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It has been a decade since the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, which offers us a fresh opportunity to mourn for the lives lost and look back on where we are with the reconstruction of the affected region. But it is also the time to revisit the lessons learned from the nuclear meltdowns — a national crisis — at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

As Japan and the world fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, we may wonder: Has Japan’s crisis management improved since then?

I headed a reinvestigation committee launched by the Asia Pacific Initiative to compile the lessons Japan has learned from the nuclear disaster over the last decade. I was also a member of an API committee which put together a report released in October on the government’s coronavirus response, and of a committee under the API’s predecessor Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation which released a report on the Fukushima No. 1 power plant disaster in 2012.

Based on such experience of assessing the government’s response to the crises, I would like to discuss how Japan’s risk management should look.

Lack of preparedness

The first thing that the nuclear plant meltdowns and the COVID-19 response share in common is the government’s lack of preparedness.

As for the Fukushima disaster, nobody had predicted that a tsunami would induce a blackout at the power plant, with emergency power generators and switchboards submerged in water, becoming useless.

So when the blackout actually took place, the operators could not even obtain a power source to put the control boards back on, forcing them to use car batteries.

Such a situation likely occurred because Japan’s nuclear policy was based on “the myth of absolute safety,” which led to authorities failing to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

The myth was created by a resonance of discourses provided by those promoting nuclear energy believing that such cases would not occur if proper safety regulations were in place, and the wishful thinking of the public and the local residents near the plants that nuclear meltdowns wouldn’t happen since the safety was guaranteed by regulations.

The lack of preparedness was caused by groupthink that preparations for possible accidents were unnecessary because they would not happen. In order to keep away from the devil, it would be best not to speak about it.

The cruise ship Diamond Princess heralded the start of the coronavirus crisis for Japan when it anchored in Yokohama. | REUTERS
The cruise ship Diamond Princess heralded the start of the coronavirus crisis for Japan when it anchored in Yokohama. | REUTERS

Such a lack of preparedness was also evident in Japan’s COVID-19 response.

When the virus-hit cruise ship Diamond Princess entered Yokohama Port in February last year, passengers were hugely worried because only 300 to 400 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests were available per day.

Following the 2009 A/H1N1 influenza pandemic, a government expert panel submitted proposals in 2010, including strengthening public health centers, establishing risk communication strategy, boosting PCR testing capabilities and medical protective equipment supplies, and supporting domestic vaccine development. But such proposals were not realized, resulting in the government falling behind in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The government must have been overly optimistic that it would be able to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections in the nation, believing its border control measures were working, since the country only had a small number of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) cases since an outbreak in 2012.

Rather than preparing for novel infectious disease outbreaks that no one could know if or when may happen, authorities prioritized reducing the fiscal burden by cutting down on public health centers.

Slow to adjust

The second problem is that in addition to a lack of preparedness for such material supplies as testing kits for infectious diseases and trucks equipped with a power generator for nuclear accidents, the government has not sufficiently equipped itself with a legal and administrative toolbox for risk governance. While people in charge of crisis response take action in an emergency situation, it takes time for the whole government to shift to an emergency mode.

At the time of the nuclear accident, the now-defunct Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) maintained its position as a regulator and let its safety inspectors at the plant evacuate from the site, instead of providing support for site operators and reporting to the Emergency Response Headquarters chaired by the prime minister. NISA took the position that it was not primarily responsible for handling the incident.

Moreover, although the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) — a computer simulation system used to determine or predict the dispersion of radioactive substances — was supposed to be utilized during a nuclear disaster to help people evacuate to safe areas, the education and science ministry in charge of the system had been reluctant to disclose SPEEDI-based predictions at the time of the Fukushima accident.

The government appeared to prioritize decisions based on procedures and common sense applied in peacetime instead of using every available resource and cooperation from the private sector to resolve the challenges faced.

Japan Community Healthcare Organization President Shigeru Omi actively held news conferences to explain to the public the risks of COVID-19 and how to fight against it. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Japan Community Healthcare Organization President Shigeru Omi actively held news conferences to explain to the public the risks of COVID-19 and how to fight against it. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Regarding the coronavirus response, since it became clear at an early stage that COVID-19 is a sister virus to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the Office for Pandemic Influenza and New Infection Diseases Preparedness and Response, set up at the Cabinet Secretariat, did not handle the issue because COVID-19 did not fall under infectious diseases covered by its mandate by law.

