Guest Post By Professor Kiminori Itoh On The Earthquake and Tsunami In Japan On March 11 2011

I am pleased to post an insightful communication by Kiminori Itoh regarding the March 11 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan [see also Source Of Information On The Japan March 11 2011 Earthquake And Tsunami]

Guest Post by Professor Kiminori Itoh of Yokohama National University

[A report based on the e-mail from Kiminori Itoh to Roger Pielke Sr, March 23, 2011]

 Thank you for your blog article of March 23 on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Your conclusion on vulnerability is quite right. Every officer and policy maker in Japan as well should know how to manage the vulnerability and resilience of our society after the present hour of trial.

 As my residence is in Tokyo and my university (Yokohama National University) is in Yokohama (quite near and due South to Tokyo), we felt the big shake of the earthquake to some extent. But, it was much smaller compared with places near the seismic center, such as Miyagi prefecture and Iwate prefecture. Aftershocks are still continuing even today after more than 10 days from the first big one (reported as M 9.0).

 One of the worst results of the earthquake is, of course, the damage on nuclear reactors located at the East coast of Fukushima prefecture, that is, the Fukushima Daiichi (i.e., No. 1) nuclear plant (hereafter, the FD1 plant).

 Although the radioactive pollution from the damaged nuclear reactors is the heaviest problem, our  problem right now in Tokyo and nearby areas is, as may reported, the shortage of electricity due to the failure of the nuclear reactors. Of course, the collapsed nuclear reactors themselves are really a grand disaster which is still continuing now, and no one knows when it will end with what results. I feel like reading your PNAS paper (Peters et al., Cross-scale interactions, nonlinearities, and forecasting catastrophic events, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 101, 15130–15135 (2004)) on how forest fires grow and turn uncontrollable. 

 One of the biggest mistakes of Tokyo Electricity Co. (TEPCO) is that they could not decide to abandon (I mean “decommission”) the troubled reactors at the first stage of the event due to the tsunami. Because of the past several accidents at their nuclear reactors at other places (2005 and 2007, in particular) and resultant financial problems, they did not want to close the DF1 plant, I guess.

 Moreover, there are several “human errors” by TEPCO. One of them is that they did not suitably prepare for the risk of tsunamis. In fact, the designer of the oldest reactor of the FD1 plant reportedly did not consider tsunamis when he applied the design provided by GE to the plant. This is totally different way from the bottom-up approach which is necessary for local management.

 It might be true that the designer’s fault could not be blamed at that time, because there was little knowledge about past big tsunamis. But, according to the most recent information (Asahi Shin-bun Newspaper, March 25, 2011), TEPCO ignored findings about a big tsunami around 1000 years ago, which findings were obtained after the plan for FD1 plant had started. Thus, what they could do was to forget the suggestion on the big tsunami or convince themselves that there would be no big tsunamis during the lifetime of the reactors (or lifetime of themselves).

 This type of conviction has been called in Japan as “legend of nuclear power”; that is, there will be no earthquakes and/or tsunamis, magnitude of which is larger than anticipated by designers and companies. Frankly speaking, this is a psychologically interesting phenomenon worth to investigate further in the field of risk management. One of the reasons behind should be the technology in concern was imported one.

 They placed oil tanks for Diesel pumps (which provide power in emergency) just in front of the coast, between the ocean and the reactors, the weakest point in their plant against tsunamis. And hence, the tanks had been washed away by the tsunami. I can imagine how they felt when they saw their oil tanks taken away into the ocean, but this is their fault, I think. After knowing there was a chance for a big tsunami “beyond imagination,” they were able to change the position of the tanks even though the design for the reactor itself was unchangeable. But for them, doing this meant that their conviction was wrong.

 One of the specialists who explained the accident on TV claimed “There is absolutely no possibility that the Diesel pumps did not work due to the tsunami.” His claim was based on the fact that the pumps were placed at the basement of the reactor buildings, and had to have been shielded from tsunamis. But, his claim was incorrect; the pumps were damaged by the tsunami as a matter of fact. This is because the tsunami produced several big waves, not one. At the first wave, the pumps were safe, and they moved the pumps from the basement to near the reactor to make coolant (water) circulate. Then, the second big wave came to make the pumps ineffective.

 Thus, even the specialist could not imagine what actually happened. He is a specialist of nuclear plants maybe, but not a specialist of tsunamis; he did not know the tsunamis can accompany several big waves with rather long intervals. Your point in the PNAS paper that a disaster needs different scientific fields to understand it and to control it is thus unfortunately verified in the present event as well.

 I am now willing to propose a resilient electric power system in Japan. For instance, the shortage of the electricity is, so to speak, a historical result associated with our power system; that is, a mixture of 50 Hz and 60 Hz. The former came from Germany and the latter from U. S. A. in Meiji era (around 120 years ago). If TEPCO (50 Hz) can buy electricity from other companies with 60 Hz, there should be no shortage, but they cannot do it because of the difference of the frequency, and due to little capacity of converting the frequency (only a GW while ten GW is required). This is incredibly stupid. What a non-resilient system!

 There are more points to write, for instance the future of our energy system and its relation to the global warming issue, but I shall finish now. Consuming electricity by working long time is not good now. Thank you for reading this.


Kiminori Itoh, Professor, Yokohama National University Tel. & Fax. +81-45-339-4354 E-mail:

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