Ring of Fire, Circle of Hope

F&M reacts to the Japan earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters

On March 11, at about 1:00 a.m. Eastern Time, the seismograph in F&M’s Hackman Physical Sciences Building registered ground motion. The movement, imperceptible to people in Lancaster, was caused by seismic waves emanating from Tōhoku, Japan, some 6,600 miles away.

On the F&M campus, the ripple effects of those waves are still felt. Sendai, the city closest to the earthquake’s epicenter, is home to Tōhoku Gakuin University (TGU), an institution with which F&M has long had a close relationship.

TGU was co-founded in 1886 by the Rev. William Hoy, an 1882 graduate of F&M. Another F&M alumnus, David Schneder 1880, became the school’s president in 1902 and held the post for 34 years. Sixteen F&M alumni have served as TGU faculty.

Since 1982, F&M has sent groups of students to TGU for five weeks of intensive summer study of the Japanese language, culture, politics, literature and history. In return, F&M hosts students from TGU’s American Studies program.

Several TGU students, as well as parents and other members of the TGU community, died in the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Many faculty and staff lost homes and loved ones. And while TGU was not affected by the tsunami, nearly every building on TGU’s three campuses was damaged in the quake, some severely, according to Christopher Long, associate professor of sociolinguistics and associate dean of international affairs at TGU.

It will cost TGU up to $30 million for repairs, says Long. An American, Long has lived in Japan for several years with his Japanese wife and their children. He visited F&M in 2009 and 2010 as director of TGU’s American Studies program.

“We are all in shock, saddened and a bit disoriented,” Long says. “But we are working hard to see that we get back on our feet.”

Culture and Conscience

The Japanese people have been devastated by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters. Yet they have responded with remarkable patience, grace and fortitude. There was little or no looting or increase in crime, which might be expected in the face of shortages, and the country is already working to repair infrastructure.

Richard Reitan, assistant professor of history (shown here during a summer session at TGU)

Japan has experienced many large earthquakes, most notably the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, which killed as many as 140,000 people. In the past, such disasters were sometimes interpreted as divine punishment. “The concept is referred to as tenbatsu, which means heavenly retribution,” says Richard Reitan, assistant professor of history. “In fact, the mayor of Tokyo used the term immediately following the recent earthquake, though he quickly retracted his statement.”

Reitan cautions that understanding response to the disasters through the lens of Japanese culture might be too simplistic. “People are coming together and helping one another, and this is very inspiring,” he says. “But it’s not uniquely Japanese; we see this in many parts of the world in response to tragedy. I don’t know that the notion of self-sacrifice for the greater whole is a unique outgrowth of Japanese culture.” In fact, Reitan says, Japan has great ethnic, religious and socio-economic diversity, and is far from a homogeneous society.

For Reitan, it is more accurate to view the response through the lens of global capitalism. “The values of the free market, profit-making and productivity are at work even in this crisis,” he says. “Many of the nuclear workers are temporary laborers, working in dangerous conditions with limited safety training, sometimes without fully realizing the risks. And this prioritization of profit over safety takes place worldwide.”

But the nuclear disaster resonates distinctively in Japan, the only nation to have had nuclear bombs dropped on it. “There is a strong antinuclear sentiment among much of the population,” Reitan notes. “But that is held in check by powerful forces, including the nuclear-power industry and the government.”

Linda Hasunuma, assistant professor of government, hopes the disaster will strengthen the environmental movement in Japan.

The Tōhoku disasters have shed new light on the Japanese government. “The current government represents the first real turnover in Japanese government in more than 50 years,” says Linda Hasunuma, assistant professor of government. “It’s a new party that has never governed before, and it has had trouble demonstrating leadership. That caused some problems in responding to the disasters.”  Hasunuma, who was born in South Korea, has traveled to Japan often.

Hasunuma agrees with Reitan that the Japanese nuclear industry is powerful. “Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the Fukushima plant, has a lot of autonomy,” she explains. “TEPCO wasn’t disclosing information, and that was frustrating to the Japanese people.”

Nuclear power will likely remain important to Japan, which lacks natural energy resources, but Hasunuma foresees regulatory reform and a new environmental consciousness. “Historically, there was a strong environmental movement in Japan in response to the rapid industrialization following World War II,” she says. “The Fukushima crisis might reinvigorate the movement.