Thus, the Prime Minister’s Office initially failed to take initiative and to function as a control tower of crisis management.

The health ministry also functioned mainly as a regulator and kept issuing notices to public health centers at the forefront of COVID-19 response, instead of providing financial and human resources, since health centers are not under the jurisdiction of the ministry. As a result, the ministry issued notices one after another with little feedback from people serving on the front line, sometimes causing confusion.

When a nation lacks preparedness for emergency supplies and risk governance, a strong political leadership becomes necessary to shift from normal times to an emergency situation.

When the Fukushima meltdowns occurred, however, Prime Minister Naoto Kan had been preoccupied with micromanagement rather than leading the whole government, taking a helicopter to fly to the Fukushima No. 1 plant and going into the Tokyo Electric Power Co. headquarters himself and yelling at the company executives.

Still, Kan should be given high marks for recognizing the need to cooperate with Tepco to overcome the crisis and launching a joint accident response task force — albeit with no legal backing — putting his aide Goshi Hosono in charge to lead disaster response in coordination with the company.

The same could be said about COVID-19 response.

In the early stages of the outbreak, the leadership made some decisions abruptly, such as announcing that all schools would be closed, without consulting experts or making necessary arrangements beforehand, putting people in confusion.

But after realizing that trying to resolve people’s dissatisfaction through makeshift measures would not lead to prevention of the spread of infections, the government began focusing on proposals from the experts’ subcommittee and prioritizing decisions based on scientific evidence.

During that time, the experts publicly offered recommendations to contain the virus, leading some to voice concerns that the role of medical experts was becoming too big, as though they were the decision-makers.

Experts and risk communication

The role of experts and risk communication are one factor that makes a difference in the COVID-19 response compared with response to the nuclear accident.

In the nuclear disaster response, Haruki Madarame, head of the Nuclear Safety Commission, served as an aide to the prime minister, but his role was passive, with few chances to send out information to the public.

Moreover, Toshiso Kosako, a radiation safety expert and a Cabinet advisor at the time, tearfully criticized the education ministry’s guidelines on a 20-millisievert maximum annual radiation exposure limit for elementary school children.

This incident heightened worries among the public on radiation exposure, resulting in prejudice and harmful rumors about Fukushima Prefecture remaining strong for a long time.

On the other hand, in the COVID-19 response, Shigeru Omi, vice chair of the government’s initially launched subcommittee of experts, actively held news conferences to explain to the public the risks of the virus and how to fight against it, using terms which were easy to remember, such as the “three Cs” and “new normal.”

We can give high marks to his efforts which prompted the public to change their behavior.

But the government’s efforts to deliver information abroad had been far from enough both in terms of nuclear disaster response and COVID-19 response.

As a result, misunderstanding prevailed in foreign countries — that Japan was hiding information like the Russian government did after the 1986 Chernobyl accident, and that Japan was trying to make the number of COVID-19 infections appear smaller because it wanted to hold the Olympics and so on. This led to a vicious circle of misunderstandings.

Risk management

Some factors regarding Japan’s risk management discussed here highlight the problem of the nation coping with the crises under peacetime legal systems and procedures because it is looking away from potential risks and failing to prepare risk governance mechanisms.

Consequently, regulators such as NISA and the health ministry could only serve as regulators even during emergency, and the government could not engage in an all-out fight against the crises, leaving frontline officials to fight on their own.

Japan’s risk management system lacks preparedness to assume the worst case scenario, establish a legal framework under the scenario and conduct training to go over the procedures to cope with crises.

It lacks the determination to exercise political leadership for cases that go beyond even the worst-case scenario.

Such lack of risk governance is also seen in the fact that the government has not designated who will risk their lives to encase a nuclear power plant in concrete in case an accident at one gets out of control.

The poor risk governance appears to come from the sentiment of prioritizing immediate comfort over public safety.

It is human nature to wish for an everyday life with a sense of relief. But the government must not be the one to depend on safety myths, fail to prepare for crises and get into a panic in times of emergency.

What is needed for Japan’s risk management is to constantly prepare for crises and also make persistent efforts so that even if such crises occur, it will be able to implement measures to mitigate the risk and damage.

Kazuto Suzuki is a professor at the University of Tokyo and senior consulting fellow at Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo. API Geoeconomic Briefing, provided by API, is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.

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