The 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant accident was Japan’s greatest national crisis in the postwar era. In the midst of the crisis, the then Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government secretly commissioned experts to create a worst-case scenario in which the fuel rods in the fuel pool would dissolve and come into contact with concrete, releasing large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Depending on wind direction, 30 million people in the Tokyo metropolitan area would have to be evacuated. At that time, the entire eastern part of Japan would have become a nuclear wasteland. Looking back, the biggest surprise of the Fukushima nuclear accident may have been the many fortuitous events that were beyond our control, including the direction of the wind.

Reproducing the safety myth

The essence of the Fukushima accident was a safety myth created by the “nuclear village,” consisting of nuclear power plant proponents who believed that nuclear power plants must be absolutely safe, that government regulations guarantee this and that the plants currently operating were absolutely safe.

Based on the perverse logic that preparing for a serious nuclear accident, such as a loss of all power, would itself “cause unnecessary anxiety and misunderstanding” among residents, Tepco and the nuclear regulators shelved the risk as “unanticipated” and made no preparations for the worst-case scenario. Regulators did not include a severe accident, such as a station black out, in the contingency planning for nuclear accidents. The civilian Accident Independent Investigation Commission described this groupthink dynamic as “giving priority to small reassurances at the expense of great safety.”

Behind this was the fact that there was a deep-rooted, anti-nuclear sentiment among the Japanese people from their wartime experiences in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that the nuclear industry felt the need to assert that nuclear power plants were safe at all costs and that there was no risk in order to overcome this. There was a time when the nuclear village felt the need to assert that nuclear power plants were safe and that there was no risk.

After the accident, the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) was established to ensure independence and transparency. The new regime claimed to have the “world’s strictest safety regulations,” and the power companies purchased new power trucks, fire trucks and batteries, and reinforced the seawalls.

The regulators gave the utilities “homework” to meet the “world’s toughest regulations,” and the utilities worked hard to get a passing grade. It seems as if they are trying to win the public’s confidence by showing this to the public. Yet the safety myth survives in another form.

“A fortress of all things”

At the height of the crisis, just after 5:30 a.m. on March 15, 2011, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan walked into Tepco’s head office, a five-minute drive from the prime minister’s office, and shouted at the employees, “Put your lives on the line!”

The government did not have a task force to deal with the nuclear accident. In fact, there was no command post for dealing with the accident until that day, when the government and Tepco jointly created an extrajudicial integrated task force. The Japanese government was inadequate in terms of command and control and crisis response, especially in terms of the positioning of authority and responsibility between the government and local governments, logistics, communication, legal systems and a national unity system.

As the crisis deepened, the Prime Minister’s Office rapidly became more dependent on the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). Then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his team attempted to place on-site crisis response, including the operation of injecting water into the fuel pool, under the command of the SDF. Not only in response to the Fukushima accident, but also through their dedicated efforts in disaster relief following the Great East Japan Earthquake, the SDF was relied upon as the “last resort” and recognized by the public as the “SDF of the people” in both name and reality.

However, the SDF is not a Doraemon cartoon character with a magic hammer, as Kan had lauded them at the time. As the “Final Report of the Civilian Accident Independent Investigation Commission” of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Verification Commission points out, the SDF is becoming more of a “fortress of all at any time” than a “fortress of last resort” as it is called upon to respond to earthquakes, torrential rains, swine cholera, bird flu and COVID-19. However, it must be recognized that the SDF is essentially the final responder of the nation’s defense. The roles of the contingency forces and the chain of command need to be clarified.

A country that cannot protect its allies

In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident and the 3/11 disaster, Japan received rescue assistance from its ally, the United States, through Operation Tomodachi. Disaster relief is not a defense obligation under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Yet, the U.S. dispatched more than 20,000 soldiers and sailors to the area out of friendship for Japan and strategic judgment.

The Fukushima disaster was monitored from the air by Global Hawks, technical advice was provided by U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission experts, and the U.S. and Japan conducted a joint operation to deal with the accident. While a quarter of the foreign residents of Tokyo were evacuated and embassies were closed one after another, U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos made the decision to keep the embassy open.

Japan was, and still is, deeply grateful to the United States. The most popular post-war U.S. president among Japanese is, by far, Barack Obama (54%, followed by John F. Kennedy at 17%, according to NHK’s February-March 2020 poll). Both Operation Tomodachi and the visit to Hiroshima five years later certainly contributed to this popularity.

At the same time, Japan has learned another hard lesson while going through this crisis. That is the recognition of Japan’s systemic vulnerability in emergencies, and that this vulnerability has a negative impact on the maintenance and development of the Japan-U.S. alliance. In fact, Japan was not a national security state prepared for emergencies.

Tokyo was keenly aware that during a nuclear crisis that was then out of control, the U.S. military in Japan, particularly the navy, could be forced to leave. If that were the case, it would do irreparable damage to the U.S.-Japan alliance.

On the other hand, both the U.S. government and the U.S. military had serious doubts about the ultimate question of how far the Japanese government and the Self-Defense Forces were able and willing to go in the face of a deepening crisis and, finally, who would risk their lives to protect the nation.

If a country cannot defend itself, it will not be taken seriously by its allies. Such an alliance will not last. This awareness is the same that goes into the defense of the Senkaku Islands, which continue to be exposed to a Chinese offensive. Meanwhile, the process of creating a national security state is still only being explored.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.