URI experts share hope for Japan

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KINGSTON, R.I. – April 7, 2011 – Despite the devastation suffered in Japan in recent weeks, the country’s aptitude for planning and recovery has University of Rhode Island experts optimistic that the nation will recover.

Organized by URI graduate students and faculty members from Japan, the University held a panel discussion titled “GANBARE! URI FOR JAPAN,” which brought together experts in history, ocean engineering, nuclear engineering and supply chain management to put the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters into perspective. Loosely translated, ganbare means “go for it” in Japanese, reflecting the country’s spirit of perseverance. Referencing that spirit seemed appropriate, as the panel members concurred that Japan was better suited than the rest of the world to respond in the aftermath of the massive disaster.

With a death toll exceeding 27,000 and a litany of long-term problems facing the country, the level of devastation had more to do with an almost unimaginable set of circumstances than a lack of readiness.

“Had there only been a 9.0 earthquake, we’d be marveling at a culture that has the most prepared people in the world,” said Timothy George, professor of history with a focus on postwar Japanese history and governance, as well as environmental history.

George, who lived in Japan for 16 years, said the combination of the earthquake, numerous aftershocks, tsunami and nuclear disasters were too much for any country to withstand. He pointed out that Japan has recovered from disasters in the past, namely the Kanto earthquake of 1923 (which killed between 100,000 and 140,000 people), the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 and the Hanshin earthquake of 1995.

“The optimist in me hopes this will be a turning point and Japan will rediscover itself and where it is going, but only time will tell.”

Stephan Grilli, distinguished professor from the Department of Ocean Engineering, provided an explanation of the magnitude of the earthquake and tsunami, the power of which he said caused Japan itself to move permanently by six meters.

“People like to picture a tsunami as a big wave that hit the shore, but unfortunately there also is the water that comes in behind the wave, sometimes for as much as 15 to 20 minutes,” Grilli said. “It’s not just the water coming in. It’s the water with all the debris that is being carried along with it.”

Bahram Nassersharif, distinguished professor in the Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Systems Engineering, concurred with Grilli, who called Japan the “best prepared country in the world to face disaster.”

In discussing the nuclear power plants in Japan, Nassersharif pointed out that the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in the towns of Okuma and Futaba was built to withstand a ground acceleration of 0.45g, about an 8.4 on the Richter scale. The earthquake last month reached a peak ground acceleration of 0.51g, or a 9.0.

“Getting hit by the tsunami after the earthquake is what caused the real devastation,” Nassersharif said. “Earthquakes have been prominent in Japan’s history. The level of this one was beyond anything anyone could have imagined.”

Among the things he said could have possibly helped the nuclear plant disasters were extra generators at each plant and more battery power. Nassersharif said the United States makes sure to have both measures in place at its plants.

Perhaps the most optimistic of the panel members was Douglas Hales, associated professor of operations and supply chain management in the College of Business Administration. Despite widespread predictions of economic collapse in Japan, Hales said there was reason to believe that the country would recover.

He conceded that the country would clearly suffer, particularly in four main industries – automobiles, computer memory chips, food, and tourism. However, Hales pointed to several reasons to believe the country could recover. He believed Japan’s seafood export industry – which has been restricted in 25 countries around the world – would be able to get back online after just 90 days, and the country’s lack of external debt would allow for faster economic recovery.

“Ninety-five percent of Japan’s debt is owed to Japanese citizens,” Hales said. “It does not have a lot of debt outside of the country. It doesn’t sound great now, but Japan will recover.”