Fallout from Japan’s Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster
Fallout from Japan’s Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster

Sadly, responses to natural disasters often highlight the best and the worst of globalization. Unfortunately, the aftermath of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan serves as a perfect case-study to examine the role of globalization in society.

What makes the Japanese natural disaster a rich case study in globalization is that so many factors are at play! The usual natural disaster problems are there, including finding survivors and housing those displaced by the tsunami, especially the elderly. These problems are compounded of course by the breakdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The plant breakdown brings even more globalization issues to forefront, such as health and environmental problems from the release of radioactive particles and contaminated water, as well as global trade disruptions resulting from the lack of power in Japanese plants that are part of global supply chains. Of course nuclear energy itself is now under the spotlight as countries around the world re-think their nuclear energy policies.

There are also subtle globalization factors also at play. Culture is playing an extremely important role in how the Japanese respond to this disaster, in a uniquely “Japanese” fashion. Culture is also influencing media’s response to this crisis. Japanese and foreign media are focusing on very different aspects of the story and, during the first two weeks of the crisis, there was much confusion about what was happening on the ground.

This analysis will examine the Japanese earthquake in light on its impact on globalization’s processes.

The breakdown of the Fukushima Daiichi plant
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake hit Japan, which was followed by tsunamis and severe aftershocks, including a 6.3 quake. Within hours, Japan declared a nuclear emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which has six reactors. Three reactors (1-3) were on during the quake and their emergency generators failed, leading the reactors to overheat.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the company that runs the plant, tried to cool the reactors, by releasing radioactive steam and pumping in sea water. Within days, the outer buildings of reactors 1 and 3 were damaged and the containment vessel of reactor 2 was breached. The containment vessel is the last line of defense for isolating radioactive materials. The other layers of protection include the building and the metal cladding around the fuel rods.

Meanwhile concerns arose over the spent fuel rods in reactors 4-6, as their water pools may have been exposed to air, leading to the emission of radioactive gases. This is an even larger concern because the gas emitted from spent fuel is particularly concentrated and dangerous.

High levels of radiation have been found in and around the plant. Plutonium was found in the soil near the plant, indicating that at least one of the plants reactors experienced a partial meltdown. Radioactive water, measuring more than 1000 millisieverts was found around and inside the reactor buildings (reactors 1 and 3). Contaminated water from the plant is leaking out of damaged reactors, due to broken pipes inside the reactor.1 Radioactive water will be dumped into the Pacific Ocean to make room in storage containers for run-off that it more contaminated.

The evacuation area around the plant is 20 kilometers (12.4 miles), while people living up to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the plant have been advised to stay indoors. Other countries are even more cautious; the U.S. urged the evacuation of Americans living within 50 miles of the plan.

The high levels of radiation in and around the plants have hampered efforts to cool the reactors. Japan actually increased the acceptable levels of radiation exposure for responders from 100 to millisieverts to 250; this is five times the level allowed in the United States.2

Japan’s response: role of culture and the media
The exact nature of what happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has not been clear due to conflicting reports by the media, who received conflicting reports from TEPCO officials and the government. TEPCO officials used ambiguous language and often refused to verify basic facts. The Japanese prime minister even publicly berated TEPCO for its obfuscation, a rarity in Japan.

In the early days of the crisis, foreign newspapers printed stories about the seriousness of the disaster, while Japanese newspapers downplayed it. One reason is that the terminology being used has different meanings in Japanese and English (i.e. melting vs. meltdown).4

A second reason for the difference in media coverage is politics. Japanese newspapers are known to be left-leaning and skeptical of nuclear power. The mistrust of the newspapers may have led regulators to only release as much information as it deemed necessary. The result was that many Japanese looked to outside sources of information.5

Another reason is culture. Japan is a conflict-averse culture, which often avoids making direct references to difficult situations. Japan’s ethos of “gaman” endurance is also playing a role in the way Japanese are responding to the crisis, by still going to work and carrying on with their lives.6 As a U.S. expat living in Japan writes

I went to work today. Normally that wouldn’t merit a blog post, but in a country with nuclear emergencies, multiple earthquakes, rolling power outages and an active volcano, the normal stuff starts to get noteworthy.. Why is Japan going back to work?

