Systemic inattentiveness. Distrust and meddling. Confusion and friction. These turns of phrase would be bad news on anyone’s job review. But when the job that’s under review is how a government handled the worst nuclear accident in 25 years, it’s bad news for everyone. Less than two weeks before Japan will mark the one-year anniversary of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that struck its northeast coast, an independent panel released a scathing review of the government’s handling of the crisis that unfolded last March at the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. The report, based on hundreds of interviews with lawmakers, administrators and plant workers, confirms many of the suspicions about the government response.
There is no shortage of worrying revelations in the report. Among the most frightening is the fact that the government was preparing for the possibility of having to evacuate Tokyo while assuring its millions of residents that everything was ok. Officials revealed in interviews that they were grappling the possibility of a “demonic chain reaction”: If Fukushima collapsed and released enough radiation, it was possible that other nearby nuclear power plants would have to be abandoned and could also collapse, thereby necessitating the evacuation of one of the world’s largest cities.
It’s terrifying to envision exactly what an evacuation of this sprawling metropolis would look like: how everyone would get out, where they would go, and what the astronomical costs of decontamination would have been. The city’s infrastructure was strained as it was, with airports and trains closed immediately after the earthquake and tsunami, and people clogging the highways to reach their families on the coast. By the evening of March 11, it was tough getting into Tokyo, but it was even tougher getting out.
The decision not to inform people of the potential danger ultimately has caused lingering distrust of the government and the media. Would other governments have done it differently? Hard to say. But U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents released by FOIA last week indicate that Washington also chose not to inform Americans of one of its own worst-case scenarios after Fukushima – that radiation could be widespread enough to pose health risks to residents of Alaska.
The report turns a close lens on the actions of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who stepped down from office last fall after being widely criticized for his handling of 3/11. The panel suggests Kan was over-involved in some aspects of managing the crisis, such as getting involved in what size batteries should be used at the plant after the tsunami knocked out its power supply. But the panel also credits Kan for his crucial decision to go to the Tokyo headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) to insist the utility keep a skeleton crew of workers at the plant – a move that very likely saved it from total collapse.
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Overall, the atmosphere detailed in the report reflects an utter lack of preparedness for an accident of this magnitude and an institutional inability to handle an evolving crisis. Lawmakers admitted they were unaware of the nation’s legal protocol for handling a nuclear disaster, and unclear on which agency should take responsibility for what. Government officials told the panel they were getting little or no information from TEPCO about what was happening at the plant, and that officials from the government’s nuclear agencies were slow to brief the PM’s office on the unfolding events.