BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS
APLN member Yoichi Funabashi co-wrote an article with Marina Fujita Dickson, examining the mistakes made in the days and weeks following the Fukushima incident. Read the original article here.
It has been 12 years since the Fukushima incident—a triple disaster that devastated much of Northern Japan’s Tohoku region after an earthquake and tsunami caused nuclear meltdowns in three nuclear reactors—destroyed and paralyzed communities along the Japanese coast.
Although the disaster that unfolded may have appeared to be one that no one could have anticipated, in reality there were several glaring warning signs of the crisis to come, as described in a variety of investigative reports (Investigation Committee 2012; Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation 2014; Asia Pacific Initiative 2021). The government regulators and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the firm that operated the plants in Fukushima, were well aware of the following:
- They knew that over a millennium before 2011, an earthquake and resulting tsunami struck the exact same region in Tohoku, wiping out cities all along the coast.
- They ignored the need for contingency planning in the event of a crisis involving the power plants and had created no mechanism for using relevant safety technologies in a crisis situation.
- They overlooked the necessity to update protocols and regulations over time. There was in fact strong resistance to adopting newer technologies that would have made the plants safer.
- They failed to plan against a worst-case scenario at the site, and division of responsibility in case of emergency was murky at best.
Instead of having an adequate emergency response mechanism in place, interest groups—a closed community of power plant operators, regulators, nuclear industry and government officials known as “nuclear villages”—ran their plants with little accountability. Japan’s reactors were portrayed as being the “safest and most advanced in the world,” but this image was an illusion (Thomson 2014). Regulators failed to implement even basic protections like implementing newer foreign technology to improve safety procedures (Nuclear Regulation Authority 2013). The organizational culture that failed to question or improve the safety systems at Fukushima created devastating consequences.
Bad as it was, the Fukushima incident can in some ways be seen as both a catastrophe and a “near-miss.” But for luck—among other things, winds that blew out to sea rather than towards heavily populated areas to the south, including Tokyo—the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant could have caused far greater contamination, dislocation, and loss of life than they did.
Looking back on the mistakes made in the days and weeks following March 11, 2011, it is clear that the factors contributing to disaster mismanagement include both organizational inertia and human errors. While regulations have since been improved, some critical issues remain. Since 2011, regulators have adopted a system for safety mechanisms to be consistently updated over time, but retroactive updates are costly, so companies are struggling to meet these standards. In fact, the issues that Japan’s nuclear industry faces today are caused by the same dysfunctional organizational culture that was responsible for the Fukushima disaster, and the measures instituted by that culture to prevent a similar crisis from occurring are insufficient, even now.
Organizational inertia: the safety myth on autopilot
Japan experiences thousands of minor earthquakes every year, and over 150 earthquakes over magnitude 5 happen on the archipelago annually. While large earthquakes may be accompanied by mostly minor tsunamis, Japan did experience a devastating quake and tsunami in the year 869. The Jogan tsunami flooded most of the area in the plains around Sendai in the same region the 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck (渡邊偉夫「869). The history of tsunamis and their possible destructiveness has long existed in the Japanese public memory. Yet, Japan was massively underprepared for the destruction experienced in 2011, much of it due to the “absolute safety myth.” This myth, perpetuated by the nuclear village, portrayed nuclear reactors to be “absolutely safe,” so residents around the reactors began to feel a false sense of security.
In Japan, sentiment toward nuclear power has been overwhelmingly negative given the traumatic memory of the atomic bombs at the end of World War II. From the perspective of the interest groups, this anti-nuclear sentiment, called the “nuclear allergy,” was a barrier that needed to be overcome. Given the resource-short country that it is, the nuclear village saw nuclear energy as a crucial alternative that could help with Japan’s energy security. The myth and the mindset it created in the public only exacerbated the disaster that came in March of 2011.
No contingency planning: useful technology left unused
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese government and TEPCO were forced to face several immediate issues. For instance, an off-site center for nuclear emergency response had been established at Fukushima in 1999, after a previous accident at a nuclear fuel conversion facility in Ibaraki exposed many workers and local residents to excess radiation levels. But because of the destruction caused by the initial earthquake and tsunami, the off-site center became inoperative. Continued electrical blackouts in the days following the quake only worsened the situation. Even if the off-site emergency center had been operable, it lacked basic protective measures such as air-purifying filters. This was because regulatory requirements did not cover “severe accidents,” so countermeasures against them were left to the discretion of the plant operators. In other words, protective measures for severe accidents were optional.
