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DU responds to disaster in Japan

DU astronomy Professor Toshiya Ueta thought it was just another earthquake, but it wasn’t.

Ueta, who flew into Tokyo the day of the devastating earthquake, recalled the events of March 11 at a special panel discussion about the disaster in Japan held in Driscoll Gallery on March 28.

Sponsored by the Office of the University Chaplain, the informational panel included four DU professors with knowledge of different aspects of the tragedy including the geologic, economic and the nuclear safety impacts on Japan and the rest of the world.

Ueta noted that earthquakes are so common in Japan, he wasn’t worried when he heard the news — even though his flight was delayed. When he arrived in Japan, he knew something was wrong. 

Mike Kerwin, an associate professor of geography, explained that the temblor was not just another earthquake. He said it was a “megaquake” that literally moved the coastline and permanently lowered parts of it. The earthquake was shallow and strong — about one thousand times stronger than the Haiti earthquake — and caused tremendous shaking and damage far from its epicenter. Then came the tsunami.

Kerwin noted that Japan leads the world in active response engineering with monitors that automatically shut down vulnerable systems, such as natural gas distribution systems, when an earthquake strikes. Japan also constructs high rises with a series of counterweights that balance the impact of the shaking during an earthquake. 

“A high-rise in Tokyo is a safe place to be during an earthquake,” Kerwin said.

On the quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, panelist Robert Amme, a DU research professor of physics and astronomy, said there has been an overemphasis on the radioactivity issues by the news media. Amme predicted there won’t be any deaths from radioactivity caused by the plants.

Nuclear energy has the fewest deaths per kilowatt hour than any other source of power,” he noted.

Panelist Jing Sun, assistant professor of political science, says he feels confident in the ability of the Japanese economy to bounce back. He said the cost of the disaster is estimated to be about $202 billion.

The DU Japanese Students Association for 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami is planning to sponsor a campus-wide memorial on April 11 — the one-month anniversary of the earthquake. For more information, contact the chaplain at


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