Japan in crisis, MIT reacts

Students rally behind Japanese community

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Sendai port, 60 miles from Fukushima, was devastated by the disaster.
Courtesy of DigitalGlobe
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The nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, were damaged by last Friday’s tsunami and earthquake. The outer containment buildings of Units 1 and 3 exploded due to a buildup of hydrogen gas after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting tsunami hit. Suppression tanks at Unit 2 were damaged in an additional hydrogen explosion. The Japanese Association of MIT, the MIT Figure Skating Club, and other student groups are raising money for victims of the disaster. Aftershocks from the earthquake continue to be felt in Japan.
Courtesy of DigitalGlobe
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Kesennuma, home to more than 70,000, after the tsunami.
Courtesy of Google and GeoEye
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Members of the MIT Figure Skating Club perform a themed routine based on The Charlie Daniel’s Band’s song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” during an event on March 17 to raise money for victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Individuals and groups from MIT and the Boston area performed a number of routines before the rink was opened for free skate. Donations and messages were collected, and proceeds from skate rentals also went toward disaster relief.
Steve Howland—The Tech
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The earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused a major food shortage in Japan.
Patricia E. Gercik
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Kenneth Oye, Associate Professor of Political Science and Engineering Systems Design, comments on the chain of events occurring in Japan and his view of the reaction of the Japanese people and government. He credited the strict Japanese building code with helping Tokyo survive the earthquake. Oye also praised the calmness of the Japanese people during the disaster and their sense of duty to help others in need, but said their response contrasted with the Japanese government’s disorder in handling the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power plant. Professor Oye was in Japan last week when the disasters occurred.
Meng Heng Touch—The Tech

It was supposed to be a routine visit to Japan for MISTI staff to meet with host companies and university contacts about upcoming summer internship programs. Michelle L. Kern, program coordinator for MISTI Japan, and Patricia E. Gercik, managing director of MISTI Japan, arrived in Tokyo on March 10, and started with the usual meetings the next day — the day of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that destroyed the northeast coast.

That afternoon, the two got in a cab bound for a subway station, and at 2:46 p.m. JST, Kern says the vehicle “just started shaking.” The driver became somewhat concerned, but after the initial quake, Gercik decided they should stay in the cab.

As it turns out, this was a good call. The subways closed, emptying waves of people onto the streets and creating massive gridlock traffic. Aftershocks continued during the rest of their ride, but the two made it back to their hotel just as traffic came to a halt.

The scene was relatively calm, recalled Gercik. “People streamed out of buildings and subways. They stood at corners and in parks, looking at the sky as if they expected the relief would come from above. The mood was quiet; not too many people talked to each other, but some were on cell phones.”

Their dinner with MISTI alumni and other program contacts that night was cancelled since the lack of public transportation made it difficult for both attendees and restaurant staff to travel.

“There were 50 aftershocks that night and I didn’t sleep for the next two nights,” Gercik said.

The scene was much worse in northeast Japan. The initial earthquake off the coast of Honshu — Japan’s main island — created 30-foot waves in a disastrous tsunami. As many as 200,000 residents as far as 20 kilometers away from the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were evacuated as tsunami waters killed the generators and the reactor cooling systems began to fail.

As of Wednesday night, CBS reported the death toll neared 4,000 in Japan while more than 8,000 people were unaccounted for. Communication was crippled, cities were destroyed, and food, drinking water, medicine, and fuel shortages became the norm. Nearly half a million people were left homeless in the aftermath of the quake and tsunami. Damage is estimated to be $200 billion.

Kern and Gercik remained in the Tokyo area over the weekend, but even when train service started up again, fewer trains than usual were running. As more and more of their Monday meetings were cancelled, they decided it was time to head home, arriving in the U.S. on Monday afternoon.

Because phone service was down, Kern relied on e-mail to communicate with her contacts in Japan.

Fortunately, there are no current MISTI students in Japan. On Sunday, the U.S. Department of State recommended that “all non-emergency official U.S. government personnel defer travel to Japan” and urged “U.S. citizens to avoid tourism and non-essential travel to Japan at this time.”

