At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a 9-magnitude megathrust earthquake triggered a tsunami that slammed into the aging Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant along the country’s northeastern coastline, less than 250 km north of the capital. In the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, the plant’s power systems failed, causing cooling units to shut down and sending reactor cores into meltdown.
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As radiation began spreading over a landscape of rice paddies, dairy farms and fishing villages, Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s efforts at containment involved not only the plant under their management, but limiting access to procedural records, downplaying vulnerabilities and disseminating misinformation. If the Fukushima disaster is a tale of transparency and deceit — of heroism matched by fatal ineptitude — it is also, as the writers of “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster” characterize it, a “saga of a technology promoted through the careful nurturing of a myth: the myth of safety.”
This detailed account is a collaboration between scientists and a senior journalist who covered the Three Mile Island accident — these are voices worth paying heed to. The chronological structure of the book replicates the events as they unfolded on March 2011, events that were broadcast almost live as they happened at the time thanks to technological advances such as remote cameras placed at ports and other critical locations, cellphones, webcams, YouTube and Twitter. The Fukushima disaster was, at the time, the world’s most accurately monitored calamity.
In Japan, economics not only trumps heritage, nature and the state of the environment, but also safety. As the authors explain, the reasons for constructing nuclear reactors in Fukushima Prefecture were understandable, given the region’s underdeveloped coastline and progressive depopulation. But even in this instance, duplicity is revealed. Suspecting that some locals might object to the planned nuclear plant, meetings between local officials and Tepco were held in secret. When the electric company sent female employees to accompany utility engineers on inspection trips, they disguised them as vacationing hikers to avoid identification.
The Japanese public, as the authors point out, were not entirely blameless. Mollified by improvements in the economy and an apparently efficient electrical delivery system, they ignored the signs: minor nuclear accidents, warnings from professional bodies about the risks of constructing reactors on the world’s most seismically volatile terrain and press reports about reactor managers falsifying accident reports and other cover-ups. On the rare occasions when lawsuits challenging nuclear safety made it to the courts, they were routinely dismissed. In many cases, independent specialists were dependent upon the very industry they were examining for their livelihoods and research funding. Some of that cozy complacency would be shattered, but not broken, with the triple shock of a megaquake, tsunami and the hydrogen explosions that took place in buildings at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
The same refusal to entertain scenarios that might challenge the assumption of nuclear safety was responsible for many of the statements made as the disaster unfurled. On March 11, government spokesman Yukio Edano asserted, without a trace of doubt, that “there is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak.”
The book is notable for including little reported, but telling, incidents and details. We learn, for example, that a geological survey estimated that the amount of surface energy displaced by the seismic rupture, was enough to power the city of Los Angeles for one year; that the tsunami approaching Japan’s eastern coast possessed enough power to snap off over 60 km of the Antarctic ice shelf. In a desperate effort to reboot the failed electric grid, Tepco headquarters ordered 1,000 spare car batteries to be sent to the plant. The subsequent delivery was held up for long, crucial hours by delays in securing the government permits necessary to approve the transport of the batteries along expressways. The story serves as a salutary metaphor for Japanese red tape and obstructionism.
While the focus of the book is determinedly on the Fukushima disaster, the authors, in their wider analysis of nuclear issues, are at pains to point out that what occurred in the Tohoku region was an accident that just happened to take place in Japan. They suggest that the weaknesses in design and regulatory oversights, and the shortcomings in operating the systems — all of which this particular disaster highlighted — exist wherever nuclear reactors operate.
Sadly, Fukushima is not a redemptive story, but one of tumescent venality and passionate ignorance. With the current government hell-bent on nuclear restarts, Japan’s historic cycles of destruction and costly renewal are all but set to be re-enacted.
U.S. urbanologist Charles Beard, reflecting on the failure of the reconstruction plan for Tokyo following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, expressed doubts about the ability of the authorities to carry out a “comprehensive scheme of city planning in the face of organized, short-sighted private interests and political ineptitude.” Almost a century on, many of the dispossessed victims of the March 11 catastrophe might legitimately ask if anything has really changed.