A tragic story of red tape and fatal ineptitude


Special To The Japan Times

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.

Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, by David Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan and The Union of Concerned Scientists
320 pages.
The new press, Nonfiction.

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.

  • How many people have been killed due to radiation at Fukushima? I will answer it for you…..ZERO. How many people will die due to the massive increase in the amount of pollution Japan is emitting because they have shuttered their Nuke Plants for over two years too long? Not to mention the economic devastation this has caused. Anything associated with the Union Of Concerned Scientists is laughable. These people are manic hypocrites who deserve to be in jail for their fear mongering.

    • gokyo

      How many people have died due to the stress caused by living in temporary housing? How many people will not be able to return to their family land due to the accident? How many people will contract cancer due to their exposure to radiation? How many people not even close to the accident had to endure additional stress in their lives because of the accident? On this one I can tell you many, because my family was issued potassium iodide tablets if the radioactive iodine levels got too high while we were living in Yokohama! Many of the radiation levels for the Yokohama area were actually higher than for Tokyo. This is not fear mongering, it is the truth as I experienced it. What did you experience on 3/11? Probably nothing.

      • Its had a HUGE effect on my life as far as my career goes, which is Nuclear Health Physics (Radiation Protection) AT a Nuclear Power Plant. I’ve had 80+ hours of training on Fukushima. The majority of those people 1. Should not have been evacuated, this was the direct result of the unnecessary fear associated with radiation and 2. Should have been able to return and start rebuilding their homes days, not weeks, months or years later. The direct cancer rates associated with Fukushima will be so small that an increase in overall cancer rates wont even be detected. The Ki pills were issued because Nuclear Plants use ultra conservative decision making when it comes to protecting the public. Here’s the thing, living 2 miles from the Fukushima during this accident, when put in an ACTUAL risk perspective, didn’t really increase one’s chance of dying or increase cancer rates due to the radiological releases. Radiation fear mongering was started in the 1950’s and to this day is responsible for many….many deaths. Burning fossil fuels kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. Commercial Nuclear Power is responsible for ~60 deaths….and ALL of those were the result of Chernobyl.

    • Joe

      He’s pissed caused now he gotta look for different job you low life scum period

      • I plan on staying at my current job for another 27 years as a Nuclear Health Physics Tech at a wonderful Nuclear Power Plant.

    • SpecialAgentA

      Ah, here we are, “tumescent venality and passionate ignorance”. Do you know that you’re a narcissistic sociopath?

      • Nope, just a Professional in Nuclear Health Physics trying to actually educate people on reality.

      • SpecialAgentA

        Yeah, sure. You know, apparently there are scans that are now able to accurately diagnose the sociopathic/psychopathic brain. Just a thought. Carry on with the disinformation and trolling, hope it all at least pays well, carry on, carry on.

  • Paul Martin

    And there are what another 52 plants in the country which represent future DISASTERS if powerful earthquakes and tsunamis happen again !

    • Well, hopefully the earthquake and tsunamis don’t kill 20,000 each time. Don’t worry about the Nuke Plants. They wont kill anybody.

      • Paul Martin

        What…your kidding right…nukes won,t kill anybody ? what Planet are you on ? Remember Chernoble and the US disasters ? If you really believe taht I want to sell you the Sydney harbor bridge !

      • You cant even spell Chernobyl correct so im sure im wasting my time. Major accidents at nuclear power plants:

        TMI – partial core damage, no real release, no deaths, no cancers

        Chernobyl – massive explosion from the core due to a terribly designed reactor without a containment. 60 die from acute radiation exposure

        Fukushima – epic tsunami overtakes the wall and floods the DGs. Worst case nightmare, no power to run risidual heat removal, plants suffer fuel damage, zero deaths from radiation. Studies show increased cancer rates will be nothing more than noise

      • Joe

        Why are you sticking up for the coruption eh? Remember Chernobyl didn’t use moxie fuel hello !!!! And top say it’s ok too let flow into the ocean …..ok now I know sum thing is up so how much is tepco and the government pay in u too keep silent eh

      • MOX fuel had no contributing factor at Fukushima. Hey man, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are not real dude.

      • Paul Martin

        My spelling of chernobyl, a difficult one to remember anyway is inconsequential to my factual points and a cheap shot for you to take ! You are WRONG about Fukushima a number of workers did in fact die from radiation exposure !

      • You have no factual points. Its a fact that nobody has been lethally exposed to Radiation at Fukushima. This is what a fact is. There hasnt been anybody exposed to over 65 REM and only a few (Operators) have over 60 REM. It takes around 400 REM acute exposure to cause life threatening radiation poisoning. But believe what you will, why would you listen to an individual who is a NRRPT qualified Nuclear Health Physics Tech who has 19 years of radiation protecting experience and training…….

