Much to learn from crisis report

A report made public Feb. 27 by a private-sector independent panel set up by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation reveals in detail how the government handled the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Citing factors that exacerbated the crisis, the report points a finger at the government’s utter lack of preparedness for a severe nuclear accident, its haphazard handling of the catastrophe, and bureaucratic turf wars among government organizations that prevented timely and effective responses to the crisis.

The report confirms what the public soon noticed as it watched the government’s response to the nuclear fiasco. As the report emphasizes, the government must quickly and drastically change its attitude and policies toward nuclear power plant safety and thoroughly prepare for the possibility of future disasters.

The panel’s investigation is significant in that it describes in detail the government’s responses using information gained through interviews with more than 300 politicians and bureaucrats as well as workers at the nuclear power plant. Those interviewed included former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, former trade and industry minister Banri Kaieda, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Shunsuke Kondo and Nuclear Safety Commission chairman Haruki Madarame.

Most conspicuous is the refusal of high-ranking Tepco officials to cooperate with the panel’s investigation, raising the suspicion that Tepco is trying to hide important information about the nuclear crisis from the public. This attitude will only serve to deepen the public’s distrust of Tepco as an operator of nuclear power plants.

The report points out that the government’s manuals and administrative systems to deal with nuclear disasters failed to anticipate a combination of a nuclear accident and a large-scale natural disaster, as happened on March 11, and that this failure greatly contributed to the confusion that undermined the government’s efforts to contain the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

Because nuclear power generation is inherently dangerous and in worst-case scenarios is capable of causing horrific crises that result in enormous and irreparable damage, the only correct and rational approach to managing nuclear power would be to make sufficient preparations to cope with worst-case scenarios. The report shows that the government and the power industry shunned such an approach from the very first. Tepco and the government’s attitudes must change, but given their dismal track record one wonders whether they are capable of altering their ways. It is understandable that the public questions whether it is wise to continue to entrust them with the management of nuclear power plants.

The report’s description of the responses by politicians at the prime minister’s headquarters is chilling. It says that until March 15, 2011, when the government and Tepco jointly set up a headquarters to deal with the nuclear crisis, no explanations had been given by bureaucrats to the politicians concerning government manuals for nuclear disasters as well as related laws and rules.

As a result, the report states, the politicians responded haphazardly to the crisis without a basic knowledge of the legal and administrative framework to cope with a nuclear disaster.

The report praised Prime Minister Kan for quashing Tepco’s plan to withdraw its workers from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant when the conditions of its No. 2 reactor became grave on March 14 and 15. At a news conference, Mr. Koichi Kitazawa, the former head of the Japan Science and Technology Agency who led the panel’s investigation, said Mr. Kan’s action prevented the crisis from proceeding to a worse scenario that could have involved multiple meltdowns and even the evacuation of Tokyo.

The report reveals that Yukio Edano, then chief Cabinet secretary, feared a “demonic chain reaction” of reactor meltdowns not only at the Fukushima No. 1 plant but also at the nearby Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant as the spread of radioactive substances forced workers to flee, as well as at the Tokai nuclear power plant in Ibaraki Prefecture. “If that happened,” Mr. Edano is quoted as saying, “it was only logical to conclude that we would also lose Tokyo itself.”

The report also contains criticism of Mr. Kan, noting that he was preoccupied with “top-down” leadership and that his micro-management caused confusion and friction among those struggling to contain the crisis. It notes that Mr. Kan and other politicians’ distrust of Tepco and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency fueled their tendency to micro-manage. According to the report, Tepco and NISA were reluctant to provide accurate and detailed information to the prime minister’s headquarters, forcing the politicians to expend a great amount of time and energy trying to grasp what was happening at the Fukushima plant. The report also says that Tepco and NISA provided very little information to the Nuclear Safety Commission. If so, they deserve severe criticism.

The report also notes that the government failed to use data from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) — which predicts the direction in which radioactive substances will spread in the event of a nuclear disaster — to provide information to Fukushima residents so that they could evacuate in the safest direction possible.

The report says that at an early stage of the disaster, the bureaucracy did not actively involve itself in the government’s efforts to mitigate the nuclear crisis.

The government should heed the panel’s advice that once an emergency takes place, the government must immediately shift away from normal operations and put in place the best personnel team for managing the situation.