Monday, May 30, 2011

In Japan, the same old problems

TOKYO — Mega-disasters like Japan’s earthquake-tsunami are deadly and dramatic, but economists who study them are in near-total agreement: They don't cause much long-term economic damage, particularly in developed countries.

But in Japan, that rosy outlook comes with a caveat. A full recovery would leave Japan merely with the same gloomy economy it had in the first place, well before the northern coastline was flattened on March 11.

Macroeconomists who have studied big disasters around the world over the past decade have found that major economies are generally strong enough to perform a repair job. And in this case, the disaster spread across hundreds of miles, but it didn’t strike an economic center; the battered Tohoku region accounted for just 2.5 percent of Japan’s economic output.

But the world’s third-largest economy must now perform two repair jobs at once, reconstructing a coastline while also grappling with a shriveling population, a growing social-welfare burden and a massive sovereign debt. This latest disaster elongated the list of problems for an economy that already had too many.

“The economy’s long-term trend, fundamentally, doesn’t change,” said Kazumasa Oguro, a macroeconomist at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University.

But then Oguro added, “the basic trend before this was deterioration.”

Researchers who study disasters describe a two-step economic impact, with a short-term blow that is followed by a quick, neutralizing wave of private investment, new jobs and government spending.

That’s the pattern Japan saw when a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck Kobe in January 1995. The industrial port city lost 6,400 people. Some 100,000 buildings collapsed. The country’s economy grew 1.9 percent that year, and in less than 1 1 / 2 years, Kobe’s industrial production had nearly returned to normal.

In the two months since the March double-disaster and nuclear emergency, Japan has endured only the first economic aftereffect, crystallized last week when the government announced that, between January and March, its economy contracted at a 3.7 percent annualized rate. That second consecutive quarter of shrinkage tipped Japan into a recession.

The news doubled as a shorthand for all that had happened since the earthquake. Some 200,000 jobs were lost as a result of evacuation and building destruction, according to one research firm. Toyota suspended all domestic production until April 17 and is now operating at just 50 percent of usual levels. Concerned about Japan’s disaster-vulnerable supply chain, some companies, such as Nippon Steel, drew up plans to expand operations overseas.

The country also faces long-term energy shortages resulting from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant and other shuttered nuclear plants. Forced blackouts appear unlikely, but businesses are being asked to conserve energy. To avoid peak electricity times, some automakers plan this summer to close their factories on Thursdays and Fridays — and keep them open on Saturdays and Sundays.

As reconstruction money flows into the disaster region, though, economists expect Japan to experience a period of growth, beginning in the third quarter. Japan’s economy minister, Kaoru Yosano, called the recession a “temporary phenomenon” and predicted that the economy will still expand 1 percent this year.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Japan to build 100,000 homes for tsunami survivors

Japan's government proposed a special $50 billion (4 trillion yen) budget to help finance reconstruction efforts and plans to build 100,000 temporary homes for survivors of last month's devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The twin disasters destroyed roads, ports, farms and homes and crippled a nuclear power plant that forced tens of thousands of more people to evacuate their houses for at least several months. The government said the damage could cost $309 billion, making it the world's most expensive natural disaster.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he was moved by his conversations with victims during a recent tour of shelters.

"I felt with renewed determination that we must do our best to get them back as soon as possible," he told reporters.

The government approved an extra $50 billion (4 trillion yen) to help finance the rebuilding, in what is expected to be only the first installment of reconstruction funding. About $15 billion (1.2 trillion yen) will go to fixing roads and ports and more than $8.5 billion (700 billion yen) will go to build temporary homes and clearing rubble.

"This is the first step toward rebuilding Japan after the major disasters," Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda said.

More than 27,000 people are dead or missing after the earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan on March 11. About 135,000 survivors are living in 2,500 shelters set up in schools and community centers. Many others have moved into temporary housing or are staying with relatives.