      • Joe

        No amount of radiation is safe for you period

      • Jonathan Fields

        “No amount”? That’s so scientifically illiterate as to be laughable. You better stay away from Brazil nuts, most legumes, cat litter, almost anything with potassium, x-ray scans, lots of glow-in-the-dark stuff, the planet Earth…

        “No amount of radiation is safe…” is exactly the reason Germany and Japan have seen their CO2 emissions levels skyrocket in the last 2 years. I’m far more worried about greenhouse gases than I am about a freak tsunami taking out a nuclear power plant. You should be too.

      • Haha….you’re Radioactive. We all are and not one second of your life will be free of Radiation exposure. If no amount of Radiation was safe the human race wouldnt exist…..period

  • The ocean already has BILLIONS of curies of radioactive material in it…..and ALWAYS has. Fukushima’s release into the ocean is like dumping a cup of chlorine into a Olympic sized pool. Nuclear Power Plants are built next to large sources of water and have the ability to transport their power hundreds of miles. 20,000 people lost their lives because of an epic earthquake and tsunami. THATS the major issue, not the Fukushima power plants. Elevated, uneducated fear of anything Nuclear, especially radiation is the reason the “tens of thousands of people’s lives have been devastated by the Fukushima disaster”. A “disaster” that hasn’t, nor will it result in the death of a single individual from radiation. Chernobyl’s reactor was blown into the sky releasing a massive amount of radioactive material (way, way more than Fukushima)…..and nature and wildlife has thrived ever since. Doesn’t sound like a very strong pollutant to me.

    • Inokashira

      “Uneducated fear”, so you are saying people need to be educated about nuclear power. But by who? The government and electricity companies lied for decades promoting the myth of safe nuclear energy, even suggesting plutonium was so safe it could be drunk. If the Fukushima disaster was so insignificant, why did the Prime Minister of Japan contemplate at one point, evacuating Tokyo? In his words, that would have been ‘the end of Japan’. Don’t forget that Japan has had two nuclear bombs dropped on major cities. They know nuclear energy can kill thousands of people in an instant.

      • You pretty much just summed up exactly what I mean when I say uneducated fear. Nuclear bombs have NOTHING to do with Nuclear Power. Please get educated. The Prime Minister contemplated evacuating Tokyo because he has many people around him who haven’t a clue when it comes to actual dangers from Nuclear Power Plants. Luckily, it took some smart people to bring him back to reality. The PM is partly responsible for the hydrogen explosions because he didn’t want to release the gases to the atmosphere. Nuclear Power is by far the safest way to produce massive amounts of base load, 24/7, clean, grid loving electricity. This is fact!! BTW, what is dangerous about Plutonium isn’t its radioactive qualities……its the heavy metal poisoning.

      • Inokashira

        “Nuclear bombs have NOTHING to do with Nuclear Power”. So, why is there such a fuss about Iran and North Korea’s nuclear power plans? If nuclear power is safe, any rogue state or terrorist organisation can be trusted with it. I cannot believe the technology and skill required to build a nuclear power plant is a great deal different from that needed to build a bomb. You are asking people to trust authority when authorities have consistently lied and covered up the truth.

      • We are not worried about commercial nuclear power plants in Iran or Korea. We are worried about them enriching uranium to the point of weapons grade. Go educate yourself on the differences between commercial nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The fact is Jack, Nuclear Power is the safest way to produce electricity. This is proven to be factual.

      • Inokashira

        Who are you? Who is this ‘we’ you are talking about? Are you high up in the administration? Enriching uranium is part of many commercial nuclear power plants. Dealing with explosive substances at high temperatures cannot be called safe, no matter how educated you are. And my name is not Jack. Why do you call me Jack?

      • Please educate yourself on the differences between Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons.

  • The diesel generators are located in the turbine building basement, and given Fukushima’s close proximity to the ocean, common sense tells you they should have been water tight. Of course, this is hindsight given no projections ever showed a tsunami even close to the height of 3-11. Not allowing residents to move back home due to accumulated annual dose rates of 2 REM is ridiculous. There isn’t one single legit study that has proven that receiving accumulated doses below 10 REM a year is harmful. Even 10 REM is very conservative as there are actually places around the world where residents receive more radiation from background sources (Iran, Iraq, Brazil….) and there are no increased cancer rates. What is harmful…..keeping people from their homes due to a boogieman concept.

  • Joe

    Also 1 more comment too bond look I see that u have a very narrow minded concept ur not looking into the future of nobody but ur self grrrr

  • Tim Johnston

    I heard there’s plenty of job opportunities to work at The Fukushima Dai ichi nuclear plant, anyone want a well paying job? Good surfing right in front as well.