Tokyo Needs Quake Plan Rethink After Japan Disaster

By Linda Sieg | April 11, 2011

More than 10,000 people dead, hundreds of thousands injured, nearly one million buildings destroyed, millions forced to evacuate and a fifth of Japan’s economy wiped out.

That’s the scenario forecast if a huge magnitude 7.3 earthquake hits Japan’s capital of Tokyo, a disaster experts say has a 70 percent risk of occurring over the next 30 years.

Tokyo planners have been working for decades to mitigate the damage from a quake of that scale and the country has some of the world’s strictest quake-resistance building standards.

But a month after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake — the biggest in Japan’s recorded history — and huge tsunami devastated northeast Japan, some say it’s time to prepare for far worse.

Tokyo had a tiny taste of what would happen when the March 11 quake, its epicentre about 300 km (180 miles) northeast, halted trains, stranded commuters, snarled phone communication, caused power shortages and within hours saw stores stripped of daily necessities such as bread and milk.

“Many people said what happened was beyond expectations, but I believe it’s the responsibility of government to prepare for the unexpected,” said Hideo Higashikokubaru, who is running as an independent in Sunday’s election for Tokyo governor.

Experts agree Tokyo needs to rethink its plans, including what to do if disaster strikes nuclear power plants located even closer to the capital than the crippled Fukushima plant 240 km (150 miles) away, where engineers are trying to contain the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 25 years.

“If a bigger earthquake strikes Tokyo, we might face a catastrophe,” said Takaaki Kato, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s International Center for Urban Safety Engineering and a member of a government advisory panel on disaster plans.

“Preparation still isn’t enough for a magnitude 7.3 quake. Although there would be damage and people would suffer, it would be possible to recover,” he said.

“But we need to revise policies so even if there is a quake of about magnitude 8.0, we can limit the damage and confusion.”

The last major earthquake to strike Tokyo was the 1923 magnitude 7.9 tremor that killed more than 140,000 people and devastated much of the capital and nearby Yokohama.

A magnitude 7.3 earthquake would be bad enough, since Tokyo and nearby urban areas are now home to 35 million of Japan’s 128 million people and about one-third of its economy.

A government report has forecast that a quake of that scale directly under Tokyo would kill up to 11,000 people, injure about 210,000, force 7 million to evacuate and cost the $5 trillion economy around $1 trillion in damages — three times the estimate for damage from the March 11 disaster.


Reconstruction costs would be a huge burden on a nation already staggering under public debt equal to about twice GDP.

“Japan has enough savings surplus to fund reconstruction of (the quake-hit northeast) … but if you had to multiply the costs for Tokyo, Japan would become dependent on foreign funds,” said Jesper Koll, director of equities research at JP Morgan in Tokyo.

One question is how Tokyo would cope with a nuclear crisis closer to the capital, such as at Chubu Electric Power’s Hamaoka plant 200 km to the southwest.

“There is no plan for a case in which the entire area becomes contaminated with radiation,” Kato said. “People would want to flee, but they couldn’t all at once. If that happens, we may have to evacuate children as was done during the war.”

The spectre of disaster in the capital has prompted an advisor to Prime Minister Naoto Kan to propose creating a shadow government in another part of Japan.

“We need to think about either dispersing government functions or creating a backup system in western Japan,” Hosei University professor Takayoshi Igarashi told Reuters.

Others say that is impractical given the huge cost. And while Tokyo-based companies are reviewing business continuity plans (BCP) in light of the recent disaster, a major dispersal of economic activity would be difficult.

“You have to understand the dynamics of what makes cities like Tokyo grow and why companies take the risk. It’s because … the decision-making process is there,” said Fouad Bendimerad, head of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative, a scientific group that promotes better disaster preparedness.

“At the end of the day, taking risk will just be part of doing business,” he said. “There is no place in Japan that is safe from earthquakes.”

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