As part of the government's recovery plan, it will build 30,000 temporary homes by the end of May and another 70,000 after that, Kan said.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Japan to launch massive search for quake bodies

Japan will send nearly 25,000 soldiers backed by boats and aircraft into its disaster zone Monday on an intensive land-and-sea mission to recover the bodies of those killed by last month's earthquake and tsunami, the military said.

Agriculture officials also plan to send a team of veterinarians into the evacuation zone around a stricken nuclear plant to check on hundreds of thousands of abandoned cows, pigs and chickens, many of which are believed to have died of starvation and neglect. The government is considering euthanizing some of the dying animals, officials said.

About 14,300 people have been confirmed dead so far in the catastrophic March 11 tsunami and earthquake. Another 12,000 remain missing and are presumed killed. Some of their bodies were likely swept out to sea, while others were buried under the mass of rubble.

Cleanup crews have discovered some remains as they gingerly removed rotting debris to clear the area for rebuilding.

But the two-day military search operation will be far more extensive, Defense Ministry spokesman Ippo Maeyama said Sunday.

"We will do our utmost to recover bodies for bereaved families," he said.

A total of 24,800 soldiers will scour the rubble, backed by 90 helicopters and planes, he said. Another 50 boats, along with 100 navy divers, will search the waters up to 20 kilometers off the coast, he said. Police, coast guard and U.S. troops will also take part.

"It's been very difficult and challenging to find bodies because the areas hit by tsunami are so widespread," he said. "Many bodies also have been swept away by the tsunami."

The operation will be the third intensive military search for bodies since the disaster last month. With the waters receding, Maeyama hopes the teams will have more success.

The search was complicated by the decomposition of some of the corpses, he said. Some had already turned into skeletons.

"You have to be very careful in touching the bodies because they quickly disintegrate. We cannot tell the bodies' gender anymore, let alone their age," he said.

The searches will continue, however, "as long as families want us to look for their loved ones," Maeyama said.

Meanwhile, the government in the Fukushima prefecture will send a team of six veterinarians into the 12-mile (20-kilometer) evacuation zone around the radiation-leaking Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to survey the livestock there.

Farmers in the area were estimated to have left 3,000 cows, 130,000 pigs and 680,000 chickens behind when they hurriedly fled the area last month when the nuclear crisis started.

With no time for burials, veterinarians who find dead livestock will spray lime over them to prevent them from spreading disease, agricultural officials said.

The government is also considering euthanizing dying animals, but only after getting permission from their owners, said Yutaka Kashimura, an agricultural official in Fukushima.

"Killing animals is the very last resort," he said.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Japan earmarks first $50 billion for post-quake rebuild

Japan's cabinet approved on Friday almost $50 billion of spending for post-earthquake rebuilding, a downpayment on the country's biggest public works effort in six decades.

The emergency budget of 4 trillion yen ($48.5 billion), which is likely be followed by more reconstruction spending packages, is still dwarfed by the overall cost of damages caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, estimated at $300 billion.

"With this budget, we are taking one step forward toward reconstruction ... and toward restarting the economy," Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

Unpopular Prime Minister Naoto Kan, under fire for his handling of the crisis, said Japan would have to issue fresh government bonds to fund extra budgets to come, and suggested he would stay on to oversee the process.

"I feel it was my destiny to be prime minister when the disasters and nuclear accident took place," Kan told a news conference.

"I want to work for reconstruction and rebuilding, and present an outline to overcome these two crises. To have that vision in sight is my heartfelt desire as a politician."

Financing the next packages will be much tougher, as they are likely to involve a mix of taxes as well as borrowing in the bond market, which could strain Japan's debt-laden economy.

If Kan is unable to steer those laws through parliament, he may be forced to step down, analysts say.

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and 15-meter (50-ft) tsunami that followed caused Japan's gravest crisis since World War Two, killing up to 28,000 people and destroying tens of thousands of homes.

It also smashed a nuclear power plant which began leaking radiation, a situation the plant's operator says could take all year to bring under control.

