Japan Report Offers Clues to Keep Natural Disasters from Becoming "Manmade"

July 24th, 2012 by CHHS RAs

Lisa Piccinini, CHHS Research Assistant

The Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission recently concluded that in preparing for and responding to the massive 2011 earthquake and resulting tsunami the Japanese government, regulators, and operators of the Fukushima power plant “betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.” The commission, which was created pursuant to post-tsunami legislation by the Japanese National Diet, classifies the three nuclear meltdowns, various explosions, and the release of radiation that displaced tens of thousands of residents, as part of a “manmade disaster” made possible by collusion between the government and the plant. What made this disaster “manmade,” and what can the commission’s work tell us about our own state of emergency preparedness?

One characteristic the commission pointed to as indicating man’s role in the disaster was the failure of the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) owners to implement safety measures required by law prior to the earthquake. For example, public evacuation plans in case of a radiation release and an assessment of the probability of a power outage due to a tsunami were missing or improperly completed. The plants were not pushed to achieve these standards by the government, not for lack of laws, but because the government officials charged with regulating the plants instead agreed to push back deadlines or even forgo implementing the protective measures entirely. The commission bluntly concludes that the lack of proper governance prior to the accident, which led to a devastating lack of safety measures, was the result of “collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO.”

Government and plant decisions also resulted in a failure to be transparent after the disaster, a second characteristic that led the commission to classify the meltdown as “manmade.” For example, Tepco and the central government did not fully inform residents (or plant workers) of the damage to the nuclear plant or the chance of radiation leaks. As a result, as many as 60 residents died from “complications related to the evacuation.” Other residents were not evacuated, some staying up to a month in highly radioactive areas. Additionally, a lack of communication between the plant, the government, and the public resulted in some residents being evacuated to more radioactive areas than they had been previously. Seventy percent of evacuated residents moved no less than four times, preventing already grieving victims from beginning to rebuild their lives.

This lack of transparency was also demonstrated when Tepco officials blamed the “unexpected” tsunami, rather than the more foreseeable earthquake, as the main source of damage to the plant (about 20 percent of all earthquakes magnitude six or greater in the world occur in Japan). In reality, the “direct causes of the accident were all foreseeable” to those owning, operating, and regulating the plant, and thus the failure to plan for those events cannot be blamed on their unforeseeable nature. This lack of transparency was an attempt by operators to obscure the fact that the disaster was foreseeable and there were options for mitigating its impact, but operators chose to never implement those options.

Finally, the report’s preface points to cultural trends that contributed to the collusion that ultimately allowed safety measures and transparency to fall to the wayside. The commission argues that a reluctance to question authority and to instead always “stick with the program” for the betterment of the group are examples of cultural mores that resulted in complacency and a lack of whistle-blowing by Tepco workers who saw firsthand the plant’s noncompliance. This argument, however, has been criticized as playing into Japanese stereotypes and reflecting a world-wide, rather than a Japan-specific, problem.

So, what can this “manmade disaster” tell us about our own state of emergency preparedness? The commission’s focus on key characteristics – missing safety measures, a lack of transparency, and the public’s failure to question the former two – can be seen in many other disasters, such as Deepwater Horizon.  In that case, an underwater oil spill was clearly a foreseeable risk, but safety measures were still not top-notch. Blame-shifting and down-playing the size of the spill didn’t help mitigate the damage either. Finally, while American group culture is certainly different than that in Japan, a sense of complacency and reluctance to question authorities – or big business – certainly exists here too, resulting in reliance on the government to fix the missing safety measures and transparency that lead to the spill.

Like Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon has been subject to a government-mandated investigative commission. Such commissions are an important part of recovering from a disaster: they attempt to explain the unimaginable; they honor what, and who, a country has lost by uncovering the factors contributing to the tragedy; and they unite the country in the common goal of preventing a similar disaster from happening again. But in order to prevent similar disasters, we must remember the ones that occurred first, recognize why they happened, and make real policy changes to protect future generations against the same threats that plagued us. And that means altering laws and culture so that the characteristics that allowed the disaster to be classified as “manmade” disappear.


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