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Professor’s Experience Brings the Calm After the Storm

Akiro Tokuhiro

When one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded hit parts of Japan on March 11, followed by a massive tsunami, the global community was shaken. Updates came via television news reports and internet citizen reporters, captured images on cameras and cell phones. The visuals and impact were devastating: waves took over streets, homes and buildings, instantly destroying communities and taking lives.

Akira Tokuhiro, professor of nuclear and mechanical engineering based at the University of Idaho-Idaho Falls, paid close attention in the hours and days that followed, especially after the “double whammy”, as he puts it, got even worse. As rescue crews worked to find the people lost in the rubble, feed the hungry and find shelter for those without, the threat from a nuclear power plant problem in Fukushima was starting to rise.

“Japan is used to earthquakes,” he says. “[But] you saw the calmness in the Japanese people during the last few days or so. It is a very old society, like many societies, they like to be very predictable.”

The biggest difference is the reaction on the failing reactors.

“I guess my initial professional judgment was that, ‘Oh, it’s great the reactor survived the earthquake and the tsunami, but they are damaged,’” he says. “Their functional capability is damaged and we have to get a handle on it.”

While many worried about the worst case scenario, Tokuhiro equated it to a much simpler situation.

“I am not trying to downplay what has happened, but if you are on the freeway and you get a flat tire, then you have to manage the situation as it is. Slow down, pull over, you can still drive [with a flat tire] and you have to manage as the situation is presented to you.”

Tokuhiro, a Japanese native, has been scanning wire services, news releases and reputable blogs looking for information.

“I am not sure if I have an emotional attachment to the issue,” he explains. “However, I guess you can’t deny your cultural background. [But] the professional part has me locked in.”

Tokuhiro was born in Japan, but in 1966 at the age of six, his family moved to the U.S. where he has continued to live. He does make occasional trips back to Japan and spent five years there as the senior research engineer at the Japan Nuclear Fuel Cycle Development Institute, also known as JNC, a Japanese government national laboratory.

In the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Tokuhiro has been watching the Japanese broadcasting corporation (NHK) news programs daily and paying particular attention to LinkedIn’s nuclear safety blog site, as well as news releases from Tokyo Electric Power Company, Japan Atomic Industrial Forum and KyodoNews wire services.

Global media outlets are looking to Tokuhiro’s expertise in nuclear plant engineering, design and safety to inform their reports. News outlets in the U.S. were the first to seek his expertise; then global media sought his analysis. Among other outlets, Tokuhiro has been quoted in the New York Times, FOX News Radio, and ABC Australia.

He knows the area and its people, and he says historical and cultural upbringing have shown through on the Japanese people’s reaction since devastation hit. He also sees professional colleagues on Japanese TV providing expert opinion.

Tokuhiro says the situation has calmed down, but as the world watches the reactors and the recovery process, he will be watching as well and working to continue providing accurate, research-based information about what’s happening in Japan.

“Panic doesn’t help anything, you have to assess and manage the situation, and have confidence in what you are doing,” explains Tokuhiro, “This issue is, however, not over.”