Japanese investigator says lessons of Fukushima disaster ignored

In the first of a two-part report, a Japanese investigator warns that the lessons of the Fukushima atomic disaster have been ignored

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 11:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 3:58pm

It was the biggest earthquake to shake Japan. With a magnitude of 9.0, the undersea tremor that rumbled to life on March 11, 2011 shifted the country's main island by more than two metres and unleashed a tsunami that triggered meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The disaster killed more than 15,880 people and altered forever the lives of hundreds of thousands of families. It also triggered a nuclear crisis that independent investigators have concluded was man-made.

But three years after the giant Fukushima plant spewed radioactive material throughout the country's northeast in the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, some prominent Japanese citizens worry that the wreckage and shock wasn't grave enough to shake the country.

Japan's government, these critics say, has not dealt with problems raised by an independent investigatory commission. Policies are toothless. The nuclear industry hasn't addressed its role in the disaster.

And while the parliament commissioned the investigation, it has failed to follow up. The report blasts a government culture that is averse to taking risks; a crisis-management system that needs a stronger chain of command; powerful nuclear operators that are still not effectively regulated by the government; and nuclear-energy laws that fail to meet global standards.

Why are the Japanese not angry at the restarting of those things?

"At this time, all the investigations have to be international, independent, and all the processes open and transparent. Otherwise you cannot retain the trust," says Dr Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a physician who was chairman of the nine-member Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. It delivered its report in July 2012.

It was the first independent public investigatory commission in Japan's history, and Kurokawa had hoped it would make a difference in a culture that tends not to reflect on past mistakes. Kurokawa and his colleagues urged parliament to investigate further, but he says that advice wasn't taken, and that Tepco never acknowledged the report's findings.

An adviser to Prime Minster Shinzo Abe during his first term, Kurokawa continues to criticise the government and industry. He delivers speeches around the country to prod the public to demand greater transparency and improved public-safety measures from the nuclear industry.

According to the report, government regulators and Tepco had understood since 2006 the impact catastrophic weather could have on coastal nuclear plants. Japan is vulnerable to powerful earthquakes, and officials knew that if the plant was hit by a giant tsunami, a total electrical outage could occur, potentially damaging the reactor cores. Regulator the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (Nisa) knew that Tepco had failed to prepare for these risks, but took no action.

Video: Japan still feeling effects of earthquake disaster three years on

Advice from foreign bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency could have prevented the disaster, but was ignored by government regulators, the commission says.

On March 11, 2011, the worst-case scenario unspooled. "Across the board, the commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organisation that deals with nuclear power. We found a disregard for global trends and a disregard for public safety," the report states.

Three years on, Kurokawa says that little has changed in the way the government or nuclear officials work. There is still no system to monitor and check government actions or mistakes. No government or Tepco official has been held accountable.

Only one of the commission's seven recommendations have been heeded. This was a move by the national Diet's lower house to establish a special committee in April to monitor nuclear power. Critics said they doubted that the group could provide effective oversight because most committee members favoured nuclear energy.

"Three years after this major incident, is there any sign of change in Japan's democracy and governance? That's what we need to ask," Kurokawa says.

Kurokawa blames the failures on Japan's "reflexive obedience" and "reluctance to question authority". Journalist and foreign- policy expert Yoichi Funabashi, who led a private independent investigation into the incident, says that a bigger problem lies with Japan's sclerotic political system that breeds an aversion to risk and lacks effective oversight.

In 2011, Funabashi started the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation to offer policy ideas.

According to the foundation's research, the government and Tepco operated under the belief that nuclear plants were completely safe. Before the earthquake, government regulators and Tepco avoided addressing the potential risks because they believed this would cause "unnecessary anxiety and misunderstanding" among the public, Funabashi wrote in a paper published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Resource-poor Japan has sought cheaper energy sources for decades, and made nuclear power a national priority since the 1970s. Despite the country's vulnerability to natural disasters, more than 50 commercial reactors dot Japan's coasts, providing about 30 per cent of its electricity before the 2011 disaster. The nuclear operators, according to Kurokawa, have formed a lobby so powerful that its actions have been largely untouched by the nation's regulations.

