Spring 2011 visit to Japan Atomic Energy Agency, Tokai Village, Ibaraki Prefecture

The last several years I have been a visiting scientist at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) in Tokai village located in Ibaraki prefecture (located north of Tokyo). JAEA has a nuclear research facility in Tokai that includes neutron diffraction studies of biological molecules. There is also a nuclear power plant in Tokai run by the Japan Atomic Power Company.


I visit Tokai each spring for one week during my University’s spring break to collaborate with the research group of Dr. Ryota Kuroki; this year spring break was between March 6-12 (Sat-Sat). During my visits I typically stay at the Masago Foreign Guest House, about a quarter mile from the research facility. There were four minor earthquakes during that particular week. Friday March 11th was the last full day of my trip and Dr. Kuroki took me to lunch at Fisherman's Wharf in a town called Hitachi-naka; we finished eating at around 1:30pm and I returned to my dorm room in Tokai. At 2:46pm there was a magnitude 9.0 (Richter scale) earthquake with an epicenter just east of Sendai (approximately 135 miles N/NE of Tokai).


The earthquake started with minor shaking and continued in intensity. At some point I moved underneath the doorway of the small kitchen in my room (training from having grown up in California). The shaking continued to increase in intensity; it was now difficult to stand up, and things were falling off the shelves and desk, etc. It felt as if the building might start to collapse if the shaking got much stronger. I did not know it at the time, but this was the most powerful known earthquake to hit Japan. As the shaking subsided people began to go outside or into the lobby to see what was going on. Sometime later I spoke with the manager of the facility who let me know that a tsunami had hit Sendai, but I could not understand anything else she was saying. Unknown to me at the time, a 13-ft high tsunami devastated the Hitachi-naka Fisherman’s wharf where I had eaten lunch.

The damage shut off electricity, which shut off the heat and water (the water pressure being produced by electric pumps). It had snowed that week, so it was winter weather. The phone in my room did not work, and the next day, the cell phone service also failed. The roads in town were damaged, due to large gashes and ripples as high as several feet in the asphalt, and this made it impossible to get around by car and sometimes difficult by bicycle.






There was also some structural damage visible to buildings and monuments in the area where I was.






If you are going to be in a disaster, I recommend Japan. In short order the local community center was providing food and water and a place to sleep if you needed it. They also began making temporary repairs on the roads within 24 hrs. Fortunately, there were no fires after the earthquake in Tokai, and the tsunamis in Ibaraki prefecture did not lead to a large number of fatalities as in prefectures to the north. Despite the utter lack of power, there was absolutely no looting; people queued up politely for food, water, blankets, etc.



The biggest problem was lack of information. Most people assumed that Tokai was the center of damage; other rumors were that there were 3 earthquakes (there was only one); also, while it was known that Sendai had a tsunami, the extent of damage was unclear. I was told that the quake in Tokai was about "6+"; this didn′t sound so bad, but then I found out that Japan uses a different scale. While the Richter scale used in the west is open-ended, the Japanese use a closed-ended scale of 0-7 (where 7 is the hand of god). So, 6+ was pretty big (I just was not aware of the scale difference at the time). The aftershocks were continuous and around magnitude 3-5 (Japanese scale) for several days afterward (the first 24 hrs the aftershooks separated by no more than a few minutes). I slept fully clothed with my shoes on in case I had to exit the building quickly; It was not really possible to sleep. Due to the roads the buses were not running; due to the lack of electricity the trains were not running; gasoline was rationed (10 L per car) but this soon ran out since no tanker trucks could enter town to replenish supplies due to the poor condition of the roads. Cars could sort of get around, but busses and trucks could not. Gas was distributed by hand pumping from the station's underground tanks. Cars were lined up in queues of several blocks long, starting at 3:00 am. One of the problems in getting around was that you constantly came upon barriers due to damage, and therefore had to find other routes to get around (this was frustrating since it made you use up gas).

The dormitory manager where I stayed rounded up all available food; an eclectic mix of bread, instant noodles, some boiled eggs, along with some coffee and tea (made by collecting wood and setting up a type of barbeque and putting a tea pot on the grill). There was plenty of bottled water and bottled tea. Toilets, however, did not flush. The manager collected non-potable water in buckets and these were used to flush the toilets.

Dr. Kuroki and I went to look at the lab; which was a real mess; all equipment on the floor and much of the equipment damaged. By some miracle, the -80 was upright and still working on emergency backup(!).





News began to filter in that one of the nuclear powerplants in the north had some kind of melt down. This caused a number of people staying the dormitory much concern; and the discussion was on the direction of the wind and whether any radiation might spread to us (it did not). Several people began to make plans to leave. The bus service was running at a nearby town (Mito; which you could drive to) and from there you could get to Tsukuba, and the train was running there to Narita airport. Several Europeans at the guesthouse received information from their embassies that it was urgent that they evacuate Tokai immediately. The reason was unclear, but Tokai does have a nuclear power station; so there was some concern about that. Power came back on Sunday evening, along with cell phone connections. The TV indicated utter devastation in Sendai, with thousands (if not tens of thousands) perished. My wife informed me that the news said another nuclear power plant had exploded, but more importantly, that Tokai's nuclear plant was also starting to fail. Dr. Kuroki checked up on this and said there were two cooling systems in the Tokai nuclear plant, primary and backup. The primary had failed, but the backup was holding the temperatures so far; additionally, neutron detectors distributed throughout the town did not yet show any increased readings. The nuclear plant in Tokai is so close to where we were, that it would not matter much which way the wind was blowing; it would be highly unpleasant if the cooling system failed, and there would be little time with which to move.

My wife convinced my colleague and I that it would be in our interest to attempt to evacuate as soon as possible. I have learned (the hard way) not to second-guess my wife's advice. Dr. Kuroki and I drove to Mito (using up what little gas we had, taking various detours around damaged roads) and took a taxi ($200.00; note, this was not due to price gouging but to the distance) to Ibaraki airport. The airport reopened 3 hours after we got there; however, just about the time we were ready to board a large aftershock hit and the airport was closed down again. Fortunately, they took only about 30 min to confirm the runway was not damaged and we then boarded and flew 90 min to Kobe (the only domestic destination from Ibaraki - the other two being Korea and Singapore). At Kobe my mother-in-law met us and her and I took a taxi to her apartment in Osaka (Dr. Kuroki took a train home to Fukuoka). My mother-in-law lives in a high-rise apartment and there are 6 elevators; however, one of them had tape on it with some kind of warning. When I asked about it I was told that it did not work, as it was damaged in an earthquake. I was surprised to hear that they also had an earthquake, but it turned out it was the same one (about 500 miles away)!


I would like to thank Dr. Ryota Kuroki for working so hard (despite his own troubles with his laboratory) to help me travel from Tokai to Osaka. Dr. Kuroki also informed me that we were exceptionally lucky, since most of Ibaraki was much more damaged (particularly the coast) than we were. My thoughts are with the Japanese people, who have suffered so much, yet manage the utmost character.

Mike Blaber, March 19 2011