Fukushima has shown need for broader longer-term research

As survivors gathered last week for memorial services for the thousands of victims of the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima disaster five years ago, researchers working on preventing similar massive losses are drawing on the lessons of the disaster – the need for interdisciplinary research and international collaboration.

“Five years later the lessons for disaster experts are humbling,” said Professor Yasufumi Iryu, president of the Geological Society of Japan affiliated with the University of Tohoku, of the triple disaster sparked by the most powerful earthquake to hit Japan.

One of the most shocking revelations for experts after the undersea earthquake registering 9.1 on the Richter scale, the accompanying tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident on 11 March 2011 was that they had not been able to predict the enormity of the destruction, let alone prevent it, he told University World News.

Vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis, Japan is a world leader in seismology research and technology.

Stable public and private funds support the disaster preparedness sector and has helped develop state-of the-art information to improve early warning systems, tsunami and disaster resistant infrastructure over the decades. Other research has concentrated on how to minimise overall losses from earthquakes.

Yet experts watched helplessly as an unprecedented huge tsunami created a triple disaster in the region. The Tohoku tsunami sparked by the quake was the leading cause for the overwhelming majority of fatalities – almost 16,000 people, reported in April 2015. The waves were so high that they swept over official evacuation centres.

“The disaster aftermath has revealed the experts’ limited knowledge and their lack of ability to imagine the worst, a problem that can be attributed to research being conducted in silos,” said Iryu. “Change is now being advocated through the promotion of interdisciplinary research that paves the way to share important information and forge better results.”

Changes are on the cards. In May this year Japan’s 50 geological research organisations scattered across the country will hold their annual academic conference as a single platform to share information and spearhead collaborative programmes.

More international collaboration

But much more needs to be done. In a research paper published in Nature this month, experts on policy research led by Masahiro Sugiyama, assistant professor at the Policy Alternatives Research Institute at the University of Tokyo, acknowledged that one of the deficiencies of disaster research is that the nation’s breadth of disciplinary coverage is narrower and the rate of international collaboration is lower than in comparable nations such as the United Kingdom and Germany.

“During the Fukushima crisis, researchers who were not used to collaborating with other disciplines or other nations struggled to do so,” they said, pointing in particular to environmental and energy research required to assess the impact of the Fukushima disaster.

Before the quake, risk assessment research in Japan focused on issues such as mechanical component failures, human error and other factors dealing mostly with engineering knowledge, but the disaster has meant expanding risk assessment beyond nuclear engineering, to include disciplines such as seismology, geology, atmospheric science and ecological modelling.

“We strongly believe that the events and aftermath of 11 March highlighted a fundamental problem with research in Japan: weak connections between disciplines and between Japan's scholars and those working in other countries,” said the researchers.

Longer-term focus

Another important lesson for academics is the need for long-term research to replace the previous shorter and narrow focus. In particular, radiation experts note that their investigations into effects in Fukushima have just begun and that concrete data could take decades to complete.

Universities in Fukushima prefecture and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki affected by the World War II atomic bombs, will deepen collaboration on radiation exposure research, establishing a government-funded joint research centre in Hiroshima from next month.

Five years after the meltdown information from Fukushima on the health impact of contamination on local residents and animals remains inconclusive. But sightings of physical changes in some wildlife and in forests near the abandoned town have been noted by researchers.

Radiation contamination data in birds, for example, have been collected through X-rays on dead carcasses as reported by Professor Tomisato Miura at Hiroshima University in local media.

The nuclear meltdown at the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant led to contamination of the area from high doses of radiation spewing from the damaged reactors, forcing thousands of residents to flee leaving ghost towns that remain a public challenge today.

Early detection

Professor Naoyuki Kato, a researcher on earthquake prediction at the national University of Tokyo, says the Tohoku disaster has raised the importance of strengthening research on early detection.

With experts predicting the likelihood of a devastating earthquake in the Nankai Trough, south of the Japanese Island of Honshu, or in the Tokyo Metropolitan area very soon, one of the lessons from Tohoku is the need to speed up its early warning system, Kato said, though he also acknowledged that this would not be easy.

Experts point out that buildings and homes were not badly damaged by the quake because of earthquake-resistant construction but existing warning systems had not been able to extend protection from the tsunami.

“It is not possible to set exact earthquake dates, but learning from Tohoku we have redesigned this sector to include more investigations into the history of earthquakes in Japan. This inclusion is a key to our prediction technology,” he explained.

A tsunami on a similar scale to Tohoku hit the same region in the year 869. Kato says much of that data remained buried in research papers rather than being actively discussed by experts, local government and the community.


Incorporating resilience into disaster risk management is a focus for Professor Mika Shimizu at Kyoto University. While Tohoku in 2011 provides a valuable case study of resilience at the community level, given the efforts of the local people during the large-scale disaster, such grassroots efforts are insufficient, she said in a recent research paper.

“For improved risk management there must be better governance by working together to deal with the many problems [stemming] from a large disaster,” she told University World News, adding a crucial lesson from Tohoku was the need for policy changes.

The national disaster policy is based on the various sectors that work independently, but that reduces resilience during the aftermath and recovery from disaster.

Tokyo University’s Sugiyama and others said the Collaborative Laboratories for Advanced Decommissioning Science or CLADS, established as a research base for the decommissioning of the Fukushima plant, should be more outward-facing.

“Decommissioning involves many disciplines, including nuclear engineering, meteorology and oceanic-risk assessments, ecology and remediation. By soliciting international research proposals, CLADS should involve more researchers from elsewhere in Asia, where many countries have nuclear ambitions, including China, South Korea, India and many Southeast Asian countries. Working with overseas scientists, CLADS should publish some outcomes in English,” the authors said.

More than 60,000 people are still living in temporary shelters according to the latest data released this month. Japan’s Kyodo News Service reported it would take until 2019 to complete the transfer of evacuees from makeshift housing.