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An Historical Look at Japan's Triple Disaster on 3/11/11


The Great East Japan Earthquake

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake occurred just about 45 miles off shore from Japan's northeast coastline, which caused land damages due to the strong shaking. It was the first of three disasters to occur, and it was the initiator of two additional and more devastating disasters.

The powerful earthquake, one of the strongest ever recorded, actually shifted the earth's axis, shortening the day by two microseconds, and moved Honshu -- the main island of Japan -- more than six feet to the east. Total recorded deaths reached 15,894, but there is a list of more than 2,500 people that are considered still missing.

The Tōhoku Tsunami

That event, labeled the Great East Japan Earthquake, caused a massive tsunami, the second disaster, which came ashore approximately one hour later. The tsunami reached 128 feet tall in some places, and pushed inland more than 6 miles.

The Tōhoku tsunami literally destroyed anything that was unprotected in its path along a stretch of 435 miles of coast, including a nuclear power plant, Fukushima Daiichi.

A Nuclear Disaster at Fukushima Daiichi

The tsunami hitting the nuclear power plant created the third disaster, as damages to power supplies interrupted the nuclear plants' cooling systems for its six reactors, caused hydrogen explosions, and ultimately, partial meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.  

Largely human caused, the disaster was equally rated alongside the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, with both receiving a level 7 rating according to the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale.

TEPCO Unprepared for Large Scale Disaster

Reports indicated that Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) had difficulty sorting out information during the disaster, and press briefings at the time were a mix of apologies and erroneous information.

Costly Clean up Likely to Take Decades

Five years later, radiation levels remain too high for residents to return to villages that were located near the plant, and clean-up is likely to continue for at least the next four decades or longer.  

Estimates for clean-up costs have varied widely, from $50 billion to $250 billion, and involve perplexing challenges, including the containment of radioactive water still being produced, and some issues for which technology does not yet exist.


Kimberly Arsenault Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.