The budget will be submitted to parliament next week and is expected to be enacted in May.


Prime Minister Kan, who has been accused by opposition politicians, his own party and quake survivors of failing to take command of the response to the triple disaster, has said the need to rebuild is an opportunity for national "rebirth."

A Jiji news agency opinion poll showed Kan's support rate stood at 20.5 percent, up a scant 1.6 points from the previous month, with more than three out of four voters saying he had exercised little or no leadership over the nuclear crisis.

About 57 percent said they were supportive of a tax rise to finance reconstruction compared with 38.6 percent who were not.

In a Reuters poll of retail investors released on Friday, 83 percent of those surveyed said they disapproved or strongly disapproved of the administration's handling of the crisis.

As well as trying to rebuild the ruined northeast of the country, Japan also has to contend with the world's worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the wrecking of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 240 km (150 miles) from Tokyo.

Radiation spilled out from the facility after a hydrogen explosion, and in their battle to cool melting fuel rods, engineers pumped radioactive water into the Pacific, a move that worried Japan's neighbors about the spread of contamination.

Masataka Shimizu, the much-criticised president of plant operator Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), visited an evacuation center for the first time since the disaster struck, kneeling and bowing deeply to the evacuees.

"I want to work hard so that you can go home," he said. Mostly subdued evacuees pleaded with him to bring the crisis to an end so they could go home. "I want you to act as if it had happened to your own family," said one man.

Earlier, dressed in blue work clothes, Shimizu apologized to Fukushima's regional governor, Yuhei Sato.

"I apologize from the bottom of my heart for the great trouble caused to many people in society," he said.

Shimizu's company has been accused of downplaying the dangers and ignoring warnings about the risk of a quake and tsunami striking the plant, as well as reacting poorly to the damage.

Japan said this week it would ban anyone entering a 20-km (12-mile) evacuation zone around the plant.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Japan Quake Caused Surprisingly Severe Soil Collapse

The scale of Japan's March 11 earthquake and tsunami wasn't the only thing that surprised geologists.

The 9.0 earthquake in Japan — the fourth most powerful quake ever recorded — also caused an unusually severe and widespread shift in soil through liquefaction, a new study suggests.

Near coastlines, harbors and rivers, earthquakes can make the wet, sandy soil jiggle, turning it temporarily from a solid to a liquid state, a process known as liquefaction. Heavy sand and rock sinks, while water and lighter sand bubble to the surface. The slurry spreads, often toward the water, and the surface shifts.

Japan's liquefaction occurred over hundreds of miles, surprising even experienced engineers who are accustomed to seeing disaster sites, including from the recent earthquakes in Chile and New Zealand.

Other areas vulnerable

The study raises questions about whether existing building codes in other vulnerable locations can enable structures to withstand massive liquefaction, including in areas of Oregon, Washington and California.

"We've seen localized examples of soil liquefaction as extreme as this before, but the distance and extent of damage in Japan were unusually severe," said Scott Ashford, a study team member from Oregon State University.

"Entire structures were tilted and sinking into the sediments, even while they remained intact," said Ashford, who is based in Corvallis, Ore. "The shifts in soil destroyed water, sewer and gas pipelines, crippling the utilities and infrastructure these communities need to function. We saw some places that sank as much as 4 feet," or 1.2 meters.

Long-lasting quake

The duration of the Japanese earthquake, about five minutes, could be the key to the severity of the liquefaction and may force researchers to reconsider the extent of liquefaction damage possible.

"With such a long-lasting earthquake, we saw how structures that might have been okay after 30 seconds just continued to sink and tilt as the shaking continued for several more minutes," Ashford said. "And it was clear that younger sediments, and especially areas built on recently filled ground, are much more vulnerable."

An event almost exactly like Japan's is expected in the Pacific Northwest from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and the new findings make it clear that liquefaction will be a critical issue in the young soils there.

"Young" sediments, in geologic terms, are those deposited within the past 10,000 years or so. In Oregon, for instance, that describes much of downtown Portland, the Portland International Airport, nearby industrial facilities and other cities and parts of the Willamette Valley.

