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Editorial: Probe into unprecedented blackout following Hokkaido quake needed

A major earthquake hit the Iburi region of Hokkaido, recording a maximum 7 on the 7-point Japanese seismic intensity scale for the first time in the northernmost prefecture. Landslides and building collapses followed, and many people lost their lives or were left injured. The government and relevant agencies must quickly grasp the full extent of the damage and do everything to rescue and support victims.

The earthquake brought an unprecedented blackout to 2.95 million households across Hokkaido. The power outage is negatively affecting search and rescue operations, and dealing a serious blow to people's daily lives and economic activities. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates that it will take at least a week for electricity to be fully restored.

According to the Hokkaido Electric Power Co., the massive blackout was triggered by an emergency halt of the Tomato-Atsuma Thermal Power Plant in the town of Atsuma, which provides approximately half of the prefecture's electricity needs, due to the temblor. This stoppage sparked a chain reaction of suspended operations at other thermal power plants.

Maintaining a balance between supply and demand is a key factor in providing electricity to homes and factories because a failure to do so reduces the quality of power. The stoppage at the Tomato-Atsuma plant caused a plunge in power output in the surrounding area, disrupting the supply-demand balance. Because this condition would cause damage to generators and other equipment if it were to continue, other operating power plants in the region shut down automatically.

As a result, the Tomari Nuclear Power Plant lost external supply of electricity, and had to switch on emergency diesel power generators to continue cooling used nuclear fuel rods placed in cooling pools. This incident calls to mind the triple core meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. following the East Japan Great Earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011.

However, even the massive jolt seven years ago did not cause an all-out blackout for the entire area of operation of a power company. Why did a malfunction at a single power plant lead to a power cut in all of Hokkaido? A thorough investigation and verification of what happened is required.

Some hospitals had to turn away patients because of the power cut. Trauma patients need treatment even during a blackout.

In addition, JR Hokkaido and the city-run subway in the prefectural capital of Sapporo cancelled all service. Traffic lights stopped functioning and elevators came to a halt. Modern society cannot work properly without electricity.

The Japan Meteorological Agency warns that strong earthquakes measuring an upper-6 on the seismic intensity scale may hit Hokkaido in the coming week. The government intends to beef up the deployment of Self-Defense Force personnel to devastated areas. A quick response is indeed an absolute necessity, but vigilance toward secondary disasters are also needed.

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