March 12, 2011 – Paulina Perlin
Reeling from a record magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami that struck early Friday, Japan remains wedged in a state of calamity, as billowing clouds from a nuclear explosion at a plant northeast of Tokyo magnified the catastrophic scene.
The blast at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, 170 miles from Tokyo, is pegged as the result of attempts to avoid a nuclear meltdown after the tsunami fractured power lines feeding the plant’s cooling system. When officials poured seawater over the fuel rods in a measure to reduce thermal pressure in the reactor, hydrogen atoms formed and reacted with oxygen from the atmosphere, igniting an explosion that decimated the building containing the reactor. The reactor itself emerged unscathed. Luckily, there were no casualties reported, though four employees are being treated for minor fractures and bruises.
Yet, Japan’s post-earthquake woes are far from over.
Though radiation levels have decreased since the blast, pre-explosion levels were pegged at dangerous heights, releasing each hour an amount of radiation that equaled the amount naturally absorbed by a person in one year. Authorities advised residents within twelve miles of the plant to evacuate, however, impeded by wreckage, a large number still remain in the area.
Stoppages in transportation and communication have encumbered clean-up and evacuation efforts. Photos capture streets riddled with small airplanes, smashed cars, and debris – grim signs indicating the massive devastation obstructing roadways.
“Everyone wants to get out of the town. But the roads are terrible,” said Japan resident Reiko Takagi. “It is too dangerous to go anywhere.”
Highways from Tokyo to quake-ravaged areas remain closed, according to the Japanese transport ministry, with only emergency vehicles allowed to get by. Coupled with flighty cellular communications and landlines, the congestion in movement is leaving many earthquake victims unrelieved and unaccounted for.
“All major phone lines in Japan were not working and even now it is hard to call Tokyo,” notes Daniel Bromberg, a Massachusetts teen staying in Osaka, Japan. “The airports in the eastern and northern parts of Japan are closed, so the rest of the airports are very stressed.”
Amidst apocalyptic images of make-shift shelters and “SOS” signs painted across roofs, authorities warn that aid is slow to reach survivors – if they can be reached at all. Search teams continue to scout the coasts for victims, as injured and hungry survivors flock to emergency centers. Reports are swirling surrounding missing counts, some placing figures beyond 9,500. Though the official death toll knells at 686, many approximations pin it above 1,000.
“Our estimates based on reported cases alone suggest that more than 1,000 people have lost their lives in the disaster,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. “Unfortunately, the actual damage could far exceed that number considering the difficulty assessing the full extent of damage.”
Global aid has begun seeping into Japan, as the nation made a formal request for assistance. Popular music singer Lady Gaga advertised a choose-your-own-price Japanese Prayer bracelet on Twitter, with “ALL proceeds [going] to Tsunami Relief Efforts”. The United Nations has deployed nine experts, including two environmental pundits, to help meltdown prevention efforts. An ally of Japan, the United States has sent seven Navy ships and several search-and-rescue teams to the area. President Obama has vowed to offer Japan “whatever assistance is needed”, addressing the disaster at a Washington D.C. press conference.
“The friendship and alliance between our two nations is unshakeable,” said the president in a written statement, “and only strengthens our resolve to stand with the people of Japan as they overcome this tragedy.”
Yet even with international government officials exuding faint optimism in helping Japan cope with the earthquake aftermath, for survivors of the disaster, the situation remains bleak.
“All we have to eat are biscuits and rice balls,” said Noboru Uehara, a delivery truck driver. “I’m worried that we will run out of food.”