About 1,100 bridges in Oregon are at risk from an earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Fewer than 15 percent of them have been retrofitted to prevent collapse.

Some damage may be reduced or prevented by different construction techniques or retrofitting, Ashford said. But another reasonable goal is to at least anticipate the damage — to know what will probably be destroyed, make contingency plans for what will be needed to implement repairs, and design ways to help protect and care for residents until services can be restored, the researchers say.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Japan disaster death toll nears 14,000

Tokyo (CNN) -- The death toll from Japan's earthquake and tsunami rose to nearly 14,000 on Monday as efforts continued to stabilize a crippled nuclear reactor plant.

Another 14,030 people are missing, according to Japan's National Police Agency. Police and soldiers still are combing the ruins of coastal villages in search of more bodies.

The March 11 magnitude 9.0-earthquake and the tsunami it spawned have killed 13,843 and displaced more than 136,000 people, police said Monday.

The tsunami also caused an ongoing crisis at a nuclear power plant that workers continue to fight.

On Monday, safety officials said that remote-controlled robots and the workers controlling them have recorded high levels of radiation inside and around two reactor buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northern Japan. The tsunami damaged the plant's cooling systems, unnerving hundreds of thousands of people.

The U.S.-built robot probes measured radiation doses as high as 57 millisieverts inside the housing for reactor No. 3 and up to 49 millisieverts inside the No. 1 reactor building, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency reported.

Levels found between the double doors of the airlocks of the reactor buildings were much higher -- 270 millisieverts in the case of reactor No. 1 and 170 millsieverts in No. 3, the agency said.

By comparison, the average resident of an industrialized country receives a dose of about 3 millisieverts per year. Emergency standards for plant workers battling the month-old nuclear disaster limit their annual exposure to 250 millisieverts, while a CT scan produces just under 7 and a chest X-ray delivers a one-time dose of about .05 millisieverts.

Doses above 100 millisieverts can increase the long-term risk of cancer, while 1,000 millisieverts can produce radiation sickness.

There was no immediate explanation for the much-higher radiation levels recorded in the airlocks, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, the safety agency's chief spokesman.

The robots were inserted Sunday in an attempt to determine the conditions inside the No. 1 and 3 reactor buildings, which were blown apart in massive hydrogen explosions in the first days of the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The cooling systems for Fukushima Daiichi reactors 1-3 were knocked out by the tsunami that struck northern Japan, causing the reactor cores to overheat, spewing huge amounts of radioactive contamination across the surrounding area.

Nishiyama said running the "Packbots" in reactor No. 3 was difficult because of the amount of debris scattered around the building, but engineers found the building was dry and the temperatures were normal. In unit 1, the robot found a high level of humidity, the explanation for which was not known Monday night.

The robots were inserted the same day that the plant's owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., announced a six- to nine-month plan to restore normal cooling systems and shut down the damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. Japan's government has designated the situation a top-scale nuclear disaster.

Nishiyama said he did not know whether the data recorded Sunday would affect the timetable laid out by Tokyo Electric, which had been under pressure to lay out a timetable to resolve the crisis.

No data has yet been reported from the No. 2 reactor, which is believed to be leaking an undetermined portion of the 6-7 cubic meters (1,600-1,800 gallons) of fresh water being pumped into it every day. The plan laid out Sunday would bring an end to that improvised solution, which has left workers scrambling to find places to contain the vast amounts of contaminated water that have flooded the basements of the units.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, Japan's government took a step toward slowing what critics have called a revolving door between the nuclear industry and the ministry that regulates it. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the government is urging officials of the Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry to stop taking jobs with companies that run nuclear plants upon retirement.

"I have consulted with METI and decided to request that government officials to voluntarily refrain from seeking re-employment at electricity companies, and asked electricity companies for their cooperation," Edano told reporters. But he said the ruling Democratic Party of Japan lacks the votes in parliament to make his call a law at this point.