Mostly, it’s because perseverance is as deeply embedded into Japanese culture as earthquakes and tsunamis. Without this kind of stoicism, no nation borne from fishermen and rice farmers would survive centuries of destructive sea tides and flooded rice paddies. The nation’s geographical position has ensured that disaster is a part of the landscape.This has contributed to two survival mechanisms in Japanese culture: It’s own brand of resigned pragmatism and an organic respect for social order.7

Health and Environmental Concerns
The full health and environmental impact will not be known for years. New information is being discovered daily. Initially, officials issued warning against eating spinach and ten other vegetables from areas near the plant due to radioactive materials. Radioactive iodine and cesium were found in milk as well. Many countries, including the U.S., banned vegetables and dairy imports from these areas within Japan.8

While seafood is being screened, it has not yet been banned. Initially, little impact was expected on marine life off the coast of Japan.9 However, elements such as cesium 137 have a half-life of 30 years and get stored in larger fish. Iodine 131 is not considered dangerous because its half-life is much shorter. TEPCO plans to drape a curtain in the waters near the plant to prevent the radioactive silt from drifting deep into the ocean.10

The fresh water supply near the plant and in much of Northern Japan is contaminated. In Tokyo, officials told parents not to let their infants drink tap water or use it to make formula because of the presence of radioactive iodine.

Exposure to radiation has many documented health problems. Sterility in men, radiation sickness and death are known to incur depending on the degree of exposure. Many of the effects though will not be experienced for many years. While people in the area, will be affected by the increased levels of radiation, people in other countries are not expected to be impacted.

The earthquake’s global impact on nuclear energy policy
As of 2011, there are 440 active nuclear power plants in 31 countries, providing about 15 percent of the world’s energy. Before the crisis, more than 155 nuclear power plants worldwide were planned with an additional 320 proposed plants.11

Many countries around the world are reexamining their nuclear energy policies in light of the disaster in Japan. Days after the crisis, Switzerland suspended plans to replace its aging nuclear power plants. Germany announced a 3-month moratorium on a recent, government decision to extend the lifespan of Germany’s aging nuclear power plants.12 In the U.S., some senators are calling for a moratorium on new nuclear projects.13

China suspended approval of 28 planned nuclear power plants because its wants to revise its safety standards and make safety checks on existing plants. China does not plan on changing its nuclear policy, as it tries to wean itself off of fossil fuels.14 Similarly Vietnam and Indonesia plan to move forward with building new nuclear power plants.15

The challenge for many of these countries is their reliance on nuclear energy. For example, nuclear energy provides 25 percent of Germany’s electricity. Germany would need to replace the nuclear power plants with another source of clean energy in order to reach its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.16

Economic Impact
Japan lost an estimated $309 billion and its economy is expected to recover from the disaster in about five years.17 Due to international trade and investment, many countries though were impacted from the disaster because of Japan’s role in the global supply chain. Japan’s factories in the north have been experiencing power outages, limited power in general, and decreased production.

Japan plays a role in supply chains for many major corporations. Mitsubishi Gas Chemical Co, producer of smartphones, suspended operation at their damaged plant in the quake-zone. The world’s top three shipbuilding companies, South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries, Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine and Samsung Heavy Industries, are expected to face losses due to a decrease in Japanese production of steel.18

South Korea also relies on Japan for chips for electronics products and components for flat-screen panels.19 Thailand’s auto industry and Filipino semiconductor producers rely on Japanese-made equipment and materials. Both of these industries decreased their output in the short-term in response to earthquake.20

Japan also plays an important role in as a source of regional foreign direct investment (FDI). Indonesia is worried about a delay or even loss of funds for various infrastructure projects, including a new mass transit system in Jakarta. The Philippines relies on remittances from the more than 200,000 Filipinos working in Japan, including thousands in the quake zone.21

On the positive side, reconstruction efforts may stimulate demand for regional commodities, including coal, timber, steel and natural gas. These efforts may stimulate Japan’s economy as well, including the housing industry.22 Additionally, since Japanese citizens hold 95 percent of Japan’s debt, the government has the ability to rebuild and take on debt without fear of its citizens dumping their bond holdings.23

Unfortunately, this natural disaster serves as the perfect storm for understanding globalization. While the event was local, the impact will be global. Japan will be dealing with the clean-up of the crisis for years to come. It will need to decide where to store toxic water and byproducts, how to compensate families of responders and residents living near the plants, how much to stimulate the economy and rebuild (especially in light of its aging population), and what regulations it will need to put in place to prevent future nuclear plant break-downs.

