The combination of disasters that began with the magnitude-9 earthquake of March 11 has brought Japan into unknown territory. Recovery will require the help of the international community and strong, effective political leadership at home.
The death toll is more than 13,800, and nearly 14,000 people are still missing, as of April 18. There may be more missing who are unreported, since entire families were swept away. It is estimated the tsunami flooded 560 square kilometers. More than 2,400 shelters are housing 136,000 victims.
The nation remains in a state of shock. There is anxiety due to hundreds of aftershocks, including more than 400 over magnitude 5 since March 11, as well as radioactive contamination. Japan will continue to depend on moral support and advice.
The Yomiuri Shimbun, the largest newspaper in Japan, reported on its Web site on April 14 that several research organizations in the nation had warned of the possibility of an aftershock and/or earthquake occurring within the next month that could measure 8 on the Richter scale and cause tsunami in the same area as on March 11.
Based on GPS observation data, Associate Prof. Shinji Endo of Kyoto University warned of the chance of tsunami more than 30 feet high being triggered by a magnitude-8.4 earthquake, the same as the 1933 Sanriku earthquake.
The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station is not restricted to Japan, but in fact extends beyond Japan's borders as atmospheric dispersion and marine diffusion spread radioactive materials.
We hope we have seen the end of the natural disasters that have produced such human catastrophe, but there is no way of knowing.
On April 15, Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency announced plans for backup facilities that would allow water cooling to continue at the Fukushima plant in the event of a major aftershock. This is a positive step.
So are developments reported by The Yomiuri Shimbun online April 15, in an article that noted Hitachi Corp. had coordinated 1,500 experts, including employees of the American corporations Bechtel and Exelon, at the Fukushima site. The experts' primary mission is to inject nitrogen into the Nos. 1 to 3 reactors to prevent hydrogen explosions, and to restore the water-cooling system for pools containing spent nuclear fuel rods in the Nos. 1 to 4 reactors. Toshiba Corp. has also sent 1,400 people.
Areva, the world's largest nuclear energy corporation, based in France, is providing equipment and technology for eliminating water that has been heavily contaminated by radiation. Areva's assistance is an example of positive steps taken by the international community in response to the crisis.
The U.S. military and the U.S. nuclear emergency team, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy, have also been working with Japanese personnel quite effectively.
But the scale of the disaster and the possibility of another major earthquake raise difficult and dangerous problems. In the disaster-hit region, there are five nuclear power plants--Fukushima No. 1, Fukushima No. 2, Tokai No. 2, Onagawa and Higashidori No. 1--and one nuclear fuel cycle facility, Rokkasho.
We are concerned about all of these facilities, not only the Fukushima No. 1 plant. At the Onagawa, Higashidori and Rokkasho plants, electrical power was cut April 7 after a magnitude-7.4 aftershock. The cooling systems at the Onagawa and Higashidori plants briefly stopped operating.
At the Fukushima No. 1 plant, an aftershock on April 11 caused a blackout that meant water injection--which is critical to cooling the reactors--was interrupted at the Nos. 1 to 3 reactors for 50 minutes.
The crisis is far from over, and could worsen. To lessen the possibility of a greater disaster, we strongly suggest the following:
1) Increase international cooperation.
-- The Japanese government needs to communicate its needs and problems more clearly and effectively to other states and private organizations, so that assistance can be offered in a more focused and timely manner.
-- Effective responses require more than sending experts to Japan. Their work must be coordinated. Only Japan can do this. The Japanese authorities could greatly assist current relief and technical efforts by providing stronger leadership to coordinate international offers of assistance and advice.
-- Such coordination must take place not only at the technical level, but also diplomatically and politically.
2) Provide strong, effective political leadership in Japan.
-- Japan's political leadership has been seriously challenged by the natural disasters, its human consequences and the nuclear crisis. Any state would find just one of these severe problems a great challenge. More effective crisis management would speed recovery and relief efforts, and help ensure the safety of nuclear facilities.
-- A "grand coalition" government should be established during this emergency. This would help assure the national unity that is needed in the face of the disasters that have already occurred, as well as possible future challenges.
-- Extraordinary measures should be taken to allow the government to take swift, effective action should the nuclear crisis worsen seriously.
Japan is a resourceful and resilient society that will emerge from this emergency stronger and better prepared for future crises. But recovery requires assistance from the international community and strong, effective political leadership from domestic authorities.