Japan’s Earthquake Teaches Asset Management

Mar 15, 2011

Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith

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Friday afternoon 80 miles off the coast of Japan, the 5th largest earthquake since 1900 rocked the Island nation and then immediately sent a tsunami across the Pacific Ocean. Combined, the two events have left over 3,000 dead, tens of thousands more unaccounted for, eradicated coastlines and have brought Japan to the brink of nuclear disaster.

Recap Of Friday’s Earthquake and Tsunami Events

Some of the facts and statistics behind Japan’s horrific natural disaster include:

  • The ground shook for 2.5 minutes in comparison to 15 seconds for the San Francisco earthquake of 1989
  • There have been 240 aftershocks greater than 5.0 MMS including a 7.1 MMS, 31 over 6.0 MMS. By comparison the devastating earthquake in Haiti last year was a 7.2 MMSMMS is the replacement to the Richter scale
  • The earthquake released energy equivalent to 425 megatons of TNT, by contrast, the largest thermonuclear warhead tested was only 50 megatons which are approximately 3 times a small atomic bomb.
  • It is estimated that part of Islands of Japan shifted up to 8 feet on average over 300 miles. Japan is about the size of California and 1.5 times as large as Great Britain.
  • The Earth’s axis moved approximately 6.5 inches
  • Over 40,000 buildings damaged or destroyed by earthquake, tsunami or fire in the Tohoku region alone. This number could increase by 10 times after all areas are surveyed.
  • The tsunami generated waves in excess of 33 feet and had the entire Pacific Ocean on alert.
  • Multiple nuclear energy plants had tsunami caused power failures causing cooling systems to stop. Normal emergency procedures shut down 11 of Japan’s 54 reactors without major incident except for the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Although the Fukushima plant has already had two explosions a Chernobyl type disaster is highly unlikely.
  • Almost 2 million people are without power or water and entire towns have been wiped off the map.

A Quick Geology Lesson

The Islands of Japan are part of the great Ring of Fire which is an area that surrounds the Pacific Ocean. The Ring of Fire accounts for 90% of the world’s earthquakes as well as 75% of the world’s volcanoes. The west coast of the United States and Alaska are part of this very active Ring of Fire.

The reasons for the earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis is that this part of the globe has the most active plate tectonics which is the movement and collisions of crustal plates. In the simplest of terms, the Pacific Ocean is getting smaller as the land masses move toward each other or slide by each other. The friction (stress) caused by this movement builds up and then snaps like a twig when the rock cannot bear any more stress.

The release of energy when the land masses jerk causes the earthquakes. Should the movement occur underwater, the displacement of earth may causes tremendous energy waves to form (like dropping a ball into a bucket of water). These waves can travel at 500 kilometers an hour across oceans. When the waves approach a land mass, the waves slow down, become compressed and the height of the wave grows resulting in a surge of water.

The USA and the Ring of Fire

The USA has thousands of miles of coastland on the Ring of Fire. Earthquakes have rattled California, Washington and Alaska since records started being kept. In fact the 1964 earthquake near Prince William Sound is the second largest recorded since 1900 as it measured 9.2 MMS with a TNT equivalent of 948 megatons. By comparison, the 1906 San Francisco was estimated to be about an 8 MMS.

The major difference between the Japan and the USA is that the geology is different, with most earthquakes occurring on land making the likelihood of a tsunami far less likely. The similarity is that the west coast has nuclear power plants that can be impacted by earthquakes.

What USA Nuclear Plants Can Learn from Japan

There is a lot of misinformation about the impact of the earthquake in Japan’s nuclear plants. Early reports had a potential meltdown occurring, later reports indicate that although damaged the nuclear plants are following emergency protocols and under control. The biggest problem seems to be occurring at one of the Fukushima plants that has seen several explosions in the outermost shell over the last few days.

Despite the confusion over the information available to the outside world, Japan has actually reacted very well and experts on Boiling Water Reactors indicate there is no danger of a nuclear explosion. Two excellent resources are

There are no man-made structures on earth built to withstand 425 megatons of TNT explosive energy. Anything at ground zero when this much energy is released is history. Similarly, a wall of water can destroy even the best built buildings. When a natural disaster of this magnitude occurs there is going to be extreme damage and casualties.

How Japan Minimized Earthquake Disaster Impact

The best any country can do is to be as best prepared as possible for disasters. Preparation was the key to avoiding deaths upward of 100,000 or even a million deaths. Preparation is the reason the power plants and other buildings were not destroyed.

Top 5 Reasons Japan is better prepared than the USA
    1. Early warning systems.

“Seismometers detect the first shockwave…Computers analyze the wave and estimate how powerful the second one will be…If that wave is estimated to be more powerful than a certain threshold (greater than 5 on the local scale), an alert is issued… It is simple enough, but it is a critical step so that companies, utilities, petrochemical plants, rail operators and others can shut down facilities and minimize damage. Make no mistake the warning is issued mere seconds before the earthquake actually occurs. But it is just enough to make a difference for those further away from the seismic center as well as initiate a ripple effect across the globe. ”

Source: Smart Planet

  1. Practice and drilling of emergency action plans. Japan was able to issue shutdown orders to all nuclear plants within just a few minutes.
  2. System redundancy. Japan’s nuclear power plants have multiple levels of redundancy that should prevent total system failures of aging utility plants.
  3. Stricter building standards, buildings are designed to withstand earthquakes of higher magnitudes by incorporating special dampening systems, spring systems as well as other technologies to reduce seismic wave susceptibility.
  4. Nuclear Power plant assets are added regularly in Japan versus the USA which has not begun building a new nuclear reactors since 1974. Older assets require more preventive maintenance and are not built as well as new assets.
The Enterprise Asset Management Connection

Mother Nature cannot be beat, however, an EAM can help provide the system tools needed to shut down quickly, restart faster as well as minimize the loss of life. It works by creating a database of assets that gives utility, municipal and plant managers complete knowledge of where their assets are and what condition they are in.

Asset management starts by collecting asset detail such as location, description, serial number, vendor and maintenance history so that asset managers always know where their assets are and in what condition they are in. This information is then used to create inspection and maintenance checklists that can be used for:

Pre Earthquake Preparation

Asset and procedure checklist can be used for emergency drills as well as to make sure redundant assets are secure or functioning properly. By scheduling the inspection of assets on a regular basis there is less chance of having an asset fail at a crucial time due to aging.

Earthquake Alarm

Most notable is the shutdown checklist (time allowing)

Handling the Earthquake Aftermath with an EAM

After an earthquake, inspection checklist can be used to identify damaged, destroyed or missing assets. An EAM will help organize and automate work management including the scheduling of repairs, replacement of assets. Work is accomplished faster by eliminating paper flow through the use of handheld mobile devices.

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Our hearts go out to those affected by this terrible event. Do you want help the earthquake victims? The American Red Cross is accepting donations either online or via text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10 from your phone.

Stuart Smith

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