JAPAN: Funds allocated for university reconstruction

Japan's Ministry of Education has released a list of 229 universities affected by the earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeast areas of the country on 11 March, badly damaging buildings and research and classroom facilities. Many of these will be rebuilt after the government last week passed a budget for reconstructing facilities.

The overall cost of damage to universities, both national and private, is around Yen60 billion, (US$740 million) according to the government. The list includes prestigious national universities such as Tohoku University in Sendai city and Tsukuba University located in Ibaragi prefecture, the second worst affected.

A reconstruction budget of Yen18 billion (US$220 million) was passed by the government, initially aimed at restoring facilities including replacing expensive equipment damaged during the disaster, Noriko Konishi, a ministry official said.

Another Yen8.4 billion (US$100 million) in public funds will be provided to reconstruct damaged buildings. "Reconstruction work has already begun and will continue speedily, even though we have not set a final deadline yet given the enormity of the work ahead," she explained.

Several key research institutions operate in the disaster-hit areas.

For example, the Tokaimura Nuclear Science Research facilities dot the Ibaragi prefecture, which experienced a quake of 6.0 on the Richter scale. Several buildings and facilities were destroyed. The research centre, affiliated to the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, has estimated total damage at Yen26 billion (US$320 million).

A spokesperson said there was nonetheless no release of radioactive material to the environment or human injuries, although the institution's crucial research projects have been set back due to damaged roads and buildings and the loss of key equipment and laboratories that are no longer safe.

Still, two months after the 11 March disaster, most higher education institutions in Tohoku are reporting a steady return to normal working schedules. None of the buildings collapsed although walls were cracked and damaged and a large amount of equipment was broken.

Biological samples stored under refrigeration in laboratories have been lost because of power outages and these cannot be recovered, a major setback to research efforts. Tohuku University's WPI-Advanced Institute for Materials Research also suffered extensive damage to experimental equipment, including expensive measuring equipment.

The national Tohoku University resumed classes on 6 May, almost a month later than normal, and has reported that most of the faculty and student body have returned.

On the research front, Tokaimura's Japan Proton Accelerator Reactor Complex (JAPARC), one of the latest research facilities of the institute, reported that most of its electricity supply and communications had been secured.

Kunihiro Suzuki, spokesperson for the JPARC programme, said research has been seriously hampered by damage. Lack of electricity and broken water supplies are also affecting the operation of machinery. Reconstruction will be delayed because factories that produce the parts were also damaged during the quake. But JPARC has set December 2011 as the target to restart operations, Suzuki said.

The President of research-intensive Tsukuba University, Nobuhiro Yamada, explained in a statement that the university was slowly recovering and was "planning to be front-runner in reconstruction work. The bottom line is that we are gearing for a strong return as public funds are now being injected."

Since April, the Tokaimura facilities have been leading the analysis of water and surface soil in the yards of Fukushima schools, to test radiation rates - one example of several similar activities as Japan scrambles to contain the Fukushima nuclear accident.