DisastersFukushima disaster “a profoundly man-made disaster”: investigative commission

Published 5 July 2012

The commission investigating the Fukushima disaster of March 2011 concluded that although the combination of the tsunami and earthquake was unprecedented in its ferocity, the disaster was largely man-made because it was amplified by what came before it and what followed it; the disaster itself, the commission said, was sandwiched by practices and conduct which were the result of government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture; the government, nuclear regulators, and Tepco, the plant operator, “betrayed the nation’s right to safety from nuclear accidents”

The commission investigating the Fukushima disaster of March 2011 concluded that although the combination of the tsunami and earthquake was unprecedented in its ferocity, the disaster was largely man-made because it was amplified by what came before it and what followed it. The disaster itself, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, said was sandwiched by practices and conduct which were the result of government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture.

In the introduction to the 641-page report, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the commission’s chairman and the former head of Tokyo University’s Department of Medicine, said that, “It was a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.”

The report, mandated by the Japanese parliament, is based on more than 900 hours of hearings and interviews with 1,167 people. Its conclusions and many of the facts it presents contradict the information offered by Tepco, the plant’s operator, and the Japanese government in the months which followed the disaster (for the report’s main findings, see this BBC News report).

The report suggests, for example, that reactor No. 1, in particular, may have suffered quake damage — including the possibility that pipes burst from the shaking, leading to a loss of cooling even before the tsunami hit the plant about thirty minutes after the initial quake. The report said that a full assessment would require better access to the inner workings of the reactors, which could take years.

“However, it is impossible to limit the direct cause of the accident to the tsunami without substantive evidence. The commission believes that this is an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected (the tsunami),” the report said, “and not on the more foreseeable quake.”

This is hugely important: Tepco and the government blamed the meltdown on the “once in a millennium” combination of an earthquake and a tsunami, but if the meltdown was caused by the earthquake which preceded the tsunami – and Japan is routinely hit by major earthquakes – then the very assumptions informing the building codes governing reactor construction in Japan are open to question.

The New York Times reports that the commission also said that far from exhibiting decisive leadership during the crisis, the government, especially Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Tepco, and nuclear regulator were confused and ill-informed – and that information sharing was exceedingly poor. One reason why there was so much confusion was the fact that the government, Tepco, and nuclear regulators failed to implement basic safety measures despite being aware of risks posed by quakes, tsunamis, and other disruptive events that might cut off power systems and put nuclear plants at risk.

The report concludes that Japan’s political leadership – and the leadership of the Japanese nuclear industry – betrayed the nation: the tepid, confused response to the disaster was the result of collusion between the company, the government, and regulators — all of whom had “betrayed the nation’s right to safety from nuclear accidents.” Tepco “manipulated its cozy relationship with regulators to take the teeth out of regulations,” the report said.

“What must be admitted, very painfully, is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan,’” commission chairman Kurokawa said. “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.”

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