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Did We Almost Lose Tokyo?

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If there is one document you must read in the lead-up to the one year anniversary of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, it is this summary of an independent investigation into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis conducted by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The review’s big revelation – that Japanese officials feared a domino effect of nuclear catastrophe beginning at Fukushima Daiichi and ending with the need to evacuate Tokyo (if such a thing is even possible) – has already been covered in the New York Times and elsewhere. But the review is chock full of incredible findings about what actually transpired behind the scenes of Japan’s nuclear crisis.

Among them:

  • TEPCO (the plant's owner) was not required to – and did not – plan for the possible extended loss of offsite electrical power to the plant. According to the review, “[T]epco’s most recent abnormal operating procedures …  do not address the possibility of a prolonged, total loss of power at a nuclear plant. When on-site workers referred to the severe accident manual, the answers they were looking for simply were not there. …[T]he regulatory guidelines … which stated that a station blackout need not be considered played a large and negative role in the events that transpired.”  
  • Key resources that Japan had developed to help respond to a nuclear accident – including the off-site emergency control facility at Fukushima Daiichi and the nation’s environmental radiation forecasting system – were not functional during the disaster. According to the review, “Despite widespread environmental contamination by radioactive material between March 11 and March 15—the time when the central government made decisions about evacuating residents—[radiation monitoring] data were not officially provided to top leaders in the Prime Minister’s Office until March 23. Evacuation orders were therefore issued without the benefit of [the] forecasts.”
  • TEPCO knew in advance of the disaster that large tsunamis were possible at Fukushima Daiichi, but did not take adequate steps to protect the plant. According to the review: “[E]ven Tepco’s own nuclear energy division understood that there was a risk of large tsunamis at Fukushima. However these probabilities were ultimately dismissed … on the grounds that they were ‘academic.’ Regulatory authorities, too, had encouraged the company to incorporate new findings regarding tsunami risks into its safety plans, but such measures were not made mandatory.”
  • Japan came very close to having a nuclear disaster of unimaginable scale. The review describes the reaction to the potential abandonment of the plant by TEPCO at the height of the crisis. “According to first-hand accounts by five top officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, the prime minister raced into TEPCO’s headquarters at 5:35 a.m. on March 15 and told more than 200 workers in its operation room that abandoning the reactors and spent fuel pools would have devastating effects over several months, creating 10 to 20 sources of radiation, each releasing two to three times the contamination discharged at Chernobyl. It didn’t matter how much it cost to contain the disaster, the prime minister said: Withdrawal was out of the question when Japan’s survival was at stake. … The workers, he said, should put their lives on the line to salvage the situation.”
  • Lastly, the review depicts communications and decision-making breakdowns among government officials and TEPCO staff that would be laughable if the ramifications weren’t so serious. Regarding the critical decision to inject seawater into the reactors, the review states: “During a teleconference, [Fukushima Daiichi plant director Masao] Yoshida called the employee in charge of the seawater injections to his side and whispered in his ear … that though he would now order a halt to the seawater injections, the employee should disregard the order and continue. Thereupon, Yoshida loudly declared to all teleconference participants that water injections would be interrupted. … Yoshida’s kabuki play successfully helped TEPCO avoid further confrontations with the government, while ensuring that the cooling of the reactors would continue; at this point, the company’s Fukushima Daiichi plant team was working independently of their headquarters. That the on-site director in Fukushima needed to go to such lengths to avoid a further deterioration of the nuclear crisis shows the extent to which relations between the Prime Minister’s Office and TEPCO and communication between TEPCO’s headquarters and the company’s on-site managers had broken down.”

Perhaps the most sobering suggestion of the independent review is its indication that despite the dislocation of 90,000 people and widespread radioactive contamination of land, food and water, Japan was actually lucky that the Fukushima nuclear disaster did not become a whole lot worse.

The more we learn about what happened in March 2011, the more the Fukushima Daiichi disaster begins to look like Japan’s Hurricane Katrina – a disaster that resulted from a negligent failure to prepare for a foreseeable event, coupled with an inept and confused response by corporations and the government when the event finally occurred. 

As we learn more and more about the sweeping and decades-long impact that the Fukushima accident will have on the Japanese people – and as we discover just how close Japan was to an unspeakable nuclear calamity – we need to ask ourselves if America’s regulatory and governmental structures are truly that much better prepared than their Japanese counterparts were on the morning of March 11. Even if the answer is “yes,” we need to be absolutely sure, since, as the Fukushima review concluded, “just as no two disasters are identical, no two measures of luck will ever be exactly the same.”