Japan Tsunami Quake Electricity
Millions in Japanese cold struggle without electricity, heat
Rolling blackouts implemented as quake-devastated country faces crippled power grid
By Kari Huus
When Japan lost a large chunk of its electricity-generating capacity to the one-two punch of earthquake and tsunami, the narrative in parts of one of the world’s most technologically advanced societies was transformed overnight into one of Third World hardship.
For most Japanese, the rolling outages instituted in the wake of the twin disasters translate to inconvenience, sacrifice and economic loss. But for tens of thousands who are now homeless and huddled in evacuation centers in the hard-hit northeast, the stakes are much higher.
“Evacuation centers have half a million people in centers and schools that don’t have water, electricity and oil,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And the temperatures are near freezing. … (In some places) it is snowing. The immensity of this crisis cannot be understated.”
Nuclear plant occupies engineersThe difficulties don’t end there. Engineers with the Tokyo Electric Power Co., who normally might be working to get shut-down nuclear plants back online, are instead occupied with a meltdown at the company’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.
And for the aid organizations who seek to help the displaced, the lack of power in the quake zone and freezing temperatures are one more reason to rush, and one more challenge to face.
The disaster that struck Japan on Friday knocked out about one-fifth of the country’s 55 nuclear reactors, which normally provide nearly 30 percent of the total power in the country. It also clobbered many thermal plants and knocked out an unknown portion of Japan’s electricity transmission system.
In the northern part of the country, in addition to powerless evacuation centers, some 4 million households have no power, according to Smith. The United Nations puts that number somewhat lower, at 2.3 million homes.
In the city of Ishinomaki, previously home to about 164,000 people, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported Monday that survivors seeking heat and shelter crowded into a Red Cross hospital, which was one of the only buildings in the city that still had power.
In addition to those with no electricity, customers in many parts of the country are having to cope with three-hour rolling blackouts instituted Monday by TEPCO, the largest power company in the country. It said Monday that the rolling blackouts would affect 3 million customers, including large factories and buildings, and would likely continue through the end of April.
There is not much information yet to predict how long it might take to restore some power to sections of Japan that were taken off line by the disaster.
“There are no completely isolated parts of the grid,” said Michael Levi, senior fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Japan has greater interconnection throughout the country than say, in the United States.
“The unanswered question,” he adds, “is the physical impact of the earthquake … on the transmission system.”
Technology fades to blackThe Japanese government has called on citizens and businesses to conserve wherever possible to ease the strain on the system. Train system service is limited, stores have shortened hours, escalators and elevators run sporadically, and massive video screens that normally add to the cacophony of Tokyo life were dark.
The rationing is causing discomfort and confusion in many places, as well as logistical problems, which affect aid workers along with residents in a country that is accustomed to modern efficiency.
World Vision International, a Christian nonprofit based in Federal Way, Wash., said the three-person advance team it dispatched to the battered city of Sendai spent one night in cars and a second in a church while on the way deliver bottled water, blankets and baby supplies and pave the way for a larger-scale relief effort.
There is power in the center of Sendai, said communications and outreach director Mitsuko Sobata, Tokyo-based communications and advocacy officer for the organization. But the organization has little information about the situation in Tome, a small city normally about an hour’s drive to the north that World Vision plans to aid at the suggestion of the government in Sendai. She says the Tome’s government has trying to grapple with thousands of evacuees and virtually impossible to reach by phone.
“It certainly complicates the situation,” said Casey Calamusa, international news officer with World Vision who is working in Tokyo. “So much of what we do nowadays is reliant on technology.”