Lessons in recovery

wBalloons-EiffelEight giant balloons from Japan floated in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower this weekend, a reminder of one of the worst natural disasters of recent times – and of the determination of survivors to rebuild their region.

The balloons were raised by students taking part in the OECD Tohoku School, an innovative educational project launched in northeast Japan following the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Over the past two-and-a-half years, around 100 young people from schools in Tohoku have been working together to plan an event in Paris to show off their region and to demonstrate its recovery.

“It’s not just adults who are working to help our region prosper, it’s students too,” explains Yurina Sato from Yanagawa Junior High School in Fukushima prefecture. “It’s a strong message to local people that we are moving forward.”

The results of the students’ work were on display this weekend. Over two days, the students staged an ambitious set of activities on the Champ de Mars in central Paris that reflected on the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011, and the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and looked forward to Tohoku’s rebuilding.

Visitors also had a chance to sample the region’s culture, including an energetic “deer dance” – a traditional performance that’s taken on a new significance since the disaster. The elaborate costumes and drums used in the dance survived the disaster unscathed and are now presented as a symbol of the region’s resilience.

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But it was the future that dominated many of the student projects. A team from the Yanagawa school has been working with a local producer to create a new line of fruit jellies, which they’ve started retailing in their area. “We’ve sold at least 8,000,” says Yurina Sato. “We want to help local industry in our region.”

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Unsurprisingly, the region’s energy needs were on many minds. Kaoro Kanno is one of a group of students from Adachi High School that worked on measuring radiation levels around the school and on exploring possibilities for renewable energy.

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“The disaster was a turning point,” Kaoro says. “We have to do something now. We thought that if we miss this chance, then who will do it?” Students at Kaoro’s school have been working on using hot springs in the area as an energy source, and are hoping their experiments will lead to the creation of a real source of sustainable energy.

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As well as teaching the students valuable new skills, the OECD Tohoku School may also have lessons for Japanese education. The project challenges traditional styles of teaching and learning by putting students in the driving seat. “In this project, it is students who are taking the initiative, not teachers, not the school,” explains Chikato Nakamura. “It’s a big difference.”

Chikato is on the team from Iwaki city that came up with the idea of raising the balloons above the Champ de Mars. Walking under them, he explained that the four blue balloons, hoisted to over 21 metres, represented the height of the tsunami surge in his area. Against them, the four red balloons represented the determination of Tohoku’s people to recover from the disaster.

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Chikato is hopeful not only about his region’s prospects, but also about the project’s impact on other Japanese schools: “I think Japanese education should do more project-based learning,” he says. “When you study just with a pen and paper, it’s not really learning. Doing actions outside the classroom is really important.”

Many thanks to Saki Kinnan of Osaka University for help with translation.

Useful links

OECD Tohoku School

The OECD educationtoday blog will have more coverage of the project later this week.

Japan: Hard questions and no easy solutions

Japan: Large-scale Floods and Earthquakes

“If I took a different way, would it have changed our fates a little?”

Asking the “what if” questions is just something we do when, looking back after a tragedy, we try to collectively understand what went wrong, what might have been prevented and what we might have done differently.  In the case of Japan’s earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster, the crisis hasn’t yet passed.

For now the world waits and watches the Fukushimi Daichii reactors, their cooling mechanisms and the small crew of workers still on site struggling to stave off the worst forms of disaster.

But while we wait we ponder – how far can we trust ourselves, and the systems we devise, to resist both predictable and unpredictable catastrophes?  The particular combination of earthquake, tsunami, nuclear accident and bad weather was unpredictable, but all of these items are studied in Japan’s disaster response planning.

Indeed, at the request of the Japanese government, in 2009 the OECD carried out review of Japan’s risk management policies concerning large-scale floods and earthquakes. Among other recommendations, the report states that: “Industries that can trigger special harm in case of flood accidents, such as chemical and nuclear industries, should be required by law to move to safer areas”.

In fact, often after a disaster strikes, it turns out that warning went unheeded, or terrible mistakes were made. At Bhopal, security systems were disabled to save money.

At Three Mile Island, an indicator on a valve gave ambiguous information.

In the world’s worst plane crash at Tenerife airport in 1977, a pilot took off without clearance. It can be the case, as for Deepwater Horizon, that neither machines nor people behave as expected.

And in the Fukushima plant, emergency generators were in place, but not on high enough ground.  So the backup system itself was vulnerable, making catastrophic failure possible. The spent fuel is stored next to the reactor, so damage to the reactor can damage the stored rods too. The “comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure” makes the reactor more vulnerable than other designs.

What are we missing about the interaction of complex systems (the human mind/will/choice patterns being one of these) that allow these huge catastrophic events to occur in spite of multiple redundant systems, failsafes and billions of dollars directed at preventing them?

What would allow us to improve risk assessment? A better understanding of human perception of risk for a start. Why we tend to minimise it, why we are overly optimistic about our ability to manage it and deal with events when they arise, why our love for the elegance of technology and engineering leaves us blind to its weaknesses.

We have to pay attention to the combination of human factors, economic opportunism and political influences that characterise decision making in a practical context. Rather than deploring these exogenous influences, they could be integrated into the process – by assuming that operators will always look for ways to save time/money/effort or that industry will resist backtracking on a technology that has been adopted.  We have to learn to factor the costs of catastrophe – environmental economic and social – into the decisions around prevention and maintenance.

Otherwise, we end up with grim advice such as that given by Yuli Andreyev, former head of the agency tasked with cleaning up after Chernobyl. Yesterday, he told the Guardian that the Japanese authorities “had to be willing to sacrifice nuclear response workers for the good of the greater public”.

Useful links

OECD work on risk management

Nuclear safety and regulation Nuclear Energy Agency

The Security of Energy Supply and the Contribution of Nuclear Energy Nuclear Energy Agency