“There’s an older generation that was directly affected by the dropping of the nuclear bombs at the end of World War II,” she continues. “They had to recover from that and rebuild the country. And now they have to deal with a crisis that reminds them of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

In the midst of their adversity, the Japanese people remain strong. “The loss has been tremendous, and the devastation is  heartbreaking,” she says. “It is my hope that the Japanese people will learn from the mistakes that were revealed, that the problems in the relationship between the nuclear industry and the government will be addressed and that the individual citizens of Japan will gain a greater voice.”

And there is reason for hope. For one thing, the earthquake itself was not nearly as destructive as it could have been, in large part because of Japan’s investment in mitigating technology.

“This was the fourth-strongest earthquake ever measured, but in terms of human casualties, it ranks 15th or so,” says Rob Sternberg, professor of geosciences and don of Bonchek College House. “So, as bad as it was, there’s evidence that if we can understand earthquake hazards and devote sufficient resources to dealing with them, we can, to a certain extent, protect ourselves.”

Concentric Circles

The Tōhoku earthquake struck the day before F&M students left for spring break, but the College responded quickly, sending its support and sympathy to colleagues and friends at TGU.

President Daniel R. Porterfield, Provost Ann Steiner, Dean of the College Kent Trachte and other faculty and professional staff  immediately began communicating with one another and the College community. They organized planning meetings, which were  well-attended by students, faculty members and professional staff. They also scheduled discussion sessions during which faculty shared insights into the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crises, and into Japanese culture and government.

Jingyi “Lena” Gu ’13, president of the Asian Cultural Society, helped organize the 1,000 Cranes for Japan to benefit Tohoku Gakuin University.

In short order, a Japan Relief Project Fund was created under the leadership of the Ware Institute for Civic Engagement. The Catastrophic Relief Alliance (CRA) is coordinating student-led fundraising. Recognizing that TGU’s recovery will require a long-term commitment, CRA will explore options to help the university through the summer and into the fall semester.

Thus far, student groups have undertaken several projects. Ciao Bella hosted a Dinner for Japan to raise money to benefit TGU, and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee donated 50 percent of the proceeds from its Used Equipment Sale.

The most visible project has been the 1,000 Cranes for Japan campaign, organized by the Asian Cultural Society (ACS). The ACS encouraged people to buy a sheet of paper for $1, fold it into a paper crane and write a message of hope to send to TGU.

The idea was inspired by the story of Sadako Sasaki, a girl in Hiroshima whose wish was to finish 1,000 cranes before her death, and by the legend that 1,000 cranes can grant a wish. By May, ACS had collected 1,002 cranes and more than $1,000 from F&M students, faculty, professional staff, alumni, parents and the Lancaster community. Millersville University students also collected cranes to help reach the goal.

During the project the cranes have been hanging in the atrium of the Steinman College Center as a reminder of the College community’s  commitment to supporting its colleagues and friends at TGU.

“Every year, many F&M students benefit greatly from the relationship with TGU,” says Jingyi “Lena” Gu ’13, president of the ACS. “The students in the exchange program have always received the warmest and most genuine welcome from our sister school. The rest of us have established lifelong friendships with the exchange students from TGU. We feel this is the time to deepen our bond and do something for them in return.”

The money raised by the crane project and other fundraising activities will go toward offsetting the costs of the summer TGU travel course to F&M in August. Nine students and two directors will be coming.

“We have been able to offer one TGU student a full scholarship and reduce the cost significantly for the other students,” Provost Ann Steiner says. “This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the summer exchange program between F&M and TGU, so it was particularly important to us to make sure that we hosted TGU, despite the effects of the disaster. We hope to resume our trip to TGU next summer, if they are recovered enough to host us.”

Harrison Hoyes ‘07 and AMirah Cummings ’07 studied Japanese culture during their summer program at TGU.

One alumna who participated in the TGU program as a student is AMirah Cummings ’07. Describing her experience in Japan, Cummings says, “We were completely immersed in Japanese culture. I loved it. I brought away lifelong friendships. I still keep in touch with people I met in Japan.”

Cummings reports that the people she knew in Japan have been accounted for after the disasters. “They are devastated, but they are alive,” she says. “One thing that really impressed me is how organized and strong the Japanese people are. They respond to these kinds of situations as an entire people. They will do well with this, even in their time of grief.”

