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After Fukushima, part 10

Every evening after dinner, plumber Masayuki Nagai opens the newspaper and pores over the radiation reports. The average daily dose for each city is monitored by government dosimeters and printed each day in the paper alongside the weather. Nagai tracks the changes, but at the same time, he doesn’t believe what he reads. “People don’t trust the government numbers,” he says. “Unlike the supermarkets, which now report exactly where each food came from.” People trust the stores labels, he believes, because a market would lose all its customers if they ever learned they’d been lied to. It’s harder to switch governments than supermarkets.

What went wrong in Fukushima? (What didn’t?!)

OK folks, let’s review what happened in Fukushima. First there was an earthquake on an earthquake-prone island. Which caused a tsunami to hit the same country that invented the damned word. This then flooded a nuclear power plant that was built, as usual, beside the water.

You didn’t see this coming?

Essentially, what we had was a failure of imagination. No one ever imagined the tsunami could be so big, no one imagined what a nuclear meltdown would look like. It seems inexcusable. But to be fair, disaster planners tasked with imagining the worst are often constrained by outside forces. In the U.S., budget priorities are often the constraint. In Japan, authorities face a “cultural bias against open discussion of worst-case scenarios,” especially when it looks like the Japanese government and society are unprepared for them. (1)

The Chairman of one investigation, NAIIC, summarizes the cultural issues well: 
“What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.” Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” (2)
So came the hell and high water. After the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, there were three separate major Japanese investigations into what went wrong: reports from ICANPS, a government- appointed panel; NAIIC, an independent investigation commissioned by the National Diet of Japan, and RJIF, an independent think tank. (The National Diet, I should note, is not seafood — it is the name of the Japanese Parliament). Dozens of other organizations near and far issued their own analyses, including the TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) report, which neatly absolved itself of any wrongdoing.

The Diet report calls the accident a manmade disaster, pointing out failures to “develop the most basic safety requirements” including risk assessment, preparing for collateral damage from a tsunami and developing evacuation plans. This happened due to collusion between government regulators and TEPCO, resulting in weak enforcement and slow implementation of regulations.

TEPCO failed to have proper emergency training for personnel or adequate equipment inspections. In the emergency response, the roles between the Prime Minister, the nuclear regulators and the power company were unclear: all gave conflicting instructions and mistrusted each other.

Here’s how bad it got inside the plant: as radiation levels soared, workers were trying to vent the reactors, getting contradictory orders and working by flashlight in the pitch dark. They discovered that their manuals assumed there would be no blackout during such an emergency and that “sections in the diagrams of the severe accident instruction manual were missing.” (3) It’s a miracle things did not get worse.

Meanwhile, in nearby villages, an orderly evacuation was underway. 

And pigs can fly. 

No, actually, the evacuations were complete chaos. The Japanese government was slow to relay information to local officials and slower to admit how severe the disaster was. As a result, instructions for residents conflicted and changed every few hours. Residents were told to shelter-in-place or that evacuation was mandatory or that it was voluntary, and the evacuation zone kept changing, from 2 km to 3 km to 10 km to 20 km from the nuclear plant. As a result, some people had to re-evacuate four times while others were relocated to sites with higher radiation and left there.

Approximately 146,500 people were evacuated but evacuees were seldom informed about radiation risks or safety precautions or what to bring with them. For the first four days, no one even knew the radiation levels in the surrounding villages. 23 out of 24 fixed radiation monitoring posts were washed away or disconnected by the tsunami. And the one functioning mobile monitor was not mobile: the truck was out of gas.

Two years later, Fukushima evacuees and residents are still under strain. Several reports condemn the government’s continuing lack of support for public health and welfare. Again, the Diet report:
“The residents in the affected area are still struggling from the effects of the accident. They continue to face grave concerns, including the health effects of radiation exposure, displacement, the dissolution of families, disruption of their lives and lifestyles and the contamination of vast areas of the environment. There is no foreseeable end to the decontamination and restoration activities that are essential for rebuilding communities… The government has not seriously undertaken programs to help people understand the situation well enough to make their own behavioral judgments.” (3)
What I saw is that many evacuees are living in a state of limbo, still living in temporary housing, waiting to learn if they’ll be able to return home, waiting for more answers that never seem to come.

Tomorrow: meet one evacuee family

(1) Why Fukushima Was Preventable by James M. Acton and Mark Hibbs, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
(2) Kiyoshi Kurokawa in the Executive summary of the official report of The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission.
(3) The official report of The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission.

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