Kern is optimistic about the summer, noting that the program still has a couple months to prepare for interns traveling to Japan. According to Kern, host companies in the Osaka area — about 400 miles away from the epicenter — experienced “no real effects” from the disaster, and the hosts she talked to in Tokyo say “they think they’ll be fine” for internship placements over the summer. Kern said MISTI students are still looking forward to their travel to Japan, too.

“We’re doing everything to make sure host companies are okay” with continuing the internship plans and are “keeping students well-informed” of any updates, said Kern.

Kern says she didn’t feel a sense of panic during last weekend’s stay in Tokyo. “It was a totally different experience depending on where you were.” Areas close to the Honshu coast in the Tōhoku region experienced evacuations, flooding, high death tolls, and destroyed buildings. However, Tokyo was mainly concerned with problems in transportation and supply as food shelves at grocery stores were emptied by concerned residents.

“The press did not really give out too much information, and one felt that there was every effort by the government to avoid panic. By the end of the weekend, the shelves of all convenience stores were empty,” Gercik said. “There was no sense of panic, but one of disbelief.”

Still, Tokyo was not without serious problems. Five people in Tokyo died as a result of a building collapse, according to Kern.

Professor Richard J. Samuels, director of MIT’s Center of International Studies (CIS), noted that MIT tends to take two types of responses to international disasters such as Japan’s: humanitarian aid and analytic discussion. The CIS, he said, offers opportunities for the latter: “When there’s a crisis, we try to organize an event to share what we know. It’s our mission.”

By bringing in experts on the topic — such as faculty from MIT’s Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) department — and organizing public Starr Forums, it is the CIS’s hope to educate the MIT community on the technical background of the nuclear reactor problems.

The CIS took a similar approach in response to the 9/11 attacks and crises in Gaza and Egypt earlier this year.

“We each do what we can do according to our abilities,” Samuels said. At MIT, he remarked, there is “so much talent and willingness to fix what is broken.”

Students respond with aid

Miho Kitagawa ’14, a member of the Japanese Association of MIT (JAM), made one of the first moves towards a campus-wide charity event by announcing JAM’s donation drive in Lobby 10 and the Stata Center in an e-mail to dorm lists.

Along with collecting funds for disaster relief in Japan, JAM also encouraged passersby to leave a message for the afflicted in Japan. The messages were written on a white board, and the JAM members took pictures of the message and its author (see sidebar). These messages, Kitagawa said, are a “really huge thing.” Money can certainly help victims, but letting the Japanese people know that someone else in the world is thinking of them will make those afflicted feel much stronger in light of their tragedy, Kitagawa hopes.

The response has been overwhelming. Kitagawa faced a deluge of e-mails, especially from student groups looking to help. The American Red Cross Team and Network of MIT (ARCTAN) offered to reward donations with bread from Au Bon Pain, while Victoria W. Lee ’10, a member of the Figure Skating Club, said the club wanted to hold an additional fundraiser to supplement JAM’s efforts.

Although it’s a lot to work with, Kitagawa said, “It’s really nice. I really appreciate it because everyone’s helping us.”

Looking at pictures of the devastation in Japan, Kitagawa said her first thought was, “I can’t believe it’s Japan.”

With 50 members, JAM is a group of mostly Japanese international students, the majority of whom are graduate students. Kitagawa has been in touch with her family, who lives far from the epicenter in Japan, and friends in Ibaraki, who experienced the loss of food, water, and electricity plaguing the afflicted areas.

On Monday night, JAM had already collected about $4,000, and Kitagawa said her hope was to collect $2,000 each day for the rest of the week. On Thursday night, they had already surpassed this goal, reporting more than $17,000 in funds raised and more than 500 messages collected, according to their website,

Camilla M. Brinkman, communications coordinator of the Public Service Center (PSC), stressed that “We want to be as supportive as we can.” While the office does not hold its own events, Brinkman said its goal is to be a “set of extra hands to help with disaster relief.” The PSC posted news about events relating to the crisis on its website,, and supported the JAM with their donation drive. In the past, the PSC has helped students organizing disaster relief events with grants, advertising, setup, and donation coordination.

