Panel Optimistic for Recovery in Japan

At a Harvard Kennedy School panel on the recent Japanese earthquake and subsequent problems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant last night, panelists were mostly optimistic about Japan’s response in the wake of the disaster.

The panel focused on the current status of the disaster zone, Japan’s disaster response efforts, and the ramifications of the complex nuclear problems present.

Moderated by Cristine Russell, a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, “Japan: The Earthquake & The Worldwide Aftershocks” featured a panel composed of Harvard professors and the Consul General of Japan in Boston Takeshi Hikihara.

Hikihara began by summarizing the current situation.

“As of today there are 9,800 deaths, 17,500 missing, and almost 250,000 people who have been evacuated,” Hikihara said. “Unfortunately the total death toll is still expected to increase. Another serious problem is [what happened to] the communities, because the tsunami swept everything away, therefore a big question is whether we can maintain a community in that area.”


Despite the growing number of casualties, Kennedy School Professor Herman “Dutch” B. Leonard said that Japan’s preparation for earthquakes helped prevent greater loss of life and damages to infrastructure.

“Japan is famously one of the most prepared countries in the world for seismic disasters and tsunamis,” Leonard said. “It is important to remember that those preparations worked. Tens of thousands of lives were saved because of those preparations.”

“This event is larger than the largest event that was predicted to be able to happen on that fault line,” he added.

Leonard later explained that experts had predicted that no earthquake could exceed a magnitude of 8.0 on the fault line where Japan was located, while the actual quake reached a magnitude of 9.0.

Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at the Kennedy School, said that despite improvements in the nuclear situation, more effort must be put into designing reactors that can sustain natural disasters and terrorist attacks of multiple phases.

“I think we’re in a much better place than we were a few days ago,” Bunn said. “The risk is reduced, but it isn’t gone yet. Going forward, we need to start looking at possible one-two punches that could happen at other reactors.”

Since the disaster struck, many have turned to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to send their condolences and spread the latest reports. Panelists said that because of the complexity of the situation, technical terms have often been misinterpreted and exaggerated. The term “meltdown”, for instance, which means that the fuel rod’s temperature has exceeded its melting point, has sometimes been used to represent a nuclear catastrophe, which involves complete leakage of radiation and nuclear material.

Susan J. Pharr, a professor of Japanese politics, said that Japan’s leadership has reacted favorably under public pressure.

“This is a complex mega-disaster,” she said. “Therefore when you look at the performance of the leadership, you have to breakdown the different parts of the disaster. If you just look at the earthquake and the tsunami, they’ve done a pretty good job. There’s a sense of the government being very responsible.”

Hikihara echoed Pharr’s optimism.

“Of course the devastation of this earthquake is terrible, it’s really unprecedented,” he said. “We have a lot of experience going through this kind of misfortune. We have resources, human capacity, and technology. If we really concentrate in our efforts, I think we will be successful.”


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