‘Synchronous failure’: the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, March 2011

Japan March 2011 — T�?hoku earthquake and tsunami © Photo by Douglas Sprott CC BY-NC 2.0


On 11 March 2011, a massive earthquake producing intensities of up to XII on the Modified Mercalli scale occurred 130 km off Japan’s eastern coast causing a tsunami that, together, may have killed more than 20,000 people. The Great East Japan Earthquake also disrupted critical sections of Japan’s power grid, including the power supply needed to cool the spent fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Back-up generators kicked in but were disabled when the tsunami struck the plant, which was located on the coast. The loss of power to the nuclear plant and the inability to cool the spent fuel appear to have led to partial meltdowns of at least three of the plant’s reactors, causing the worst nuclear disaster since that at Chernobyl in 1986.

The earthquake, its aftershocks, the tsunami and the nuclear emergency illustrate what a ‘synchronous failure’ looks like: a multi-sectoral system’s collapse. The full consequence of the trauma and costs will not be known for years to come. However, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, it became evident that even in this highly sophisticated and well-prepared society, the impact of natural hazards on infrastructure can quickly lead to outcomes normally associated with poorer countries: large-scale food and water shortages, shelter crises and logistical collapse.