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The disaster that struck Japan on March 11 consisted of an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear power crisis. At a panel Thursday (March 24) at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, experts looked at the catastrophe’s many aftershocks, and how they have impacted the politics and economy of the country, the way crises are managed, and even the future of nuclear power.
The event, hosted by the Institute of Politics, was one of many organized as part of Harvard for Japan Week, which also included fundraising efforts, a vigil, and a benefit concert.
Panelist Takeshi Hikihara, consul general of Japan, spoke of the human cost of the disaster and of the difficulty of rebuilding. “Everything was swept away,” Hikihara said, noting that administrators and even entre town halls were washed away by the horrific tsunami that followed the earthquake. “Authority itself disappeared,” he said.
The death toll from the catastrophe has reached 9,800, with 17,500 still missing, and 250,000 people evacuated, Hikihara said.
Even though Japan is noted for its preparedness for natural disaster, scale of the disaster was beyond what was thought to be the limit, said Herman “Dutch” Leonard, Baker professor of public management at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), and an expert in crisis management.
“At the same moment that your needs are sudden and large, much of the capacity that you were hoping to rely on is damaged or gone,” Leonard said.
Still, Leonard argued, “Japan made enormous preparations for an event like this, and basically those preparations worked.” The fact that the death toll from the disaster is not much larger is a testament to those preparations.
Matthew Bunn, associate professor of public policy at HKS and co-principal investigator for the Project on Managing the Atom, said that the crisis at the Japanese nuclear power plant crippled by the disaster, worrying as it is, must also be seen in context.
“The big picture here is that there are 10,000, maybe even 20,000 people killed by the earthquake and tsunami. There are two people in the hospital from the power plant,” Bunn said. The accident, as far as is currently known, is a thousand times less harmful than the one in Chernobyl in 1986.
But the disaster at the plant could have important fallout for nuclear power worldwide, Bunn said. It underscored the need for improving safety procedures worldwide. And it could make it difficult for nuclear power to grow significantly as an alternative to fossil fuels.
“I now unfortunately believe that it’s quite unlikely that we will see the huge scale of nuclear growth that will be necessary for nuclear to be an important part of the answer to mitigating climate change,” Bunn said. “I think it may well have been a casualty of this particular accident.”
Susan Pharr, Reischauer professor of Japanese politics, said that the Japanese government’s response to the natural disasters was good, while its reaction to the crisis at the nuclear power plant has reflected the incredible complexity of that problem.
“The jury is not yet in,” Pharr said of the government’s response, “… but in many ways they’ve been as responsive as they could be in absolutely catastrophic situation.”