Born in Iran 60 years ago, I have been a professor of engineering in the United States for almost 30 years. I am also a staunch fan of Japan and a die-hard admirer of Adm. Togo Heihachiro. I made sure to pay homage to him during my first trip to Japan, while on my way to Tsuruga, on Sept. 6, 1999, by visiting the Togo Shrine in Harajuku, Tokyo.

Togo showed exemplary leadership and tactics during the Russo-Japanese War, especially in his victory at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, when he fought a formidable enemy against all odds. Although heavily outgunned, he ingeniously choreographed his underdog forces by “crossing the enemy’s T.” His decimation of the Russian Baltic fleet in just two days shocked the world.

It was the admiral’s leadership, flexible strategic thinking, situational awareness and dynamic decision-making that enabled him and his dedicated sailors to win the uphill battle, stop the foe and save their country.

I believe the same admirable level of leadership, fortitude, dedication and stratagem was employed by the superintendent of the Fukushima No. 2 (Daini) nuclear power plant, Naohiro Masuda, and his 200 dedicated colleagues on March 11, 2011. After the earthquake and tsunami, they faced the loss of offsite power and a plant blackout.

Masuda also fought against the odds, improvising, making lots of impromptu but prudent decisions, and eventually saving the day by bringing all four reactors to a cold shutdown by March 15.

Their historic, heroic acts are too numerous to mention. The most remarkable included “flexibly applying emergency operating procedures” and having “9 km of temporary cable laid by about 200 personnel within a day.” Such cable laying would usually take 20 people more than a month.

Fukushima No. 2 staff’s personal sacrifices and dedication of staying in the plant and working under dire conditions, even though they didn’t know whether their families had survived the earthquake-tsunami, and their relentless efforts to bring the four reactors to cold shutdown are of epic proportion. They stopped the propagation of an accident that could have led to multiple meltdowns as well as saved their plant (which was 20 km closer to Tokyo than the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant and perhaps the region.

I believe that Masuda and his colleagues at Fukushima No. 2 deserve to be considered national heroes of Japan, like the revered Togo.

It is an undeniable fact that unexpected and “beyond design basis” events will occur. System designers cannot anticipate all possible scenarios of failure and hence are not able to provide pre-planned safety measures for every contingency. As such, for the foreseeable future — despite advances in “computationally strong” robust models and elegant mathematical techniques such as probabilistic risk assessment — human operators will have to remain in charge of the day-to-day control and monitoring of nuclear power plants.

Fukushima No. 2 and No. 1 operators verified the fact that at the time of a major accident at a hazardous complex, human operators always constitute society’s first and last layer of defense.

Without respecting and understanding the vital role of human factors in technological systems, and proactively addressing their performance during unexpected events, nuclear safety will only be a distant mirage, and resiliency will be an unattainable dream.

The recently released report of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), “Lessons Learned From the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving the Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants,” which focuses more on Fukushima No. 1, affirmed this fact:

“The Fukushima Daiichi accident reaffirms the important role that people play in responding to severe nuclear accidents and beyond-design-basis accidents more generally. …

“Recovery ultimately depended on the ingenuity of the people on the scene to develop and implement alternative mitigation plans in real time. …

“There is growing evidence that people are a source of system resilience because of their ability to adapt creatively in response to unforeseen circumstances. … The Fukushima Daiichi accident reaffirmed that people are the last line of defense in a severe accident.”

Nuclear power plants in Japan and elsewhere should not only concentrate on the lessons of Fukushima No. 1 and No. 2 and plants, which were owned and operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co., but also try to learn more about all the safety culture-related causes of why the Onagawa nuclear power plant — which was owned and operated by the Tohoku Electric Power Co. and was 60 km closer to the epicenter of the earthquake, and where the tsunami height was reportedly higher — had a totally different fate.

While the Fukushima and Onagawa power plants experienced similar disaster conditions, nuclear reactor types, dates of operation and an identical regulatory regime, the Onagawa power plant that was unscathed.

A former engineering student, Airi Ryu of Japan, has analyzed this issue in her research article “Culture of Safety Can Make or Break Nuclear Power Plants,” published last March in The Japan Times.

Nevertheless, an important question for Japan is: What did Tohoku’s decision-makers do differently from their Tepco counterparts with respect to safety precautions well before, during and after the construction phase of the Onagawa’s three reactors in 1988, and during its operation until 2011?

The July 2012 report of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) described the Fukushima accident as “a man-made disaster” and “made in Japan,” because Japan’s nuclear industry failed to absorb the lessons of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In the words of NAIIC chairman Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, “It was this mindset that led to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.”

The nuclear power industry in Japan (and elsewhere for that matter), in cooperation with their regulatory agencies such as the newly created and Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), should conduct soul-searching about the industry’s “mindset,” past safety premises and practices.

They should ask themselves the inconvenient and tough question: At the end of the day, was it the collage of analytical models, sophisticated technologies and automated safety devices that averted multiple (up to possibly four) reactor meltdowns and saved Fukushima No. 2? Or, was it primarily because Masuda and his tiny staff, armed only with their creative minds and bare hands, relied on their system comprehension and experiential knowledge?

Given an honest apolitical answer to the foregoing question, Japan’s nuclear power industry and the NRA — before the two nuclear reactors at Sendai and Takahama are expected to restart this fall — should come up with a definitive actionable timetable for addressing all recommendations of the aforementioned NAIIC and NAS studies.

Taking these steps is of paramount importance, as Japan is embarking on its newly announced Basic Energy Plan, which could revive and expand the country’s nuclear power sector.

What went on inside the Fukushima stricken plants, right after the tsunami, is a new epic story of “Man Saved in Japan.” Japan’s nuclear power industry owes its being and present status to the epic efforts of Japan’s past national heroes. Their legends should be cherished and their paths imitate all the way to victory as Togo’s was at the beginning of the 20th century.

Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering and international relations at the University of Southern California, served as a member (2012-2013) and technical adviser (2013-2014) on the U.S. National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Committee on “Lessons Learned From the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants.” This commentary, however, should not necessarily be construed as the Committee’s representative position.

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