Inadequate risk assessment also caused issues during the crisis. One such example was the decision to keep secret the calculations from SPEEDI (the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information), a simulation system that predicts dispersions of radioactive substances. Government officials said later that they feared releasing the information would lead to panic and chaotic evacuation scenarios, which could lead to a secondary disaster (Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation 2015).
They also feared that the calculations could be deemed mistaken later, which would make the panic unwarranted. Because of the “absolute safety myth,” there was no intention to ever use SPEEDI in a real-life scenario. As pointed out by the Independent Investigation Commission, SPEEDI and “the off-site centers were little more than shiny security baubles, introduced to secure the docility of the public and obtain support for nuclear plant construction” (Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation 2014). In response to questioning by a Japanese Diet member about why SPEEDI’s output was not used publicly during the crisis, an official from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, and Science (MEXT) described the responsibility of his agency as research under “normal conditions” and “not during times of emergency” (Funabashi 2021).
In not releasing SPEEDI information, ministry officials chose the risk of not acting over the risk of acting. Two months later, when it had become apparent that information had been hidden from the public, the government faced an even worse scenario. It was easy for Japanese and international media to cut past the technical elements of the catastrophe and focus on the narrative of a “government cover-up” for weeks thereafter. This situation eroded public confidence in the government’s management of the disaster, already in decline after the fracture of the earlier safety myth. The failure to communicate critical information to the public grew into a broader distrust of the government during this period (Kikuchi 2018).
The “new” safety myth
To address the problem in decision making and regulatory governance of the nuclear industry, Japan established a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) in 2012. Instead of the prime minister serving as the head of the nuclear emergency response headquarters, the head of the commission will judge the technical matters of onsite safety in the event of another nuclear disaster. The NRA is under the authority of the Ministry of Environment; it replaced the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which operated under the authority of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry—which promotes nuclear power. The new agency can now centralize administrative regulation of nuclear power generation.
To improve its regulatory mechanisms, the NRA works with an underlying concept of “defense-in-depth,” for which assumptions on all natural disasters—including earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and volcanic eruptions—are re-evaluated and countermeasures are enhanced. The new approach includes countermeasures against accidents such as core or containment vessel damage of nuclear reactors. Nuclear operators are also now required to conduct “periodic and comprehensive safety assessments” and file the results to both the regulators and the public (Nuclear Regulation Authority 2013). The new regulatory requirements also include public feedback as well as cross referencing with international standards.
Now, with new regulations in place, the safety myth has morphed into something new: The protocols have been updated, but the cost to meet the new standards is too high. Most recent estimates indicate safety requirements will cost over 6 trillion yen ($44.3 billion), with the number likely to balloon even more (Kyodo News 2023).
TEPCO did not face these enormous challenges in 2011 because it had never considered facing them. In fact, company executives were aware of the grave risks involved in operating power plants. TEPCO’s nuclear energy division knew that “there was a risk of large tsunamis in Fukushima,” but that risk was dismissed because the argument was deemed “academic” (Kitazawa and Funabashi 2015). Company leaders decided not to consider risk calculations related to unlikely but highly destructive events—at a huge eventual cost. Considering the scale of the many disasters caused by TEPCO’s neglect of tsunami countermeasures, it is natural to conclude that safety measures aimed at preventing another such disaster would not be cost-prohibitive. Even in such a low-probability/high-impact case, however, it is necessary to consider costs and benefits as part of the calculation. Today, the design requirements take account of natural hazards that occur at a frequency of 1-in-10,000 years, as opposed to the 1-in-1,000-year standard used previously (Willis 2021). But how can these requirements be met, when regulators are stubbornly pursuing a “safety at any cost” strategy that companies cannot realistically meet?
Partial solutions: adoption of the backfit system
The additional regulatory requirement introduced after the Fukushima disaster is known as the “backfitting” system. Backfitting is used by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission to incorporate new knowledge into existing facilities, updating safety mechanisms retroactively. The NRC’s backfit rule has a strict cost-benefit element; a “substantial increase in overall protection of public health and safety or common security” must be derived from the backfit, and all direct and indirect costs of implementing the backfit must be justified (Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation n.d.).
In Japan, however, backfit requirements are enormously expensive. Regulators have thus backed electric companies into a difficult position. The regulators have essentially “done their job” of applying stringent requirements. But companies like TEPCO must accept the eye-watering cost of meeting the new standard in order to operate. If the power companies are unable to meet these requirements, they will remain stuck between the government’s bureaucracy and the public’s energy demands.
