For 20 years, some seismologists in Japan, such as Katsuhiko Ishibashi, now professor emeritus at Kobe University, have warned of the seismic and tsunami hazards to the safety of nuclear power plants. 

Yet in the immediate aftermath of the magnitude-9.1 earthquake that struck Tohoku on 11 March, pundits could be found on many Japanese TV stations saying that it was “unforeseeable”.

That's because the 'foreseen' earthquakes were using flawed methodology, argues Robert J. Geller in a Nature Comment piece.   Geller is in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science, Graduate School of Science, University of Tokyo, and he calls on seismologists in Japan to stop making long-term earthquake forecasts using flawed methodology, to scrap futile efforts at short-term earthquake prediction, and to stop treating the hypothetical ‘Tokai earthquake’, a projected event where the plate boundary off the Tokai district where some said a magnitude-8 earthquake could be expected, as if it were real.   

Geller pulls no punches saying the national seismic hazard maps produced by the Japanese government as based on outdated science. He argues for the repeal of the 1978 Large-Scale Earthquake Countermeasures Act, which implicitly assumes, based on scant evidence, that predicting earthquakes hours or days in advance is possible.

He contends that if, rather than flawed methodology, global seismicity and the historical record in Tohoku (such as the 38-meter tsunami of 1896) had been used as the basis for estimating seismic hazards, the Tohoku earthquake on 11 March could easily have been foreseen in a general way, although not (of course) its particular time, epicenter or magnitude.

“Countermeasures for dealing with such events could and should have been fully incorporated in the initial design of the Fukushima nuclear power plants,” he writes.  

All of Japan is at risk from earthquakes, and the present state of seismological science does not allow us to reliably differentiate the risk level in particular geographic areas, he concludes. “Future basic research in seismology must be soundly based on physics, impartially reviewed, and be led by Japan’s top scientists rather than by faceless bureaucrats.”

Citation: Robert J. Geller, 'Shake-up time for Japanese seismology', Nature (2011) doi:10.1038/nature10105 Published online 13 April 2011