Japan Quake: Watching and Learning

Preliminary lessons from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Whenever a major disaster occurs, as business continuity planners we should take the opportunity to see what we can learn from it. Here are some of the things I’ve noted since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan:

Good Press Releases from Honda & Toyota

Within a day I read good statements from the overseas offices of both car-makers, explaining the likely effect (of lack of effect) of the disaster on their operations. Emphasis was placed upon the fact that all their office staff were safe, their factories were undamaged, and that the bulk of vehicles production by overseas car plants would not be affected.

As a result, I never saw any stories speculating on the effects of the disaster on these companies on the front page of any newspapers.

Update (11 April): Today I saw the first news reports suggesting that worldwide production is now being affected by shortages of products produced in the region. This affects both Toyota and Honda.

Building standards exist for earthquakes but not for tsunamis.

Building for earthquake resistance is in general understood (if not always practiced), and building codes take account of this knowledge. With tsunamis, it is a different story. In general, concrete buildings survived, but weaker structures were washed away and destroyed.

(This is based upon the radio report of a journalist visiting a devastated area).

It may be a while before the cavalry arrives.

Government advice to be prepared to be self-sufficient for (typically) 72 hours is good advice in the event of a wide area disaster. There is a reasonable case for making this a longer period (120 hours).

Japan is a small country well-equipped and well-prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis: the scale of the damage was still such as to require days for resources to reach affected areas.

It is difficult to design systems which continue operating after and earthquake – even when that risk anticipated.

However, we should realize just how well the Fukushima plant did. It survived largely intact a strength 9 earthquake. However, it was followed by a 10 meter (32ft) high tsunami wave which was beyond its design limits. (Apparently the design limit was for a 6 meter high tsunami wave, hence the resulting damage).

Update: The BBC has a good article explaining the problems at Fukushima.

Once-in-a-thousand-year events can and do happen.

We often get told not to worry about one-in-a-thousand-year events.

This is reasonable advice for the short term.

The Fukushima plant is about 50 years’ old and was nearing the end of its lifespan. Over that 50 years, it had a 1 in 20 chance of a one-in-a-thousand-years event occurring, so such an event wasn’t that unlikely.

There are also several thousand such possible events worldwide, so expect several one-in-a-thousand-year events to be reported each year.

“Unaffected areas” often aren’t.

Unaffected areas of Japan (and the rest of the world) will be affected as goods and resources from the affected areas become in short supply and supply chains are disrupted. Already we have seen stories of shortages in the semi-conductor industries.

In particular, it is expected that the semiconductor industry and production of the iPad2 will be affected. No doubt other industries with less publicity value will also feel the effects.

The press (and public) still do not understand radioactivity risks.

Popular confusions include the distinction between radiation and radioactivity, and the distinction between exposure rate and total exposure.

For example, the safety limits for radiation levels are typically based upon annual exposure to a particular radiation level. Being exposed to that rate for an hour or a day or a week has negligible effect. The alleged danger of the radioactivity detected in the Tokyo water supply turns out to be based upon one of these confusions.

For a debunking of some of the press scare stories, read here.
See also the an excellent xkcd cartoon explanation of radiation doses.
And a good BBC News article pointing out the problem in perception.

Lack of common standards may cause real problems during recovery.

I was surprised to learn that Japan does not have a common power frequency: due to the purchase of 50Hz and 60Hz equipment by competing power companies over a century ago the east uses 50Hz and the west uses 60Hz. Frequency conversion is expensive and inefficient, so there is limited capacity (1 GW) to shift power from one half of the country to the other.

This inability to transmit power to cope with lost generating capacity is aggravating the power situation the east and north of the country. (See”A legacy from the 1800s leaves Tokyo facing blackouts“).

Updated 26 March: Added link to xkcd radiation dose explanation
Updated 27 March: Added link to BBC radiation dose explanation

25 March 2011

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