|

Author’s fiction turns horribly real

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

The Pacific Ocean a few kilometers off the coast of a city in the Tokai region of central Honshu turns white. Hundreds of curious holidaymakers caught in a traffic jam on the seaside road get out of their cars and jump up onto the sea wall for a better view of the strange sight — only to realize that a giant tsunami is heading their way.

Horrified, they race inland toward a hill, but climbing its cliffs is not easy. The mammoth wave, meanwhile, hits the shore, swallowing — in seconds — the embankment, the cars and the people desperately trying to scale the cliffs.

This vivid description of a killer wave triggered by a huge undersea earthquake (paraphrased here from the Japanese) is a scene from Tetsuo Takashima’s 2005 novel “Tsunami,” in which the Kobe-based writer uses fiction to alert people to the dangers of earthquakes and tsunami.

The overriding message is that both individuals and organizations in this quake-prone country must make a systematic effort to prepare for such natural disasters that can hit anytime, anywhere — as they so tragically did in the Tohoku region on March 11 this year.

For weeks after that day’s catastrophes, which afflicted some 400 km of the coasts of northeastern Honshu and crippled the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant, Takashima was flooded with calls from the media, since the 61-year-old’s work and background make him well-suited to offer the expert commentary they craved.

That’s because, after graduating with a master’s degree from Keio University in Tokyo, Takashima was a nuclear physicist until his late 20s at the former Chiba-based Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute (now part of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency). There, he was involved in JT 60, an experimental nuclear fusion project. That project’s goal is to open the way for a new source of energy that is believed to be infinitely safer than the nuclear fission reactions that are now used worldwide to generate power.

Takashima then decided to go to the United States to continue his studies for a few years, but when he returned to Japan he left his career as a research scientist behind him — because he “wasn’t smart enough,” he said.

Now the author of more than 20 books, Takashima began writing a series of what could be called “antidisaster mystery novels” after experiencing the magnitude 7.3 Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. That event, in which more than 6,000 people died, changed his life, he said.

“As I drove down to the Higashi-nada district (one of the most severely affected areas) to visit a friend, I was appalled,” he recalled at his office in the same condo building as his Kobe home — which withstood the quake. “I knew I had to write something someday about this, and I began collecting materials right away.”

The first fruit of his resolve was “M8,” published in 2004. The novel is about three high school classmates whose experience of the Kobe disaster led one of them to become a computer scientist trying to predict major earthquakes, another to be a politician’s secretary and the third a Ground Self-Defense Force officer — but all with a shared mission to protect Japan from calamities. Then, eight years later, each of them plays a key role when a megaquake strikes Tokyo.

“Tsunami” — a sequel to “M8″ — is themed on the real-life threat that the long-predicted Tokai, Tonankai and Nankai earthquakes all happen simultaneously, likely resulting in the Pacific coastlines all the way from Shizuoka, a short distance south of Tokyo, to Kochi in Shikoku being hit by a massive tsunami.

Takashima has also put his background as a nuclear scientist to use as an author, featuring nuclear power plants in many of his works — including 2003′s “Meltdown” (whose English release title is “Fallout”). However, the threats to these plants in his books so far have been from terrorist attacks or human errors — not natural disasters.

So even to Takashima, the ongoing radiation leaks from the Fukushima nuclear power plant since the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11 have come as a huge shock. He says he also has friends working in the industry, and feels ambivalent about the ways in which the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), has been handling the disaster.

“Japanese nuclear power plants were built on the premise that they would never cause an accident,” Takashima said. “We have such small land space, so even setting a 30-km radius (as an evacuation/stay-indoors zone) causes a huge impact. We had zero know-how about how to deal with a nuclear accident.”

The series of flops Tepco made after the accident shows how panic-stricken the plant operator was, as it had had absolute confidence that nuclear plants would never go out of control, says Takashima, who said Tepco had no contingency plans because it saw no need for them.

In contrast, the United States has clear and precise procedures for handling radiation leaks, and France — another leading exporter of nuclear power technology — has learned lessons from the 1986 Chernobyl accident, whose radiation leaks horrified the people of Europe.

Takashima, who claims Japan’s nuclear technologies still rank among the safest in the world, said the nation’s nuclear scientists should put more emphasis on the safety of the entire nuclear facility, not just reactors — pointing out that the ongoing crisis could have been prevented if the power supply to the reactors’ cooling systems had not been lost.

Nuclear power plant workers also need to be trained more rigorously, he said; they need to have skills and qualities similar to those of astronauts, and “they need to have the kind of mental strength that can prepare them for any crisis.”

As for the restoration of the affected areas in general, Takashima said he feels that Kobe rushed to rebuild too soon after the quake, without thinking much about retaining the community.

As many of the towns and villages affected by the March 11 disaster were located so close to the shore, it would be worth entirely rebuilding such municipalities on higher sites, he said. As for businesses, many companies are rewriting or reviewing their business continuity plans, better known by the acronym BCP, in the wake of the megaquake — but such manuals are hardly of any use in real major emergencies, he said.

“I would say, ‘Just prepare a shovel and pickax,” ‘ Takashima said. “When an earthquake strikes, the utmost priority is to save lives. Right after the Kobe quake, many people were looking for people buried in the rubble with their bare hands. If you have a shovel and a pickax, you can easily save a few lives.”

“Fallout,” the English translation of Takashima’s 2003 book originally titled “Meltdown,” will be released in June by Random House/Vertical.