In the very early hours of September 6, 2018, a magnitude-6.7 earthquake struck Japan in southwestern Hokkaido. News reports have said 8 people were killed and dozens are missing. The quake destroyed buildings, triggered landslides that buried houses, and cut off electricity to all homes, nearly 3 million people, on the main northern island.
As reported by The Asahi Shimbun, Hokkaido Electric Power Co. explained that “a coal-fired thermal plant in Atsuma, the largest in Hokkaido, was heavily damaged in the earthquake. The suspension of operations there caused an imbalance in the supply and demand for electricity. As a result, operations were stopped at all other thermal plants in Hokkaido.”
Bringing to memory Japan’s devastating nuclear accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant back in March 2011 that was triggered by a powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami, this morning’s quake did affect the Tomari nuclear plant in Tomari, Hokkaido as all outside power sources to the plant were lost. Thankfully, none of the three nuclear reactors were operating as they have not operated since being closed after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Officials at the utility and Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority confirmed six emergency diesel generators were being used to cool spent nuclear fuel stored in a pool at the Tomari plant and that there was enough fuel to operate the diesel generator for at least a week.
As today’s earthquake damage was reported in the Japan Times, “The [Fukushima] crisis led to the shutdown of the country’s nuclear industry, once the world’s third biggest. Seven reactors have come back online after a protracted relicensing process. The majority of Japanese remain opposed to nuclear power after Fukushima highlighted failings in regulation and operational procedures in the industry.”
To put this in perspective, more than 50 reactors were operating in Japan when the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident occurred. More than 7 years later, the vast majority remain shut down and nearly 50,000 evacuees remain. Though extreme, catastrophic events are thankfully rare – they, along with disruptions from other events such as hurricanes and severe weather events, can cause grid instability as the Hokkaido earthquake has just done. This underscores why having a diversified electricity grid with a decentralized power system, especially as the effects of climate change are increasingly being felt, is so important to make our communities more resilient in times of crisis. Our thoughts are with those families in Japan.