Because the power plant and a large portion of land remain contaminated, Kurokawa says the crisis is far from over.

In addition to frustrations over delayed clean-up efforts, many anti-nuclear activists have criticised Tepco's mishandling of the aftermath. More importantly, they say, the government should not have relied on the company to handle the clean-up.

Tokyo took over the decontamination process just last year, after admitting, following months of denial, that radioactive water leaking from the plant's storage tanks and underground tunnels had reached the Pacific Ocean. Two weeks ago, the company announced another 100 tonnes of highly contaminated water had leaked from a tank after a valve was left open by mistake.

"The government is keenly aware of the nuclear security problems, but there is no leadership to do something about that," Funabashi says. "The policy agencies do not want to see any sizable new enforcement body emerge at the expense of their vested interests."

Funabashi blames the lack of government accountability on a "revolving door" culture that lets government employees move to different departments every two or three years, creating a "structure of irresponsibility".

"In you rotate so often, there is no accountability and people are usually not willing to take risks," he says. "Your first instinct is just to procrastinate on making decision on tough issues."

The public hasn't shouldered its role well, either, Kurokawa says. Despite a vocal anti-nuclear movement, voters since the disaster have backed pro-nuclear politicians. Abe and his conservative Liberal Democratic Party were returned to office in 2012.

Abe immediately reversed the previous government's decision to phase out nuclear power by 2040. While the country's 48 other commercial reactors are currently offline for safety checks, the government last month announced its plan to fast-track the restarting of some reactors.

In another blow to nuclear opponents, Yoichi Masuzoe, backed by Abe's party, beat two candidates who promised to end nuclear power in the February election for governor of Tokyo.

"In a nutshell, we have not solved anything in the past three years," Funabashi says. "If we don't learn the lessons, we are simply saying that Japan is not entitled to operate nuclear power plants."

Kurokawa says the media has failed to question the government and Tepco's responsibility. "Why are the Japanese not angry at the restarting of those things [nuclear reactors]? The media is partly to be blamed."

He points to a video made by a group of young volunteers that explains the key points of the commissions' findings in six short clips. The group - with the unlikely name in English of Simplest Explanation of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission Report - hopes to make more citizens aware of the commission's findings. Volunteers also organise talks and exhibitions to engage high school pupils and adults.

"These young people, they are the future," Kurokawa says.

TOMORROW: How one community rebuilt itself from the ruins


Excerpts from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission


Responsibility and involvement of Tokyo Electric Power Company

"The Tepco Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco, and the lack of governance by said parties.

"They effectively betrayed the nation's right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly 'man made'. We believe that the root causes were the organisational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual."


Risk Awareness

"The direct causes of the accident were all foreseeable prior to March 11, 2011. But the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was incapable of withstanding the earthquake and tsunami that hit on that day." The report finds that Tepco, the plant's operator, the regulatory bodies and the government body promoting the nuclear power industry all failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements, such as preparing for damage and containing collateral damage and developing evacuation plans for the public in the case of a radiation release.



"Since 2006, the regulators and Tepco were aware of the risk that a total outage of electricity at the Fukushima Daiichi plant might occur if a tsunami were to reach the level of the site. They were also aware of the risk of reactor core damage from the loss of seawater pumps in the case of a tsunami larger than assumed in the Japan Society of Civil Engineers estimation." The regulatory body knew Tepco had not prepared any measures to lessen or eliminate the risk.


Collusion between government and industry

"We found evidence that the regulatory agencies would explicitly ask about the operators' intentions whenever a new regulation was to be implemented. For example, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (Nisa) informed the operators that they did not need to consider a possible station blackout because the probability was small and other measures were in place.

"It then asked the operators to write a report that would give the appropriate rationale for why this consideration was unnecessary."


Outdated measures

The regulators discussed nuclear policies abroad, and said that if Nisa had passed on to Tepco measures in a US security order that followed the September 11 terrorist act, and if Tepco had put the measures in place, "the accident may have been preventable. There were many opportunities for taking preventive measures prior to March 11. The accident occurred because Tepco did not take these measures, and Nisa and the Nuclear Safety Commission went along."

Kristine Kwok