It started with an earthquake, it continued with a tsunami and it ended with a nuclear disaster...

On 11 March 2011 at 2.46pm, an earthquake hit Japan. With a 9.0-magnitude on the Richter scale, the tremor was one of the strongest ever recorded. The shockwave was exceptionally long (two to three minutes) and was felt all the way in Beijing. Although the epicentre was more than 300 km away, it caused buildings in Tokyo to sway.

The quake caused a tsunami that struck the east coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, 51 minutes later. Waves reaching almost 40 m high surged up to 10 km inland, ravaging some 600 km of coastline and impacting 54 cities and port areas. Although the earthquake itself caused few deaths thanks to the preparedness of the population and anti-seismic construction standards, more than 18,000 people died or disappeared due to the associated tsunami.

Earthquake and tsunami in Japan

The Fukushima Daiichi accident

In addition to the natural disasters, Japan also had a nuclear accident to contend with. During the earthquake, the reactors of the four coastal nuclear power plants automatically shut down. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant, several malfunctions, some linked to the tsunami, caused the emergency cooling systems to fail, which in turn led to the meltdown of at least two nuclear reactors and significant leakage of radioactive materials. Reactors 1 and 2 were put on high alert. The level of radioactivity detected in the plant’s control room was a thousand times higher than normal.

The governor of Fukushima Prefecture decided to begin evacuating people, first within a three-kilometre radius around the plant, then expanded to ten and twenty kilometres. Depressurization was undertaken to lower pressure in the facility, but this also released radioactive emissions into the atmosphere. Fires and explosions finally destroyed the plant completely. The depressurization, explosions and pumping of water in an attempt to cool the reactor cores resulted in massive radiation leakage. Concern was high for both Japanese and French nationals living in the area. First, it was unknown whether the response teams, who were working day and night in extremely dangerous conditions, would be able to get the accident under control. Second, many wondered if the wind would sweep radioactive particles towards the south and Tokyo.

Earthquake and tsunami in Japan

Humanitarian assistance and technical expertise

From the initial days after the disaster, France mobilized both humanitarian resources upon request of the Japanese authorities and emergency responders to help the locals, especially during clearing operations. The Crisis Centre coordinated the response.

To start, the French relief workers supported the Japanese teams in locating people buried under the rubble. From 14 March 2011, 121 French personnel (civil protection agents, military personnel, CDCS staff) began arriving in Japan with 14 tonnes of humanitarian aid. They were deployed to the area around Sendai. Their efforts focused on clearance operations near the city of Misawa and the port town of Okuki.