The Impact of the Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster to Japanese Physics Departments and Laboratories

Tuneyoshi Kamae

Nearly 6 months have passed since a powerful earthquake struck the north-eastern coastal region of Honshu Island of Japan on March 11. A series of hydrogen explosions in the Fukushima Dai'ichi nuclear power plant extended the disaster further inland. The loss of human lives and destruction of the social infrastructure have been concentrated in the coastal region hit by the tsunami. Despite heroic efforts by volunteers and trillions of yen pledged by the government, aid organizations and individuals, the recovery in the region will take more than 10 years. Fortunately for the Japanese physics community, no researcher or graduate student has lost their life or suffered serious injury. There is no major research facility in the hardest-hit coastal region. However, considerable damage has been reported by physics research institutions and facilities, all of which were caused by the earthquake.

As of May 7, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) estimates that the damage to universities and national laboratories exceeds 90 billion yen (about 1.1 billion USD). Tohoku University, located at about 180 km from the epicenter in the City of Sendai, the third oldest national university with world-class science and engineering departments, suffered the severest damage. According to a Japanese news agency (Kyodo Tsushin), about 7000 pieces of laboratory equipment were destroyed and 28 buildings were severely damaged at the university. The total cost for recovery is estimated at 77 billion yen (about 910 million USD). The JPARC facility of KEK lies about 350 km from the epicenter. Tsukuba University and the main campus of KEK are further away. However, these 3 institutions suffered significant damage. Minor damage to facilities has also been reported at many facilities in the Tokyo Area. The extent of damage and the recovery plan are described below for the hardest-hit institutions. Brief summaries of assistance given by the international physics community, effects on non-Japanese scientists in the region, and activities led by physicists in Japan are also added to this report.

Tohoku University

Research Center for Electron Photon Science on the Mikamine campus: The 300 MeV electron linear accelerator and 1.2 GeV storage ring for synchrotron radiation have been damaged severely. The vacuum, cooling water, RF, and power distribution systems have been broken at multiple locations and many magnets in the ring have been dislocated. The Center hopes the facility will be fully recovered by the end of March 2012.

Institute for Material Research on the Katahira campus: The Institute has a scanning tunneling microscope and other delicate instruments. Most of them were on earth-quake-proof platforms but damaged. They are back to normal operation after replacement of damaged parts and some realignment work. The ground under the Katahira campus seems to be more stable than other campuses of Tohoku University.

High Energy Accelerator Organization (KEK) - JPARC

Photo 1: Liquefaction occurred at several locations in JPARC’s Tokai campus.

Photo 1: Liquefaction occurred at several locations in JPARC’s Tokai campus.

Photo 2: Radiation shields fell down at multiple

Photo 2: Radiation shields fell down at multiple locations in the accelerator complex of JPARC.

This facility is located on the Tokai campus about 50 km north-east of the main campus or about 350 km from the epicenter. The shoreline along the campus was hit by the tsunami but the breakwater wall stopped sea water from entering the campus. Liquefaction occurred extensively (Photo 1).

Several buildings, outdoor structures, and equipment were damaged. The laboratory has an accelerator complex consisting of a 400 MeV normal conducting proton linear accelerator, a 600 MeV superconducting proton linear accelerator, a 3 GeV proton synchrotron and a 50 GeV proton synchrotron. The accelerator complex shoots an intense beam of neutrinos to Kamioka (T2K experiment). The foundation under the accelerator complex was built on long piles driven deep into the ground, which prevented severe damage to the key accelerator components. Many auxiliary facilities, however, were not on such a foundation and were damaged severely. Heavy concrete blocks arranged to shield radiation moved and fell down (Photo 2).

Most beamline components have moved out of their nominal position. Photo 3 shows the displacement of neutrino line components from the nominal position (0.0 on the vertical axis in mm). The Director hopes the recovery work will be completed by the end of calendar year 2011.

Photos were taken from

KEK-Tsukuba campus

The campus has two accelerator complexes, the B-factory (an electron-positron collider) and the Photon Factory (a synchrotron radiation facility), and various R/D accelerators. An 8 GeV electron linear accelerator serves both accelerator complexes. Photo 4 shows some of the damage to the 8 GeV linear accelerator. The B-factory has been undergoing a long-term upgrade and its collider ring had been decommissioned since 2010. Hence impact on research activity is minimal. Minor damage has been reported in wigglers and dipole magnets located in the tunnel. The BELLE detector was waiting in the experimental hall for an upgrade: the entire detector slid several centimeters. In the accelerator test facility (ATF), the vacuum system was broken and components were dislocated. Many support facilities were severely damaged

The Photon Factory was operating when the earthquake hit. Several components in the RF and vacuum systems in Photon Factory were broken or dislocated. Restoration is likely to be completed by the end of calendar year 2011. Photos were taken from

Photo 3: Dislocation of components in the T2K neutrino beam line in JPARC.

Photo 3: Dislocation of components in the T2K neutrino beam line in JPARC. Blue points represent measured heights and the red line is the nominal height.

Photo 4: Damage to the 8GeV linear accelerator at KEK Tsukuba: A quadrupole magnet fell off the support structure (left); vacuum leak developed at bellows (center); two klystrons were damaged due to vacuum leak (right).