JAM received further help from the MIT Figure Skating Club (FSC), which held a benefit skate yesterday at Johnson Ice Rink and raised $1,345. An exhibition by FSC members was followed by a period of open skate lessons for attendees.

Lee, a member of the FSC competition committee and four-year FSC member, organized the event after conceiving the idea Monday morning. Within 24 hours, the rink was reserved, the event was registered, and Lee had a full program of performances for the exhibition.

“I’m extremely proud of the FSC’s phenomenal response in helping out, from volunteering to skate in the show to volunteering to teach,” Lee said.

Proceeds from this event will go directly to JAM. The Zesiger Center also agreed to donate all proceeds from the skating rentals.

Last January, after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti, the FSC organized a similar charity event called “Skate for Haiti.”

Faculty Chair Professor Thomas A. Kochan was a leader in MIT’s response to the Haiti disaster, and he says he’s noticed similarities between the two situations. In response to Haiti, he said, “we knew various faculty and student groups had initiated a number of separate aid and recovery efforts but felt perhaps a more coordinated effort would be helpful given the limited resources within Haiti.”

Commenting on the “impressive” number of campus-wide efforts, he added, “In this case, the decentralized efforts, along with the letter to the MIT community from President Hockfield and the Chancellor’s good work in reaching out to our Japanese students, may be the most appropriate responses.”

Discussion of the nuclear reactor crisis

On Tuesday, 10-250 was jam-packed with attendees for the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE) “Briefing on the Japan Nuclear Crisis,” featuring a panel of Professor Richard K. Lester PhD ’80, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE); Professor Mujid S. Kazimi PhD ’73, director of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems; NSE Professor Ian H. Hutchinson; Dr. William B. McCarthy, deputy director of the MIT Environmental Health and Safety Office; NSE Professor Michael W. Golay; and Dr. Jacquelyn C. Yanch, research affiliate of NSE.

The purpose of this public forum was to educate the MIT community with a technical description of the nuclear reactors in Japan and to answer questions from the audience.

As the panel described, the Fukushima plant consists of six boiling water reactors, but three of those (No. 4–6) were undergoing routine maintenance at the time of the disaster and were not active.

While the plant seemed to survive the earthquake “pretty well,” it was the tsunami that did most of the damage that is now causing headaches for Japan. According to Hutchinson, the first hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3 on Saturday injured four people and was followed by a second explosion on Monday morning. On this day, nuclear fuel rods were exposed after cooling water evaporated, so seawater was used to cool the rods; a third explosion, this time in the No. 2 reactor, resulted in a containment breach, which increased the opportunity for the escape of radioactivity. Within the next two days, fire broke out at reactor 4.

At one point, radiation levels in Tokyo were as high as 20 times background levels, according to Yanch, who then reasoned that one would need to be exposed to these levels for days to reach the same dosage as a single chest X-ray.

Starting on March 13, students in the NSE department maintained a blog of entries related to the Japan crisis. As the site,, states, “The purpose of this blog is not to provide up-to-date information about the ongoing situation at the nuclear facilities in Fukushima, Japan, nor is it to promote to a pro-nuclear political agenda. Rather, we are trying to provide non-sensationalized, factual data from engineers in a manner that the general public can understand.”

The first entry comes with a brief explanation of the blog’s starting point: “The original post of Josef Oehmen appeared on Morgsatlarge. Due to the large and unexpected popularity of the original post, Dr. Oehmen handed the blog to the [NSE] Department in an effort to correct the presented information and provide a starting point.” Since then, posts have covered topics from radiation health effects of volatile fission products such as Iodine-131 and Cesium-137, nuclear reactor decay heat (the NSE blog describes this as the energy deposited into the fuel from the decay of radioactive isotopes), and spent fuel pools (“fuel after it has fueled a reactor,” according to the blog).

