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Japan's Nuclear Crisis

03/16/2011 5:30 PM Bartos theater
Richard Samuels, Ph D, '80, Ford International Professor of Political Science, Director, Center for International Studies; Kenneth Oye, Associate Professor of Political Science and Engineering Systems and Director of the MIT"CIS Program on Political Economy and Technology Policy; ; Michael Golay, Professor, Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, MIT

Description: In spite of the "sickening human and social devastation on full display" in northern Japan, moderator Richard Samuels wonders, "Is it possible to follow the train of cause and effect into the futureimagining what happens from here on?" In this session convened just days after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, panelists bring eyewitness accounts as well as expert testimony on the current crisis and possible future developments in Japan.

Samuels first sets the scene with background on Japan's energy sector, where consumption has "long been skewed toward industrial uses." Ten privately held utilities, regional monopolies, manage electric power. Keenly aware of its dependence on the outside world for oil and other fuels, Japan has moved decisively in the past half century toward nuclear power for electricity generation. The government agency responsible for regulating nuclear power producers and utilities, notes Samuels, sits inside the same ministry for promoting the power industry -- a situation "not unfamiliar to Americans."

The Japanese public, shaken by accidents inside and outside the country, has not shared the enthusiasm of the Japanese government and business for nuclear power, nor for plans to achieve energy independence by building more and better reactors. Local citizens groups fight construction of new plants, and question government responses to power plant incidents. However, in the current crisis, the government has mobilized 100 thousand troops -- their largest deployment since the Pacific war. Says Samuels, "It remains to be seen whether this "or any government is up to the unprecedented, daunting task."

At the six"reactor nuclear complex of Fukushima Daiichi, Michael Golay says, critical safety problems have arisen because the loss of electrical power makes it impossible to keep the reactor cores and spent fuel swimming in cool water. These boiling water reactors are not designed "to handle the strongest conceivable earthquake" nor inundation by tsunami. (Golay notes that such designs "might be too expensive to be realized.") While he finds it frustrating how "little information is being given out to say what may have actually occurred," he hypothesizes that some combination of these twin disasters took out the grid and a/c power, and back"up batteries for instrumentation and control could not be recharged. Given the mountainous terrain along the coast, Golay worries that "should there be a large release of radioactive material blowing toward large population centers "evacuation does not look like a practical option" and the main way to protect the public will be sheltering and decontamination.

As the earthquake began, Kenneth Oye was actually in Japan, but "in the safest conceivable location -- a bus in the middle of a parking lot in Tokyo," on his way to meet with government ministers. Oye reports a remarkable degree of civility and cooperation among the beleaguered Japanese. People turn off lights to reduce power use, and affected villages organize to distribute clean water and dig latrines. He is puzzled, though, by the apparent paradox of a country that "performs so beautifully in terms of seismic codes of building" but without comparable defenses built into power plants. While the challenge posed by the earthquake and tsunami were extreme, Oye thinks that risks analysis would at least "look to the possibility of an event wiping out primary and secondary power components." He notes that "a culture and system that valued secrecy" evolved around nuclear power in Japan, and that covered up accidents. In this case, he says, "There's no option of hiding what's going on," and "it is likely to change the regulation and response in this area." While this "huge problem won't go away for a while," Oye takes heart in the fact "that there is a little more directness and integrity in the system now."

About the Speaker(s): Richard J. Samuels is also the Founding Director of the MIT Japan Program. In 2001 he became Chairman of the Japan"US Friendship Commission, an independent Federal grant"making agency that supports Japanese studies and policy"oriented research in the United States. In 2005 he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Samuels served as Head of the MIT Department of Political Science between 1992"1997 and as Vice"Chairman of the Committee on Japan of the National Research Council until 1996. Grants from the Fulbright Commission, the Abe Fellowship Fund, the National Science Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation have supported nine years of field research in Japan.

Samuels' next book, Securing Japan, will be published in 2007 by Cornell University Press. His previous books include Machiavelli's Children: Leaders and Their Legacies in Italy and Japan, a comparative political and economic history of political leadership in Italy and Japan,and "Rich Nation, Strong Army": National Security and the Technological Transformation of Japan,and The Business of the Japanese State: Energy Markets in Comparative and Historical Perspective.

His articles have appeared in International Organization, Foreign Affairs, International Security, The Journal of Modern Italian Studies,and The Journal of Japanese Studies.

Samuels received his Ph.D. from MIT in 1980.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Center for International Studies

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