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How Kan-do attitude averted the meltdown of Japan

by Roger Pulvers

First Of Two Parts

Covering the catastrophic series of events that began with the magnitude 9, Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami it triggered on March 11, 2011, it is one of the most revealing and insightful books published in Japan in the past decade.

Seeing as it deals with the greatest crisis that this country has faced — and still faces every day — since the end of World War II in 1945, this is also a work that begs to be translated into many languages.

Published in paperback by Gentosha in October last year, “Tōden Fukushima Genpatsu Jiko Sōri Toshite Kangaeta Koto” (“My Thoughts as Prime Minister on the Tepco Fukushima Nuclear Plant Accident”), the book is a highly revealing document of those events as witnessed and written by the person at the very center of decision-making in Japan, the prime minister at the time, Naoto Kan.

The first word of the title — Tōden, the Japanese abbreviation of Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, the company that owns and operates the ill-fated plant — makes it clear that ex-Prime Minister Kan believes Tepco to be at the root of the accident and the concomitant damage it continues to cause as well.

As the true nature of the disaster unfolded in the weeks and months following the earthquake and tsunami, Kan came to see that no one would be safe in Japan until all of the country’s nuclear plants were shut down and decommissioned. How and why he came to this conclusion is the paramount theme of this book.

“It is not for politicians to judge the value of their work and actions as politicians,” he writes in the book’s foreword. “I have no course but to trust that judgment to history.”

He goes on to speak of the catastrophe that befell the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the U.S.S.R. (present-day Ukraine) in April 1986, having studied its aftermath in the accident reports. “But I hadn’t dreamt such a thing could occur in Japan,” he admits.

In fact, the greatest lesson — and one that, it seems, has not been thoroughly learned — is that no one had dreamt of the possibility of such an occurrence in this country. That was not part of the problem: That was, and still is, the problem.

Kan, a graduate of the applied physics department at Tokyo Institute of Technology, was, from the standpoint of prior scientific knowledge, the right person in the right place at that terrible time.

“When I heard that the plant had lost all electricity after the earthquake and tsunami, and that the ability to cool down the reactors had been lost, I felt my face freeze in shock. I knew that what followed was meltdowns.”

It wasn’t hard to make calculations on the scale of the potential disaster. Add to the six reactors and seven pools for spent fuel rods at the No. 1 plant the four reactors and four pools at the nearby No. 2 plant and you get a potentially lethal radiation spill of tens of times the amount emitted at Chernobyl.

“The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency is responsible for dealing with nuclear accidents,” writes Kan, “and yet they could give me nothing in the way of explanation or an estimation of what might transpire. … So I had no choice but to establish a system in the Prime Minister’s Official Residence at a very early stage to gather information.”

Then, in the early hours of March 15, Kan was told of Tepco’s intention to abandon the site of the accident.

“The first week after the accident was a nightmare,” he writes.

“The consequences kept escalating. At 8 p.m. the first night, Reactor No. 1 experienced a meltdown. … The next afternoon, a hydrogen explosion occurred there. Reactor No. 3 went into meltdown on the 13th, and on the 14th it too had a hydrogen explosion.

“I was at Tepco headquarters at 6 a.m. on the 15th when it was reported that a loud boom had been heard coming from Reactor No. 2; and at roughly the same time, Reactor No. 4 experienced a meltdown. … I began to think that we might be facing the worst-case scenario.”

The worst-case scenario that haunted the prime minister was a domino effect of meltdowns inside reactors and fuel-rod pools as repair and maintenance became progressively too dangerous to undertake. The nightmare’s terrorizing eventuality was the evacuation of millions of people from the greater Tokyo zone and the relocation of the organs of government.

Tepco officials have subsequently denied that they were preparing to abandon the stricken plant, admitting only to planning a partial retreat from its most critically affected areas. With the powerful pro-nuclear lobby in business and government behind them, their spin on the story — including “meddling” by the prime minister which, they suggest, stymied necessary action — has gained some credence in the media.

This befuddling story is a key strategic element in the nuclear industry’s relentless campaign to blur responsibility and to re-legitimize nuclear-power generation in these seismically active islands.

Yet the record is unequivocal: Tepco found itself unable to control events as they took one turn after another for the worse; and had the prime minister not intervened to consolidate decision-making and expedite emergency measures, a pall of radiation may very well have descended over the entire Kanto region, where the capital is located.

Kan takes up the narrative: “It was at 3 a.m. when Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Banri Kaeda came to the Residence with the news that Masataka Shimizu, president of Tepco, had put in a request to withdraw from the nuclear plant site.

“If I (had let this happen), 50 million people would have to be evacuated within a few weeks. … The very announcement to evacuate would result in mass panic.”

He goes into great detail regarding the simulation of the nightmare scenario, explaining that it was to prevent — at all costs — it becoming all too real that he took personal charge of the management of the disaster.

In Japanese it isn’t the “buck” that goes around, stopping in front of the person who must take responsibility; it’s the washtub (tarai). Kan grabbed it, contaminated water and all, as it was being passed around and around by Tepco officials. But as for those officials, it serves their purposes, both past, present and future, to perpetrate a notion that the prime minister was the one who continued to dirty the water.

Even now, nearly two years after the fatal calamity, there is a conspiracy of silence among supporters of nuclear power in this country, with the present prime minister, Shinzo Abe, a staunch nuclear-power advocate, acting as Whisperer-in-Chief.

Kan’s perspective is, however, both wide and on the money.

“This was an enemy created by the Japanese themselves, that a major nuclear accident will not occur,” he writes.

“This was a premise established throughout Japanese society, a premise that allowed 54 reactors to be built. The law, the entire system of government, politics, economics, even the culture was acting under this set premise.

“Its conclusion was that we don’t need to prepare for such a thing. It was this attitude that led to a situation in which no one was able to deal with an accident that could occur.”

The aftermath of Tepco’s accident is still very much with us, and will continue to be until the entire truth of what happened in Fukushima in 2011 is recognized by the people in power in Japan today. It is this aftermath that will be the topic of next week’s Counterpoint.

  • Ben

    “I was at Tepco headquarters at 6 a.m. on the 15th when it was reported
    that a loud boom had been heard coming from Reactor No. 2; and at
    roughly the same time, Reactor No. 4 experienced a meltdown. … I began
    to think that we might be facing the worst-case scenario.”

    Is this a Error or a smoking Gun?

    (Nr. 4 Reactor Meltdown???)