Printed on: July 24, 2013

Fukushima Fellowship

Pair of INL interns experienced 2011 disaster firsthand


Taichi Komine was sitting in a friend's car near the University of Aizu in Japan when the ground began to rumble.

It was slow at first. Then, buildings started to sway.

Komine said the earthquake that rumbled through Japan on March 11, 2011, first appeared to be normal.

Before this quake, an average of one earthquake, magnitude 3.0 or stronger, struck the Tokyo metropolitan area per week, according to a June article in The Japan Times.

Komine was going to school about 70 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which is about 150 miles north of Tokyo. He soon learned it was not a typical temblor.

On that date, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit off the east coast of Japan, triggering an estimated 23-foot tsunami.

Komine returned home to overturned furniture and no electricity -- but it got worse.

The power station was, unfortunately, within the earthquake-tsunami combo's range. When the earthquake hit, the three operating reactors at the power station automatically shut down. The tsunami, though, shut down vital systems supporting reactor operations, which exposed fuel.

"I had to stay a couple weeks in the apartment and I couldn't even go outside because of the radioactivity (in the air from the power station)," said Komine, a computer science graduate student.

Fast forward two years: Komine and a fellow quake survivor, Sadami Suto, are interning at Idaho National Laboratory, working with scientists trying to make nuclear power plants as safe as possible.

Suto said she wants to help the world understand what happened at the power station that day so it won't happen again.

"Through this disaster, we are responsible for not only Japan but also for all around the world ... because of the nuclear power plant," said Suto, a nuclear physics major at Tohoku University. The university is about 200 miles from the power station.

During her three-month internship at the lab, Suto is preparing a PowerPoint presentation on the accident and its implications for other plants around the world.

Komine is helping make nuclear fuel cycle analysis possible on an iPad.

They came to Idaho through the Kizuna Project, an opportunity for Japanese university students who are either from or volunteered in the regions affected by the disaster.

The project is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan.

For Suto, the internship is an opportunity to help the U.S. by speaking about the accident.

It's also a chance to tell the U.S. thank you for its support in the cleanup effort.

"I'm really thankful for the American people because they helped us a lot and I think they want to know (what) the situation (in Japan) is now," Suto said.