details. In Ishinomaki, Miyagi, a large tour bus sits on top of a three-story building. A house sits where it floated on top of a two-story elementary school. On Friday morning, the wide plain of debris that now stretches between these two buildings had been close-packed with many rows of houses. (NHK video)

Overall damage assessment is still in its early stages, with rescue efforts the priority. Specifc architectural assesment is understandably skimpy at this stage of the events.

The U.S. Pentagon has announced that eight U.S. Navy ships are ow assisting off the coast of Japan, including the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, and five more U.S. Navy ships are enroute.

The US Department of Defense tweets, "Despite precautionary repositioning of ships near Sendai, we remain committed to the mission to #HelpJapan."

Satellite imagery of the disaster area is now available via NASA and Google.

If you have firsthand information or images of the situation in Sendai, in Tokyo, or anywhere else impacted by the earthquake or tsunami and aftermath, please submit a comment or email to "editor@architectureweek.com" to share with the design community.

Pre-earthquake coverage of Sendai and Japanese architecture —
Interview with Toyo Ito
by C.B. Liddell   >>>

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