A familiar sight along Tohoku’s Sanriku coastline are the tsunami stones erected by past generations that alert residents to the high-water mark of previous tsunami and the perils of building any closer to the sea.

Over time these warnings were ignored, and those who lived in dangerous coastal lowlands behind protective seawalls developed a false sense of security. Many of these massive barriers were smashed apart on March 11, 2011, as the sea engulfed and pulverized everything in its path. But even if the seawalls nurtured a dangerous complacency, town officials understood that other countermeasures were essential to reduce risk.

On the anniversary of the Sanriku quake and tsunami of March 3, 1933, many schools along the Tohoku coast conduct annual evacuation drills. That meant teachers and students were prepared just over a week later in 2011 when faced with the real thing. The annual disaster emergency exercise saved many lives among coastal dwellers who knew better than to ignore risk or wish it away. Of course even the best drills and evacuation plans can’t fully confer safety, because sometimes preparations can be inadequate, and catastrophic events amplify the risk of human error.

There have been four major investigations into the March 2011 nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, conducted by the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, Tokyo Electric Power Co., the National Diet and the Cabinet Office.

The Tepco report published in June 2012 was greeted with skepticism and was so deeply flawed that an in-house panel of international experts reviewed and repudiated it in October 2012, issuing a mea culpa regarding the utility’s negligence. These experts acknowledged allegations in the other investigations that the three reactor meltdowns were man-made disasters resulting from Tepco’s failings and caused by a lax safety culture, failure to adopt adequate countermeasures, poor crisis-management preparations, inadequate worker training, cozy and collusive relations with government regulators and a lack of emergency evacuation drills.

Tepco’s sōteigai (beyond imagination) defense was dismissed not only because the utility had actually anticipated the possibility of such a monster tsunami in its own computer simulations, but also because effective risk management requires anticipating the unexpected. Of course, risk cannot be eliminated, but Tepco chose not to adopt sensible countermeasures such as a higher seawall to mitigate risks it knew about.

Yotaro Hatamura, who headed the Cabinet investigation and is one of Japan’s leading crisis experts, pointed out that the Tokai nuclear plant, which is even closer to Tokyo (110 km, as opposed to Fukushima No. 1 at 224 km), improved its tsunami defenses just six months before the catastrophic event. This was not just serendipity. Hatamura said in an interview with the U.S. program “Frontline,” “This shows the difference of what happens when the truly dangerous contingencies are considered and steps (are) taken to prevent them versus a situation in which people say, ‘It’s OK not to do anything.'”

However, now we are back to exactly that mind-set, as the Kyushu Electric Power Co. and the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA), having gone through the charade of perfunctory consultations with compliant local authorities while ignoring strong public opposition, are fending off criticism about plans to restart the Sendai nuclear reactors in Kyushu despite the danger of eruptions on an island graced with many volcanoes. One of these active volcanoes, Sakurajima, is only 50 km away. The unexpected eruption of Mount Ontake in Honshu in September was a reminder about the difficulty in predicting volcanic eruptions and the folly of wishing risk away.

In January 2011, a volcanic eruption at Mount Kirishima about 90 km from the Sendai nuclear plant blanketed surrounding areas with ash. Another volcano in the same caldera, only 64 km from the Sendai plant, is rumbling again. The NRA’s new safety criteria require additional plant resistance to volcanoes without assessing how an eruption might compromise operational safety or wreak havoc with transportation and thereby delay evacuations. Thus, the NRA’s seal of approval does not mean the reactors are safe to operate and does not vouch that the utility and surrounding towns in the expanded 30-km evacuation zone are prepared to cope with foreseeable risks.

Perhaps that is why an NHK survey in early November found that 58 percent of residents in towns surrounding the evacuation zone oppose the restart.

On Nov. 2, authorities conducted an evacuation drill simulating a nuclear disaster at the Shika nuclear plant in Ishikawa Prefecture to reassure a skeptical public, but there is nothing quite like a botched drill to underscore the dangers of not anticipating what can go wrong. Based on the assumption that road networks might be impassable, boats were provided for coastal evacuation, but stormy seas, frequent in the area at this time of year, made them useless. It also turns out that the audio feed to local town offices keeping them informed about the national government disaster response didn’t work in many cases. One local woman interviewed on NHK expressed concern that in a real disaster people would panic, complicating any evacuation. Belatedly buses arrived to whisk the residents to safety, but prolonged delays are probable given that roads are susceptible to landslides, subsidence and flooding.

Back in 1991, there was a large eruption at Mount Unzen in Nagasaki Prefecture on Kyushu. It was the first since 1792, when an eruption and subsequent earthquake there triggered a massive 100-meter tsunami that killed an estimated 15,000 people. And don’t forget how Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines exploded in 1991, the second-largest eruption in the 20th century, burying the American Clark Air Base while ash clouds made flying hazardous. A typhoon on the same day mixed rain with ash, causing landslides and general havoc.

Volcanic eruptions might not be frequent, but can be incredibly devastating. That’s why it is essential to listen to Toshitsugu Fujii, one of Japan’s leading volcanologists, who dismisses the NRA’s reassurances that there will be no eruption near the Sendai plant before the reactors are decommissioned a few decades hence. Why is the NRA making such a confident prediction when the volcanologists it consulted, including Fujii, insist there is no scientific basis for assuming so? Volcanologists make predictions in terms of hours and days, not decades. The misplaced confidence of the NRA is underscored by recent news that Japan’s Meteorological Agency only gets eruption predictions right 20 percent of the time.

Fujii insists that the NRA’s declaration that the Sendai reactors are safe from volcanic eruptions is based on politics, not science. So it seems we are back to regulatory capture where the regulators are regulating in favor of the regulated at the expense of public safety, and crossing our fingers that no eruption will occur. What about the three investigative reports on the Fukushima nuclear disaster detailing the risks of complacency and wishing risk away? The lessons ignored suggest they have become the tsunami stones of the 21st century, monuments to complacency.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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