Meanwhile, Japan will continue to face issues in long-term energy security.
Negative turf wars: Why assuming responsibility is hard to do
While adequate risk assessment and safety mechanisms ready for use in a real-life scenario could have made a difference in Fukushima, another problematic aspect unfolded during the disaster: lack of leadership and governance in time of national crisis. When the tsunami initially cut power to the reactors, making them unable to circulate coolant water which is necessary to prevent overheating, on-site workers were desperate to manage the situation. These workers were focused on cooling the Unit 1 reactor; meanwhile, TEPCO headquarters repeatedly asked for status updates from the staff on-site, instead of providing appropriate support or resources to handle the situation. The TEPCO head office at one point told Unit 1 director Masao Yoshida that the Kantei (Prime Minister’s Office) had issued an order that plant workers should stop cooling Unit 1 with seawater. The director agreed via teleconference that he would stop but actually continued, as he “could not follow instructions that offered no collateral on when [they] could resume” the water injections (Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation 2014). Ultimately, his decision turned out to be the correct one, but the distrust exhibited in this scenario was one of the major signs that the chain of command had collapsed.
The lack of proper communication and coordination also prevented TEPCO headquarters and the Kantei from coming up with a collective action plan in a worst-case scenario. If radiation levels reached a dangerous amount that would threaten the lives of the workers on site, should crisis response take priority over the safety of the workers, or should the site be abandoned to prioritize workers’ lives? The responses to this scenario had not been agreed-upon ahead of time, resulting in a single site director going rogue in order to make the decision he believed safest.
The “absolute safety myth” was objectively problematic and costly. Now, issues of responsibility still remain within the Japanese nuclear industry and regulatory organizations. Companies and organizations are unwilling to shoulder heavy responsibilities, pushing them onto someone else when possible. The tendency to never raise one’s hand to take on a challenging, possibly risky job—known as “negative turf wars”—is still a part of the bureaucratic culture that cannot be easily shed. This has been the case with the recent debate on counter-terrorism measures at nuclear plant sites in Japan. The NRA decided that power plants need to have an anti-terrorism facilities, but from the perspective of TEPCO, this is a national security issue that should not come under the purview of a utility company.
The Russian occupation of Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine has resurfaced the concern of power plants being vulnerable to terrorism or armed attacks. An armed attack remains an unlikely scenario, however, with high costs that utility companies do not want to pay. One anti-terrorist facility can cost between 50 billion yen ($400 million) to 120 billion yen ($900 million) (Asahi Shimbun. 2020). Although the gap between safety and security surrounding nuclear power plants is narrowing, no clear policy has been set as to how far power companies should ensure security in their role, or how responsibilities between the government and private sector should be divided. It also remains unclear exactly how safety and security should be integrated.
Responsibility has also been pushed around regarding evacuations. Japan as a whole of course has an aging population, but rural areas, including Fukushima, have a disproportionate number of elderly. In 2010, the percentage of the population 65 and older in Japan was 23 percent. Where evacuation orders were carried out in Fukushima, it was 27.4 percent. By 2019, some residents had moved back to these areas, pushing the number up to 45 percent (Mainichi 2019). In an emergency situation, it is unrealistic for vulnerable populations such as the elderly and disabled to quickly evacuate. The National Public Safety Commission is of the view that the government should be responsible for evacuations in a crisis scenario, but so far this has yet to be decided. For now, municipalities are in charge of protecting residents, and the national government is only involved if there is a formal request for support. The disproportionate effect that natural disasters have on the vulnerable is a long-term challenge that Japan will need to plan for in order to avoid another Fukushima (Cabinet Office 2021).
Balancing pragmatism with public trust
If the Fukushima experience is to act as a near-miss—a warning that society heeds, so as to avoid a repeat catastrophe—Japan’s nuclear industry will need to redeem its reputation by revamping itself and regaining the public’s trust. The aftermath of the Fukushima disaster is strong in the public memory, but given the energy needs of the country, the number of Japanese in favor of restarting nuclear reactors is slowly growing. Even with public support, though, the economic viability of nuclear energy will remain an issue. Both public and private sector actors need to pave a path for regulations to be adequate and for compliance to be economically feasible. A framework to improve and update technology and safety is a necessary first step, but efforts to revamp regulation of the nuclear industry should also include a sufficient cost-benefit analysis to determine which possible risks to prioritize. Whether or not there is another Fukushima will depend on the ability of both regulators and the industry to pursue measures for crisis planning that sufficiently address public security and are economically feasible in the long-term.