Fukushima Daiichi: Shocking Disaster Relief Micromanagement

My Most Cynical Suspicions Confirmed

The Japan Times has published an article regarding a post-mortem on the Japanese government’s handling of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. I have every sympathy for the people who were scrambling to resolve the problems on the ground. I have less for the political paranoia that got in the way.

Part of the problem is hard to blame on the cabinet; there have been some legendary examples of American cabinet officials being shockingly ignorant of the Presidential line of succession, even though they occupy extremely high positions in American government. So, one Japanese cabinet minister not even knowing that a particular agency existed – one that seems meant to warn the public about harmful levels of radiation – can be forgiven.

What can’t be forgiven is that then-PM Naoto Kan, who now parades as a born-again environmental crusader trying to finish off nuclear power for good (regardless of its short, medium, or long-term costs to Japanese civilization), became paranoid and came to believe that none of the information he was getting from the power company or from government agencies could be trusted. So, he started micromanaging, involving himself in the tiniest of details and creating a network of personal minions to “save the country” through his own hands, since he felt he was the only one who could be relied upon to do so.

The report apparently finds the government to have lied by telling the public there was no reason to panic when, upon the command of the cabinet, the government was preparing worst-case scenarios based on assumptions of truly horrible possibilities (no matter how remote). Apparently the government was supposed to tell the public to panic immediately.

Remember when they couldn’t get fresh water into the reactors to cool things off properly and they were going to start using seawater, but the effort didn’t start right away for some reason? Here, Kan “questioned” the effect of pouring anything but seawater, and the head of the Fukushima Daiichi (daiichi = #1) reactor prevented further catastrophe by “disregarding such concerns”.

Kan’s response is that he didn’t order anyone to not use seawater. People, people… in Japan, you don’t need to “order” someone not to do something in order to cause it not to happen. The PM’s “questioning” it was more than enough to put monkey wrenches into the gears for a while. Sounds like things didn’t get worse largely because he was told to jump in a lake on this one.

So after the Nuclear Safety Commission said a hydrogen explosion was unlikely and it happened regardless, the industry minister nudged Kan into completely disregarding what the “experts” said and tried to become a nuclear physics scientist and engineer overnight (likely while staying at a Best Western). All of a sudden, he knew better than everyone else. His decision to shut down all nuclear power was clearly part of his belief that he was saving the country. This is not to say nuclear power is ideal, but Japan has been taking it on the chin economically as a result. It wasn’t the cost-less, painless decision some portrayed it as.

Finally, what I consider his most unforgivable action is heading to Fukushima Daiichi on March 12, 2011, and inspecting the plant. As anyone even remotely connected to a military organization or anything similar will tell you, when a VIP comes to visit, everything stops. No work of any meaning gets done at all. To inflict this situation on an unfolding disaster was reckless, and we are fortunate nothing even worse happened as a result of such interference.

The whole thrust of this suggests a vast immaturity of government. I mean, I understand why this happened from the top of the elected government on down. I don’t understand how they could have allowed it to happen. It’s losing your head. It’s basically panicking. It’s a complete loss of trust in anyone who’s ever studied nuclear issues and is Japanese. They didn’t even accept American experts coming straight into the Prime Minister’s office at first. It’s not said why. Maybe Americans couldn’t be trusted either. Who knows? There is no easy solution to paranoid leadership.

So, I’m sorry to see my worst, most cynical suspicions confirmed. Pots do not boil faster because you watch them, and nuclear crises do not get solved faster because you micromanage them.

As a final note, I recently found out that the whole reason fuel rods were stacked into pools of water within the reactors’ buildings is because environmentalists successfully blocked any political approval of proper disposal of those rods for such a long time that there’s just no place to put them. There is apparently hope that this situation will shut down the entire nuclear industry there even without political dictates to shut reactors down forever. How touching. Fuel rods were the likeliest source of a truly huge disaster. – J

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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