Waves of Earth and Water

Earth’s crust comprises giant slabs of rock that ride on the planet’s partially melted mantle, somewhat like sheets of ice on a lake. These “lithospheric plates” meet at plate boundaries, which often are the site of seismic faults and volcanic activity. In fact, an arc of plate boundaries known as the Ring of Fire nearly circumscribes the Pacific Ocean.

When plates slide alongside each other, they result in fractures such as the San Andreas Fault. When they slam together, they create mountains such as the Himalayas. When they pull apart, magma rushes up to fill the gap, as in Iceland.

There’s a fourth kind of plate interaction, which is when one plate subducts, or slides beneath another. That is what happened in Japan. The nation of islands rests at the inter-section of four plates, which is why it endures more than its share of seismic activity.

Rob Sternberg, professor of geosciences, says these disasters give you “an appreciation for nature and what it’s capable of.”

“When tectonic plates come together, they apply stress and cause energy to be stored in the rock,” says Rob Sternberg, professor of geosciences. “Eventually, the stress exceeds the strength of the rock, which breaks apart, releasing the stored energy.”

Most of that energy is released as seismic waves that travel through the earth. The result is an earthquake such as the one that occurred in Tōhoku Gakuin. But the Tōhoku Gakuin earthquake did not just release seismic waves. “At subduction zones, the overriding plate tends to buckle in a vertical direction, similar to if you pushed a rug and it buckled in the middle,” Sternberg explains. When that happens at the seafloor, it forces out waves of water.

The waves start out with a high speed—up to 500 miles per hour in the open ocean—but a low amplitude, or wave height. As they approach land, frictional interaction with the seafloor decreases the speed but increases the amplitude. “Eventually, you get a wall of water,” Sternberg says.

It was the tsunami—a word that comes to English by way of Japanese—far more than the earthquake that was so devastating to northeastern Japan. In Sendai, a city close to the earthquake’s epicenter but not reached by the tsunami, about half the buildings along the main road were damaged, some severely, according to Sternberg.

But along 420 miles of coast, entire towns were all but erased by the deluge, which reached six miles inland. Several towns lost thousands of  residents, up to half their population. Although Japan has invested billions of dollars in seawalls, the structures offered little protection against wave heights exceeding 75 feet.

“From a scientific perspective, this was an awe-inspiring event,” Sternberg says. “But as a geophysicist, I’m not immune to thinking about the  human tragedy involved. This gives you an appreciation for nature and what it’s capable of.”

Nuclear Power Plants: When Things Fall Apart

Associate Professor Jim Strick explains how the tsunami flooded the backup diesel generators at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Nuclear power is clean and efficient, and compared with other energy sources it has a remarkable safety record. But when things go wrong at a nuclear power plant, they can go very wrong, very fast.

Nuclear plants derive their power from the fissioning of uranium atoms, which release an enormous amount of energy when their nuclei split. As the nucleus fissions, it emits two or three neutrons, which split additional uranium atoms, and so on, in a self-sustaining process.

“Within less than one microsecond, there will be a chain reaction that leads to an explosion,” says Jim Strick, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Environment and chair of the Program in Science, Technology and Society. That is why nuclear plants must control the fissioning process.

To achieve that, pellets of uranium are encased in 20-foot zirconium rods, which are grouped in assemblies of about 100 rods. The assemblies are submerged in water, which prevents them from overheating, Strick says. If the reactor needs to be shut down, control rods are inserted among the zirconium rods to absorb the neutrons and bring the nuclear reaction to a halt.

When the Tōhoku earthquake struck, the reactors at the Fukushima plant shut down automatically. “But even with the reactor shut down, it takes days or weeks for the fuel rods to cool, because there’s so much residual heat and even some residual fissioning,” Strick says.

The Fukushima plant was guarded by a 19-foot seawall, which was little defense against the 46-foot wave that struck there. The tsunami cut off power lines and flooded the backup diesel generators. Without pumps to circulate water, the reactors began to melt down.

Temperatures in the reactor vessel can exceed 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Strick. When that happens, the fuel assemblies melt and collect at the bottom of the reactor. With no water to cool it or control rods to regulate it, the melted uranium continues to fission and produce heat, and threatens to breach the reactor core.


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