Forum focus at college is Japan’s future

MIDDLEBURY — As Japan struggles to rebuild following the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, people across the world are following closely the aftermath — and its implications for nuclear power worldwide.
A Monday panel discussion at Middlebury College brought in experts from the faculty to address a wide range of topics — cultural and anthropological, historic and scientific.
Kyoko Davis, a professor of Japanese studies, led off the event, speaking to the four dozen people who had gathered to hear experts speak on the issue.
Davis provided an update on the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the east coast of Japan, the tsunami and its aftershocks. On Monday, Davis said 80,000 people have been evacuated due to their proximity to the Fukushima nuclear reactors that were damaged by the earthquake. As of Wednesday, the death toll was reportedly nearing 10,000, with more than 100,000 still unaccounted for.
But while the nation continues to struggle, Davis said that recovery efforts have been formidable, bringing together Japanese and foreign government officials and aid organizations.
And the media, said Davis, has played an important role as well.
“Numerous websites posted essential information, and TV stations provided streaming video free. Text messages, emails and blogs have been important tools, not only in rescue efforts but also in giving people emotional support,” she said.
Davis said that an email from a friend in the company summed the situation up.
“This is the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japan,” she read, “and it continues to be the most powerful in terms of humanitarian efforts and bringing people together.”
Neil Waters, history professor emeritus, pointed out that earthquake damage is no new struggle for Japan — on average, he said, the country gets a large earthquake every six to seven years.
“Earthquakes are part and parcel of Japanese perceptions of the environment,” said Waters, citing the 1923 earthquake in the country, with a death toll of 40,000.
The country has also had its share of experience with dealing with nuclear fission disasters, both in the aftermath of the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and after radioactive leaks at a nuclear plant in 1995.
“The Japanese have some very, very hard-won expertise in the long-term effects of radiation resulting from nuclear fission,” said Waters.
This event is different, though.
“It combines manmade and natural disasters … in a way that really hasn’t happened before,” he said.
Stephen Snyder, a professor of Japanese studies, said that the nuclear event is a highly charged one especially in Japan, where a lot of focus is placed on the contrast between the concepts of “inside” and “outside” — where nuclear power was welcomed into the inside sphere while nuclear warfare was placed outside of that sphere.
“In a sense, what happened was that the nation made a kind of pact. It drew a kind of line between its violent weapons nuclear past and its need for nuclear energy, and mentally agreed that these two things would be kept separate,” said Snyder. “In the current situation, that boundary has broken down, and the weapons past has become the nuclear future.”
While the in-country effects of the disaster have been significant, Rich Wolfson, a physics professor at the college, also put the ongoing struggle to control the radiation from the damaged nuclear plants into a global light.
“The nuclear event in Japan is clearly the third of the three great incidents in commercial nuclear power,” he said. “There have been plenty of others, but the three that stand out are Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and now the Fukushima incident.”
 But, said Wolfson, as crews are still fighting to control the radiation emitted from the nuclear plants, the scale of the event is not yet known — though he said it is far worse than Three Mile Island, it is already clear that contamination is not likely to escalate to a Chernobyl.
And this, he said, will influence the debate over the use of current nuclear technology to minimize the use of coal and oil for energy generation, not as a long-term solution but as a stopgap measure.
“The question now is, what impact will it have on what was going to be a renaissance in nuclear power that may have been needed to forestall other serious effects of some other energy generation technologies,” said Wolfson.
One thing is sure, said Wolfson — he will be doing a major rewrite of the nuclear chapter in his upcoming book on energy, environment and the climate once the Fukushima nuclear plants are brought under control.
Wolfson also drew parallels that hit close to home,  pointing out that the General Electric-built nuclear reactor is a twin of Vermont Yankee, the aging nuclear power plant located in Vernon.
And despite the current worry of radioactive contamination, said Wolfson, one thing is certain — though the cleanup from the Fukushima disaster will not be easy or quick, nuclear technology has come a long way since the Chernobyl disaster.
“This reactor has some problems, It’s also a real workhorse of the nuclear fleet, and most of these reactors have performed for decades with no problems,” said Wolfson.
“The fact that we did the worst thing we could and didn’t have a Chernobyl is a good thing,” he said.
During her talk, Davis said that she knows there are many people on campus and in the community who want to do something for the people of Japan, but she advised patience, since the recovery period will not be a short one.
Some student groups are working to raise money, like 1,000 Cranes for Hope and Peace, which encourages students to make an origami crane and donate to relief efforts. The organizers of the project, members of the Japanese Students Association and Believe 4 Kids, are donating all funds raised to Japan-based aid organizations NICCO and JEN.
Davis said that both fund-raising projects and efforts to stay informed and aware of the struggles to rebuild affected areas will be important in the coming months.
“I hope that this panel is going to be only the first phase in Middlebury’s involvement, followed by many other projects in the future,” she said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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