Many around the world will reflect on this crisis. Nuclear energy is considered a clean energy, compared to oil and coal. As countries strive to be energy-independent and reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, they will need alternative sources of energy to power their economies. Nuclear energy seemed to be the natural choice for many, despite its expensive start-up costs and storage problems. While few countries are ready to abandon their nuclear programs, alternatives will be debated. Clearly, more regulations and planning needs to be done everywhere to place nuclear plants in the safest possible areas, with even stronger support structures. The next natural disaster is always just around the corner.

1 Tabuchi, Hiroko.“Japan Tries to Stem Leak of Radioactive Water.” New York Times. March 29, 2011.
2 Vastag, Brian and Rick Maese and Debbi Wilgoren. “Japan struggles to control nuclear plant; U.S. urges Americans within 50 miles to evacuate.” Washington Post. March 16, 2011.
3 Tabuchi, Hiroko and Ken Belson and Norimitsu Onishi. “Dearth of Candor From Japan’s Leadership.” New York Times. March 16, 2011.
4 Sanchata, Mariko. “Japanese, Foreign Media Diverge.” Wall Street Journal. March 19, 2011.
5 Tabuchi, Hiroko and Ken Belson and Norimitsu Onishi. “Dearth of Candor From Japan’s Leadership.” New York Times. March 16, 2011.
6 Belson, Ken. “Certainties of Modern Life Upended in Japan.” New York Times. March 15,
7 “After Disaster, Laundry.” This Japanese Life. March 15, 2011.
8 Nakamura, David. “Japan issues radiation warning on tap water, 11 vegetables.” Washington Post. March 23, 2011.
9 Holtz, Robert Lee. “Nuclear Impact on Marine Life Is Expected to Be Minimal.” Wall Street Journal. March 19, 2011.
10 Tabuchi, Hiroko and Ken Belson. “Japan Releases Low-Level Radioactive Water Into Ocean.” New York Times. April 4, 2011.
11 Richardson, Michael. “Lessons of the Nuclear Crisis.” Japan Times. March 30, 2011.
12 Amiel, Geraldine and Guy Chazan. “French Firms Face New Fears Over Reactors.” Wall Street Journal. March 15, 2011.
13 Mcgroarty, Patrick. “Atomic Plan Stirs German Election.” Wall Street Journal. March 14, 2011.
14 LaFraniere, Sharon. “China Slows Nuclear Power Plans.” New York Times. March 16, 2011. 15 Richardson, Michael. “Lessons of the Nuclear Crisis.” Japan Times. March 30, 2011.
16 Mcgroarty, Patrick. “Atomic Plan Stirs German Election.” Wall Street Journal. March 14, 2011.
17 Nakamura, David. “Japan issues radiation warning on tap water, 11 vegetables.” Washington Post. March 23, 2011.
18 Kim, Miyoung and Clare Jim. “Global supply chain rattled by Japan quake.”Mail and Globe. 19 Barta, Patrick and Brian Spegele. “Japanese Headwind May Hit Asia’s Economies.” Wall Street Journal. March 15, 2011.
20 Hookway, James and Wilawan Watarasakwet. “Concern Over Japanese Supply Chain Continues.” Wall Street Journal. March 16, 2011.
21 Barta, Patrick and Brian Spegele. “Japanese Headwind May Hit Asia’s Economies.” Wall Street Journal. March 15, 2011.
22 Ibid.
23 Nolad, Marcus. “Will the crisis create a new Japan?” Washington Post. March 16, 2011.

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