Critics say the practice -- known in Japanese as amakudari, or "descent from heaven" -- creates cozy ties between the government and the nuclear industry at the expense of the public interest. Edano's declaration was "a necessary step but it's not enough," said Tetsunari Iida, a former nuclear engineer who now runs an alternative energy think-tank.

Tokyo Electric is one of the companies that has come under fire for the practice. Company spokesman Hiro Hasegawa told CNN that the company tries to keep some "distance" between itself and the government, but added, "The nuclear industry is a group of specialists. We cannot deny there is close communication."

And Eisaku Sato, a former governor of Fukushima prefecture and a longtime critic of Japan's largest utility, said the nuclear safety agency should be independent and the government needs "to create a sense of safety built on trust."

"This is a test of Japanese democracy," said Sato, who has been battling corruption charges he says are retribution for his criticism of the industry. "We must make a flawless framework for operating Japan's nuclear power plants, one that the people of the world can feel safe about."

Sato told reporters Monday that Tokyo Electric missed a warning signal at the plant less than a year ago. He said emergency generators failed to start when a power failure in June 2010 cut off cooling systems at reactor No. 2, forcing workers to start the diesel-powered backups manually.

Hasegawa disputed that account, telling CNN that emergency generators kicked in automatically and the reactor shut down. Water levels dropped in the reactor for a brief period, forcing the company to declare the incident to the government, but he said no radiation was released.

An investigation later determined that power was cut off by accident when workers for a subcontractor were installing temperature gauges in a cramped space. No disciplinary actions were taken against anyone at the plant, Hasegawa said.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Powerful aftershock hits Japan on 1 month anniversary of fourth largest quake

One month ago the fourth largest earthquake in the world since 1900 struck Japan bringing death and destruction to the nation.  Today the country was rocked by a significant aftershock and more evacuations around a stricken nuclear power plant were ordered.

At 5:16pm local time (8:16 UTC) a magnitude 6.6 temblor struck on Japan’s mainland 22 miles from Iwaki in the Fukushima prefecture.  The quake was felt across the island of Honshu including 100 miles away in Tokyo and at the severely damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant to the north.

Landslides in the city of Iwaki brought on by the aftershock have trapped several people in three houses that were buried officials said.  Fires were burning in some parts of northeastern Japan and power was knocked out to 220,000 homes and businesses.

Immediately following the aftershock Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) ordered the workers at the power plant to evacuate to safer areas.  Power was briefly cut to the stricken plant but soon restored. 

Today’s aftershock follows on a more significant magnitude 7.4 aftershock last week.  Hundreds of smaller aftershocks have struck the region since last month’s magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami.

Officials recommend more evacuations to escape radiation threat

The Japanese government announced today that it was recommending that more residents in the area of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex evacuate due to the potential for long term health threats.  The new evacuations include the towns of Katsuo, Kawamata, Namie, Iitate and parts of Minami Soma.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said, "This policy does not require immediate evacuation right away, but we take the long-term perspective, considering the long-term effect of radiation on your health.”

A 12 1/2 mile (20km) radius total evacuation zone has already been established around the failed nuclear power plant.  Residents living from 12 1/2 miles to 18 1/2 miles (30km) from the plant have been ordered to stay inside.

Death toll continues to climb

The death toll from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami continues to climb.  The latest numbers from the National Police Agency of Japan report 13,130 have been confirmed killed.  An additional 13,718 are still missing and are largely expected to not be found and added to the death toll.

Rebuilding of the nation, particularly along the coastal regions where the tsunami sent a wall of water far inland, will be a long and difficult task.  More than 48,00 structures were totally destroyed by the quake and tsunami and an additional 152,000 were damaged. 

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake now ranks as the fourth largest in the world since 1900 and the most powerful to strike Japan since instrumented readings began.  It is likely that when the final death toll is realized the event will be Japan's fourth deadliest quake in history.