UW News

March 6, 2012

UW played major role in telling story of Japan quake

News and Information

Jody Bourgeois vividly recalls the great Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011. She was in a university office in Sapporo, Japan, and as the tragedy unfolded she soon became much in demand for reporters bringing the story to people in the United States.

She spent much of the day after the earthquake – and parts of many days to come – doing interviews via Skype and email. She also chronicled events on her own blog.

A railroad bridge near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility lies in ruins following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

A railroad bridge near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility lies in ruins following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.Voice of America

As tsunami damage and earthquake aftershocks took an increasingly obvious toll on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, people in North America became anxious about the possibility of radioactive contamination crossing the Pacific Ocean.

Dan Jaffe, a science and technology professor at UW Bothell who was the first to document air pollution from Asia making it across the Pacific, provided reassurance that the danger from radiation was low. Subsequent air sample testing led by UW physics faculty R.G. Hamish Robertson and Michael Miller showed Jaffes assessment was accurate.

“I think the data confirmed that the risk to U.S. populations was extremely low,” he said.

As the situation at the nuclear plant intensified, UW emeritus professor Norm McCormick, co-author of a 2011 book on risk analysis of nuclear systems, and Robert Albrecht, a UW emeritus professor of electrical engineering and nuclear engineering who worked as a consultant to the Japanese nuclear reactor manufacturing industry in the 1980s, talked to U.S. media about what might be happening inside the Fukushima Daiichi plant and about possible outcomes.

Meanwhile, as the tsunami fanned out across the Pacific, John Vidale, a UW Earth and space sciences professor and director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, along with other scientists associated with the UW Seismology Laboratory, talked about the risk to areas along the West Coast and helped to explain what had happened in Japan, as well as risks in other areas.

Bourgeois notes a contrast between studying evidence of historic tsunamis and being on hand for the real thing, wanting to help the victims.

“There is a conflict of being a scientist interested in what is happening and the realization that what is happening is just awful,” she said. “If there is a thing that really hit me, other than the live video, it was the before-and-after pictures. These were places I had been, towns I had visited.”