The Myth of Safety | The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Five Years OnBy Luke Bencie and Yuji Kumamaru
The March 11th, 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (simply referred to in Japan as “3/11”) exposed vulnerabilities in Japan’s emergency preparedness and crisis response systems, which continue to linger five years after the horrific catastrophe. The devastating Tohoku earthquake, and subsequent massive tsunami, led to the the largest Level 7 nuclear accident since Chernobyl (by comparison it was 1/10th the radiation fallout of the 1986 Chernobyl event). As a result, nuclear reactor units 1 and 2, belonging to Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), suffered critical meltdowns, hydrogen explosions, not to mention the release of radioactive elements that blanketed nearby residential areas of the Fukushima Prefecture. Nearly twenty-thousand people died (90% of deaths were drownings) or disappeared as a result of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and nearly 50-foot high tsunami wave, while another 150,000 were forced to evacuate from their homes. To this day, over 90% of the Fukushima residential areas have remained uninhabitable, drawing eerie comparisons to scenes out of post-apocalyptic movies.
So what happened? Why did Japan – a country epitomized by its traditions of efficiency and quality assurance – fall victim to a lack of foresight and indecisiveness in the face of chaos? There was no emergency plan. The answers are various and complex, but to those in the world of emergency preparedness, one phrase best summarizes the confusion… “The Myth of Safety.”
Emergency Preparedness and The Myth of Safety
“The Myth of Safety” essentially promulgates the idea that the nuclear industry is so critical and sophisticated, that surely redundancies for security and safety, as well as every conceivable emergency response protocol, have been tediously thought out and tirelessly exercised to ensure maximum safety to operations and the civilian population who reside within nuclear areas. As a result, when the events of 3/11 began to unfold, the TEPCO and Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) emergency response manuals had no such contingencies for unusually high tsunami waves. For example, the protective concrete walls of the plants along the water were built to a height of 19 feet, while the wave that struck the Fukushima Daiichi Plant was an incredible 49 feet. Furthermore, it was concluded that a loss of AC power, or even what to do in the event that the nuclear reactors began to boil away their coolant, were too improbable to happen – until they did!
According to the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, published in 2014 by a civilian lead coalition, in conjunction with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation:
“In 2010, for example, the government of Niigata Prefecture, on Japan’s western shores, made plans to conduct a joint earthquake and nuclear disaster drill. This was imminently sensible, since just three years before an offshore earthquake had temporarily shut down a TEPCO nuclear power station on the Niigata coastline. But the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the nation’s main nuclear regulator, advised the local government that a nuclear accident drill premised on an earthquake would cause ‘unnecessary anxiety and misunderstanding’ among residents. The prefecture instead conducted a joint drill premised on heavy snow.”
Relying On ""If it Has Never Happened Before..." Emergency Plan
Rather than being accused of fear mongering, TEPCO and the Japanese government continued along their steady path of relying upon a belief that if it has never happened before, there is no need to prepare for such an event in the future. Unfortunately, by not considering and training for – much less talking about – worst case scenarios, Japan fell victim to a chain reaction of failures that has lead to billions of dollars’ worth of property damage, a mass migration of the population, an expected forty years’ worth of clean up efforts, fifty-three of the nation’s fifty-six nuclear power plants being taken off line indefinitely, and most significantly, the long-term effects of radiation exposure to Fukushima residents and employees.
Could planning have solved every predictable challenge that fateful day in March? Probably not. Natural disasters are often the most difficult threats facing any emergency responder. However, as General Dwight Eisenhower so famously stated, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Had the Japanese Government and TEPCO been more forward looking with their crisis response planning, they might not have encountered as many difficulties as they did.
Just some of the major response failures of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Disaster included:
- Lack of information-sharing systems - When the incident first occurred, information was insufficiently passed between the various public and private sector partners, as well as to the civilian population. The System of Prediction for Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI) was the government agency especially assigned to pass information to the public about any accidental release of radioactive material. During the crisis, SPEEDI was unable to pass critical information in a timely fashion.
- Poor decision-making – During the disaster, it was stated that some orders were ignored, or even flatly disobeyed. Much of the confusion came from the simple question of who was actually in charge.
- Senior leadership was making tactical decisions rather than strategic ones - It was noted that during the disaster that, Prime Minister Kan spent time trying to personally locate and order portable battery units in an attempt to keep power running to the reactor pumps, rather than managing the larger picture of the unfolding situation.
- No standardized communications system was in place – There were no uniform radio systems encompassing various government response agencies, leading to poor communication between teams on-the-ground, as well as in command centers.
- No mass casualty plan was previously established – a standardized, nationwide, response protocol - much like the US National Incident Management System (NIMS) or the Incident Command System (ICS) - would have allowed responders from different jurisdictions to respond seamlessly by knowing their roles and responsibilities.
- The use of social media was employed only in one direction – Despite using social media platforms to relay informational messages, the Japanese government did not monitor responses on social media to determine feedback from residents on-the-ground. This simple step would have provided them with much needed intelligence.
Of course, it is very easy to pass judgment against TEPCO and the Japanese Government five years after the accident at Fukushima. Accordingly, anyone can “Monday Morning Quarterback” the response efforts from afar. It is not the intention of this article to spread blame or point fingers. Rather, the events of this tragic historical event should be put into context as a means of case study and improvement. Much like the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 led to exponential enhancements in the security posture of the United States, 3/11 should also be a catalyst for change in Japan.
Per the testimony delivered to Parliament by the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, the following recommendations should be enacted:
- Establish a permanent committee in National Diet (Parliament) to oversee the regulators, with regular investigations and hearings.
- Reform of the crisis management system, making boundaries between responsibilities of local and national governments and the operators clear, and establishing clear chain of command in emergency situations.
- Establish a system to deal with long-term public health effects, including monitoring and decontaminating radiation-affected areas.
- Enact dramatic corporate reform of TEPCO and new relationships established among the electric power companies built on safety issues, mutual supervision and transparency.
- Create a new regulatory body established on independence, transparency, professionalism, and consolidation of functions.
- Reform of laws related to nuclear energy to meet global standards of safety, public health and welfare.
- Develop a system of independent investigation commissions.
There is no question as to whether or not another earthquake will strike Japan. It could happen again at any time (in fact, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake recently struck the Kumamoto area on April 16th, leading to the death of approximately 50 people - most of them were crushed in a landslide). The magnitude could be worse than a 9.0 and the heights of a resulting tsunami could very well exceed 50 feet. The fact of the matter remains, failure to prepare means preparing to fail. Five years after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Disaster, we can only hope that the Japanese government, as well as the Japanese private sector, have learned from their mistakes and will once and for all destroy the Myth of Safety.
SMI also offers training courses for government, military, and business professionals. Click to find out more about our training courses including: Emergency Planning, Crisis Response, Threat Detection & Terrorism Awareness, Managing the Threat of Explosive Devices, and Combating Terrorist Explosive Attacks.