On Wednesday, the MIT Center for International Studies, MIT-Japan Program, and Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering hosted its Starr Forum: Japan’s Nuclear Crisis. Among the three speakers, including Samuels and Golay, Political Science Professor Kenneth A. Oye, offered his perspective after returning from Tokyo for a business meeting.

As Oye described to The Boston Globe in their March 11 article, Oye first felt tremors from the earthquake while sitting in a bus outside his hotel.

The “movement was far more severe than anything I’ve ever felt in an earthquake before,” said Oye, who had lived in California and traveled to Japan during previous earthquakes, as the Globe reported.

The aftershocks came while Oye was in a meeting. The onset seems to come straight from a movie script. As Oye described, he first noticed the “coffee in the cup started wiggling back and forth. The chandelier started moving, and then you realize you’re moving, too.”

Since Tokyo is more than 200 miles away from the epicenter, Oye remarked that the scene in Tokyo was less severe than the devastation witnessed in the northeast of Honshu island.

“No one was really aware of how serious the earthquake was. … In fact, it looked pretty normal [outside my hotel],” he said. The worst he noticed was the number of people out in the streets.

A third discussion of the nuclear reactor situation was held by the MIT Energy Club on Thursday evening, which also covered the hazards and implications of the disaster at the Fukushima plant.

On March 13, President Susan J. Hockfield wrote a letter in response to the crisis, noting MIT’s wider community in Japan “from our MISTI students, through the MIT Japan program, to faculty members who work in the region or collaborate with Japanese colleagues, to our alumni who come from or have settled in Japan.”

At the time, Hockfield wrote that more information from those who were “directly affected” by the disaster was being collected, but confirmed that “we have accounted for many students, staff and faculty currently in Japan and have determined that they are safe.”

Along with reaching out to those in Japan, Hockfield reassured the Japanese community on MIT’s own campus, saying, “Current students from Japan enrolled at MIT have been contacted in the wake of the disaster, and we are offering support and guidance.”

Akira W. Monri ’12 is personally connected to the crisis. He’s been using e-mail and social media to keep in touch with family and friends in his hometown of Tokyo. “From what I hear from my friends in Tokyo, there are countless aftershocks, some of which are not even aftershocks and are new earthquakes.” Monri estimated that there were about four new earthquakes at about magnitude 6.0 in the days after the initial 9.0 magnitude quake.

Although far from the epicenter, Monri’s friends in Tokyo have been feeling the effects: “Every time they feel the tremor, they say how scary it is, especially when they find out that it’s not an aftershock. It is said that there has been over 190 aftershocks in the first three or four days.”

“One of my friends, who is in the middle of job interviews, found out the night before that during or before her interview there may be a blackout, and had to look for alternative ways to get there. Another friend, whose family lives in New Jersey, had to leave several hours earlier than usual to get on a plane to the U.S., in order to arrive at the airport on time.”

Inconsistent information relating to the nuclear reactors is what concerns Monri the most. “The U.S. Embassy has ordered U.S. military personnel helping with the relief efforts to not go within [an] 80 km radius of the Daiichi plant, which is 60 km wider than what the Japanese government has issued. That, because I do not know what the underlying facts to that decision are, is really scaring me.”

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of State updated its travel warning and recommended the evacuation of all U.S. citizens within 80 km of the plant.

Monri took things into his own hands by developing a donation drive separate from JAM’s, starting within his fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. “I was only able to collect over $5,000 within three days because my brothers were here with me at the booth [in the student center] allowing it to be manned almost all seven hours.” As of last night, that total had jumped to $6,000.

“I cannot begin to explain how grateful I am to the community for their support,” he added. According to his donation site,, “Phi Delta Theta will cover all transaction fees that may arise from sending this fund to Japan, in order to make sure that every cent donated gets to the Japanese Red Cross.” According to Monri, “Phi Delts will be around on campus even after spring break, with Japanese treats for sale to further raise the relief fund to send to the Japanese Red Cross.”