Photo 4: Damage to the 8GeV linear accelerator at KEK Tsukuba: A quadrupole magnet fell off the support structure (left); vacuum leak developed at bellows (center); two klystrons were damaged due to vacuum leak (right).

Tsukuba University

Severe damage has been reported at the tandem electrostatic accelerator: the accelerating column has been destroyed and repair seems to be very difficult. Many other research facilities reported serious damage and only about 10% have been operational as of June 10, 2011. Loss of biological samples due to the long power outage has also inflicted a serious blow to research. The total damage is estimated to be 7 billion yen (85 million USD).

Universities and Laboratories in Tokyo Area

Damage has been reported from institutions farther away from the epicenter. Many pieces of equipment need nano-scale alignment and are susceptible to mechanical damage due to earthquake vibrations. Cracks are found in several older buildings.

Assistance Offered by Other Laboratories

Research Center for Electron Photon Science (Tohoku University), JPARC, Photon Factory and other facilities in KEK Tsukuba campus, and several facilities in the universities affected by the earthquake have been international or national users' facilities. Many users running experiments or scheduled to run experiments were also affected by the earthquake. Other laboratories including those outside of Japan offered beam times for these users. For example visit‐e/press/2011/MLFUserSupport.html

Public Outreach from Physics Community

Although all national universities are now called "national university corporations" and national laboratories into "Inter-University Research Institute Corporations" or "Independent Administrative Corporations," they are all controlled by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) or some other ministry. Their administrators are appointed by their governing ministry and are not allowed to go out of the bureaucratic boxes. As far as the author knows, no Japanese university acted promptly to inform the public about the earthquake or tsunami or nuclear disaster in a comprehensive way. The MIT Nuclear Engineering department began posting information about the pressurized water reactor and analyses based on TV images. No nuclear engineering department posted technical information in Japan. Many individuals in academia including students, however, acted promptly; the safety of all students was known very quickly by heroic efforts of students' offices and academic staffs. The Japanese internet community and its users acted promptly. WIDE, an internet research group based at the Keio University Fujisawa campus provided information in English, Chinese, Korean and many other languages. Google and Yahoo linked to information scientists assembled. Many physicists assembled measurements on radiation fall-out and dis-seminated it through WIDE, Google, Yahoo and MEXT home page. They also disseminated information through Twitters and web postings.

Physicists in Tohoku University provided information on radiation safety to citizens of Sendai. An earliest town meeting was organized by physicists in Tokyo on April 2 where questions about the nuclear disaster and possible health concern were answered by specialists. Physics Society of Japan held a symposium titled "Physicists' View of Nuclear Power and Energy Problems" on June 10.

Nuclear physicists at Research Center for Nuclear Physics, Osaka University organized a volunteer group and measured radioactive contamination in soil in Fukushima Prefecture for 2 weeks in June. About 1000 physicists and students participated in the activity.

Impact on Non-Japanese Researchers and Students

The earthquake was probably the biggest in the history of Japan and gave an enormous shock to those who have come from earthquake-free countries. In an IPMU News (No.14) published by the Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of Universe on the Kashiwa campus of the University of Tokyo (about 400 km from the epicenter), Serguey Petcov writes of his experience. He could not get back home and stayed at a nearby hotel. He took a taxi to get back to his apartment in Tokyo the next day and learned about the disaster in the nuclear power plant. The internet, CNN, BBC, NHK-International and close communication with IPMU administrators helped him become well informed of the disaster. Foreigners' exodus from Tokyo began as U.S. and other European Embassies issued recommendations to evacuate the Tokyo area, but he remained in Tokyo.

There were many foreign scientists and students working in the north-eastern part of Japan at the time of the earthquake. For most of them, it was a life-changing shock. Embassies, municipal governments, universities, and laboratories made special arrangements for them to take refuge in safer places. The nuclear disaster added a different kind of fear that none had experienced before. According to a report in the IPMU News, 29-52% of foreign researchers working in IPMU's sister institutes (called WPI) left Japan after the disaster. Some newly appointed postdoctoral fellows cancelled their contracts. Misinformation in some news media about the radiation level in Tokyo may be behind this exodus. As of June, according to the article, about two-thirds of them have returned. The number of applications from overseas to Japanese graduate schools is predicted to decline in the next academic year.

In the recovery process, generous assistance and support has been given from all over the world, including from international science organizations and their members. Without this recovery would have been much slower and painful. I feel most repair and restoration work will be complete by the end of the Japanese fiscal year of 2011 (the end of March 2012). It will take a year or two to see the long-term effects on Japanese basic research. We do not yet know how severe the shortage of electric power will be or how much the funding to basic science will be sacrificed for the disaster recovery.


The author thanks Herman Winick for suggesting this article, reading the manuscript and making valuable suggestions. He is also grateful for the information given by Hiro Aihara and Akiko Kawachi.

Tuneyoshi Kamae (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) holds a Visiting Professorship at SLAC and leads the GLAST group there. Dr. Kamae has served on many government committees, laboratory advisory committees, and university committees in Japan and the U.S. in areas of high-energy physics, astrophysics, Internet, and administration.

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