Understanding Fukushima

Japan and the world pause in prayer today for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that hit the country’s northeastern region exactly one year ago. The said natural disasters led to the meltdown of several reactors in one of Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (Tepco)’s nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture. Although the Japanese government at that time tried to downplay the extent of that nuclear whammy, ostensibly to prevent widespread public panic and chaos; it was, in retrospect, the greatest existential threat Japan has ever faced since World War II.

While the earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters that were beyond human control, the Fukushima disaster wasn’t. The best way to honor the victims of the March 3, 2011 disasters, therefore, is to understand what went wrong in Fukushima with the view of preventing, or at least mitigating, another such disaster.

The real lesson of Fukushima, according to former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, is that nuclear power should never be considered an option by any nation. “I have thought very hard about the types of safety measures necessary to prevent any such disaster from happening again,” writes Kan, “However, when one weighs these measures against the tremendous risks, it is clear that no amount of precautions will make a country completely safe from nuclear energy. I have reached the conclusion, therefore, that the only option is to promote a society free of nuclear power.”

Of course, many, including International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano and current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, would disagree with the former Prime Minister’s conclusion. Indeed, from a pragmatic perspective, nuclear energy remains to be the way to go. But it’s clear now that, as Japanese-American physicist Dr. Michio Kaku said, when Japan decided to pursue nuclear power as a matter of policy thirty years ago, it had made a Faustian deal with the Devil, so to speak. The benefits of nuclear energy in terms of reliable and cheap energy are so great, but so are the risks it poses. What Dr. Kaku doesn’t know, however, is that the Japanese public was never actualy informed of these risks.

‘Absolute safety’ myth.

A very informative and hard-hitting 400-page report by Professor Yoichi Funabashi and Kay Kitazawa of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation exposes an “absolute safety” myth regarding nuclear power. In their zealous desire to win public support for nuclear energy in the 1970s, the nuclear lobby– composed of nuclear proponents in the private sector, local government, and the powerful Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry (METI)– deliberately downplayed the risks of nuclear energy. In fact, even their disaster drills were done half-heartedly since “Japan’s nuclear community has also feared that preparation for a nuclear accident would in itself become a source of anxiety for people living near the plants.” Over time, even Tepco officials themselves were trapped by this absolute safety myth. As a result, there had been a general sense of complacency in the nuclear energy industry regarding the safety of the power plants.

As an excuse for the insufficiency of the safety measures of the Fukushima power plant, for instance, Tepco’s officials had said that the scale of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami had been unprecedented, and therefore unanticipated. But, as Funabashi and Kitazawa’s report stated, the March 11 tsunamis couldn’t have been unanticipated since simple research would show that the Jogan Tsunami of 869 AD in the same area actually had similar heights. Indeed, “even Tepco’s own nuclear energy division understood that there was a risk of large tsunamis at Fukushima,” yet the company never bothered to put up safety mechanisms that would have protected the Fukushima plant from last year’s tsunami.

Inefficient bureaucracy

Complicating this is the lack of an efficient and independent government regulatory authority that would have ensured the safety of the country’s nuclear power plants. Enforcement of such safety regulations was supposed to have been the job of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), but the agency had been largely ineffective. NISA is under the wing of the METI, and METI is a proponent of the nuclear lobby. It doesn’t take rocket science to link the corrupt practice of amakudari to the lack of NISA’s teeth in policing the nuclear energy industry. In fact, even the IAEA had long raised this problem with Japan, but the bureaucrats in Tokyo had always been dismissive. It would have been logical to put NISA under the Ministry of the Environment, or perhaps to make it an independent agency under the Prime Minister’s office; but Tokyo, long controlled by bureaucrats who serve corporate interests more than national interests, had not even thought about it.

Indeed, this problematic bureaucracy posed more problems during the actual response to the disaster itself. The people that make up NISA, for instance, could not even answer then Prime Minister Kan’s questions, since they knew almost next to nothing about nuclear power plants or what was going on in Fukushima. This was because the NISA is staffed not with technical experts but with career civil servants. Usually, these bureaucrats barely warm their seats before hopping to other METI positions; therefore, there had been very few reasons for them to be experts in their job.

Kan: An underrated leader

When the nuclear crisis broke out, bureaucracy and red tape between the Prime Minister’s Office and practically all the other government agencies had already been posing a problem in terms of responding to the tsunami and earthquake disasters. Such problems were unacceptable in confronting the nuclear disaster. Fukushima, after all, was in fact a virtual war with an invisible foe. It was a race against time to prevent a nuclear menace that would have paralyzed practically half of Japan, including Tokyo, a city of thirty million people.

As a result, Prime Minister Kan stepped up, appointing private advisers to do what the bureaucrats failed to do, which was to give him sound advice. He became intensely involved, micro-managing the government’s response to the disaster and in the process infuriating some politicians, Tepco officials and the powerful bureaucrats who appeared to have been more concerned about the Prime Minister’s encroachments on their turfs than the existential threat posed to the entire nation by the invisible nuclear enemy.

The Prime Minister’s leadership in that crucial time in the nation’s history may have been a bit underrated. It is true that he failed to rally the people, who had been waiting for assurance from their leader, at the crucial moments of the disaster; but that’s, at worst, merely a minor oversight. Besides, rallying and assuring the people was more of an Emperor’s job than a Prime Minister’s; and His Majesty certainly did a very admirable job in that regard. What’s more important to note is the fact that Prime Minister Kan risked his career by making bold decisions, such as his appeal to the sense of duty of Tepco officials who had ordered their workers in Fukushima to leave the plant when radiation levels rose to alarming levels. It was practically an order for those civilians to die for their country– certainly very controversial but arguably necessary in the context of those events.

Amidst the confusion, Prime Minister Kan’s hands-on involvement gave direction to the government’s efforts, which included the largest mobilization ever by the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). He held on despite the obstructions from some politicians, including those within his own party; the nuclear lobby; the bureaucracy; and the mainstream media. They all demanded his resignation. And when what little political capital he had were zapped by all these, he used his resignation as a leverage to push for what he thought were vital pieces of legislation. Clearly, Prime Minister Kan had exemplified selfless leadership, patriotism and a deep sense of duty. Unfortunately, not only is his leadership in those trying times under-appreciated; it’s being pilloried in the mainstream media. I hope history would be kinder.

The larger ill

The fact of the matter is that the Fukushima disaster could have been prevented, and the government reponse to it could have been better, had there been honesty on the part of the nuclear lobby in characterizing the risks of nuclear power; proper system of checks and balance in implementing government safety regulations regarding the nuclear power plants; and more efficient coordination between the Prime Minister’s Office and the various government agencies. The lack of all these is symptomatic of a larger ill: A strong but short-sighted bureaucracy.

Sadly, Japan is not learning its lessons. Bureaucratic delays and squabbling continue to stall the creation of a master plan for rehabilitation and reconstruction, thereby wasting an entire year for the country, for instance. It’s often said that Japan has plenty of fine citizens, but I can say that there seems to be a shortage of fine leaders.

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