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Japan Rebuilds

Two months after a devastating earthquake and tsunami, Japan’s chemical enterprise is on a determined path to recovery

by Jean-François Tremblay
May 23, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 21

Credit: Newscom
Police officers help remove debris in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture.
Credit: Newscom
Police officers help remove debris in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture.

It’s a good time to visit Tokyo. Spooked by the risk of exposure to radiation from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors, many tourists are staying away. Flights to Japan aren’t full, and fares are lower than usual. Hotel occupancy is similarly low despite steep discounts, and restaurants and pubs aren’t as busy as usual. Meanwhile, the spring weather means ideal temperatures for comfortably strolling the city’s streets.

It may be delightful to be a tourist in Tokyo now, but Japan is far from having fully recovered from the earthquake and tsunami of March 11. Tokyo is darker than usual at night, and the trains run less often because electricity is scarce.

In Fukushima, valiant crews at the nuclear power station still brave enormous risks to bring the units into cold shutdown. At Kashima, one of Japan’s largest chemical production bases, the largest plants remain out of commission. And in the country’s northeast, closer to the quake’s epicenter, scientists at Tohoku University and other research centers will need up to a year to rehabilitate their extensively damaged chemistry labs.

On the brighter side, Japan’s chemical industry on the whole escaped with light damage. Infrastructure and plants at Kashima are not fully repaired yet, but most facilities will be back in operation by July at the latest.

In the rest of Japan, the industry suffered little damage except at a few facilities located close to the earthquake’s epicenter. Fortunately for the sector, the Tohoku region where the quake occurred is home to few chemical plants. Nobu Koshiba, president of the rubber and electronic materials manufacturer JSR, tells C&EN that the impact of the earthquake on Japan’s chemical industry will ultimately be remembered as insignificant.

But in terms of how Japan powers itself, the earthquake and tsunamis will have a more lasting influence. Japan is rethinking its reliance on nuclear power. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered the indefinite shutdown of the Hamaoka nuclear plant, which sits near a tectonic fault line southwest of Tokyo. He also announced a national push in favor of renewable energy that could ultimately turn Japan into a global leader in clean energy technologies (see page 8).

Two of the articles in this special report on Japan examine the impact of the March 11 catastrophe on the country’s chemistry research and chemical business communities. The third explores how the disaster is affecting nuclear energy policy in the U.S.



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