Better disaster planning needed

The Noda Cabinet on June 19 adopted a 2012 white book on disaster prevention that deals with not only the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear crisis but also major earthquakes expected to occur close to the Tokyo metropolitan area and in the Nankai Trough, a 900-km subduction zone off the Pacific coast, stretching from the Tokai region to Shikoku.

The white paper pointed to the inadequacies in past assumptions of damage from major disasters, preparations to deal with them, and rescue, support and reconstruction activities in the wake of such disasters. It stressed the importance of making “pessimistic,” rather than “optimistic,” assumptions as to future major disasters.

The white book reasonably stresses that “beyond expectations” should never be used in future disasters as an excuse for unpreparedness. But it should have examined more carefully why the inappropriate assumptions about major disasters were adopted. In addition, its proposals for rectifying the defects are not strong enough.

Following the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami, the government’s command center for rescue work, infrastructure restoration and relief supply management failed to function properly. It is believed that government bureaucracy hampered the collection of vital information in a timely manner and hindered the ability of political leaders to give needed instructions to appropriate agencies.

The white paper failed to closely examine how the government headquarters actually worked. It is important to attain organizational structure that functions efficiently as well as personnel who deal with major disasters with professional knowledge and skills.

As for the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the white book pointed to the failure of the prime minister’ headquarters to gather sufficient information, the malfunctioning of the government’s routes for the flow of information and instructions, and the government’s inadequate setup to help those affected by the nuclear disaster.

But the basic problem about the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe is that the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. failed to work out and prepare for a scenario in which an earthquake or a tsunami would cause loss of all power sources, thus leading to meltdown.

The white paper fails to examine the process in which the nuclear establishment, restricted by their vested interests and past experience, failed to take adequate preparations.

The tendency to just follow precedent and operate under bureaucratic inertia is prevalent in other disaster relief organizations as well. Overcoming this tendency is crucial to building a Japan that is resilient to major disasters.