On Wednesday Oct 12, a fire at a Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) facility in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture, caused widespread power outages in the greater Tokyo area, including homes and office buildings in Shinjuku, Chiyoda, Minato and eight other wards. An estimated 586,000 households were affected. While service was restored fairly quickly in most areas, numerous railway lines suffered delays well into the evening rush hour.
"The trouble hit two power grids that extend into the center of the city," the source, a reporter on the desk of a major national daily, tells Shukan Jitsuwa (Nov 3). "After about 10 minutes, customers on the Nerima route were getting power from another source. But then just after that, a fire broke out at the Toshima transformer substation and the outages spread."
The cause of the fire was determined to be due to aging cables. Some 70% of the cables that make up TEPCO's grid are said to be 35 years or older and some date back to the 1960s. Typically checks are limited only to visual inspections, and non-specialists are unlikely to spot potential problems.
The incident should be taken as a reminder that when power is cut, the functions of the city come to a dead halt. And should a major earthquake strike directly beneath Tokyo, the loss of power might unleash full-blown panic.
Among the most vulnerable would be those on life support in hospitals, such as hooked up to an artificial breathing apparatus. Depending on the capacity of their internal back-up batteries, such devices are designed to continue functioning from 10 minutes to several hours.
Actually when the power shut off on Oct 12, surgeons who were just preparing to operate on a patient at a hospital in Nerima Ward decided to postpone the procedure.
"This hospital had its own emergency power generating capability, but at most they could rely on was three hours," said a medical reporter. "Fortunately, the power was restored after about five minutes, but if the outage had lasted for several hours, the doctors would have had no choice but to postpone the operation."
When asked, for how long can Tokyo's hospitals hold out, he replied, "In the case of a major quake under the city, even a power cut of fairly short duration is likely to result in chaos."
Another cause for concern would be elevators. In 2006, a disaster prevention conference in Tokyo offered estimates that in the event of a 7.3 quake centered on the northeast quadrant of Tokyo Bay, out of the approximately 145,000 elevators in the city, the occupants in some 9,200 would be trapped inside due to the quake.
"In the case of elevators in high-tech buildings, a central computer controls operation, so the emergency exits can only be unlocked from the outside," said the aforementioned newspaper reporter. "First, custodial or security staff have to confirm what has happened and then release the elevator's brakes, and raise or lower the elevator manually and open it from outside to discharge the passengers. When some people are shut off from the outside world like that, they may suffer from panic disorder."
A belief persists that those underground are safer, because the sway of buildings tends to be less than those above ground.
"As a result of huge quake of March 11, 2011, the railway stations, utility poles and bridge struts underwent severe damage, but the subway running under Sendai City suffered hardly any damage," said a local newspaperman from northeast Japan. "But I understand such was not the case for underground stations hit by the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake of January 1995. Daikai station on the Kobe Rapid Transit Railway suffered devastating damage and didn't reopen for a year. If a quake should hit while cars were full of passengers, the tragedy would be compounded many-fold."
Regulations require stations on the Tokyo underground to have backup power.
"At the very minimum, the platforms will be provided with lighting, but the batteries will probably only keep the lights on for about 30 minutes or so," remarked Minoru Watanabe, a journalist who specializes in disaster prevention, who added, "People mobbing the exits to get to the surface will resemble scenes from hell.
"In addition to air conditioning, movement of trains underground pushes the air through the tunnels, causing it to circulate," he continued. "If the trains stop, the air is not circulated, and the density of carbon dioxide in the tunnels will soar."
According to Watanabe, tests conducted by Kobe's municipal transportation bureau determined that should power be cut during the rush hour, CO2 density would rise from an acceptable standard of 760 PPM (parts per million) to 843 PPM within just one minute. Sensitive individuals may start to exhibit reactions if the density exceeds 1,000 PPM.
Whether or not the power stays on, Shukan Jitsuwa points out, one should be prepared for a destructive earthquake in all of the ways that count.© Japan Today