Deadly Lessons from Fukushima Changed Japan and the World

But Japan, which has avoided armed conflict and been ambivalent about its military since World War II, was not accustomed to sending its citizens into harm’s way — but it would have to. Both first responders and military personnel would need to risk their lives to secure the facility. “This was an existential crisis,” said Fackler.

To this day, a lot of details about Japan’s response remain hidden, Fackler said. But, based on interviews he’s had with key characters, the journalist has pieced together the story of the aftermath — a story of paralysis and disorganization but also heroics.

Plant manager Masao Yoshida was the first to risk people’s lives, Fackler said, sending in a “suicide squad” to vent and cool the reactors. But that wasn’t enough. “At the plant, things started to spin out of control,” he said. “Something similar happened in Tokyo, a meltdown of a sort.”

At the time, Japan’s Prime Minister was Naoto Kan, known as “Kan, the Irritable.” Kan, who had been in office for less than one year when the earthquake hit, was skeptical of both the military and the country’s traditionally cozy relationship with the U.S. But when the rest of the government, including Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency, failed to act, Fackler said, Kan was forced to improvise. At one point, he even flew up to the plant to confront the manager.

“Imagine if President Biden got into Air Force One, flew up to Three Mile Island and started berating the plant owner,” Fackler said, referring to the Pennsylvania plant’s partial nuclear meltdown in 1979.

Most countries anticipate and prepare for emergencies, said Howitt, who studies crisis management and gave a quick presentation on Japan’s response to Fukushima. But Japan’s 2011 crisis was too novel, deadly, and multilayered for it to be easy to predict. Three disasters struck at the same time, killing thousands, and the earthquake and nuclear accident were far larger than any Japan had ever seen.

“I’m not sure a whole lot of prime ministers would have done better,” Fackler said. “But at a crucial moment, he does act.”

Kan forced about 69 workers to stay at the plant and pump water onto the reactors (these workers are the inspiration for the movie “Fukushima 50”). Eventually and reluctantly, he did ask the U.S. for help. (Others might argue the Americans forced their way in after detecting a radioactive plume 100 nautical miles offshore of Fukushima.) The Americans pushed Japan to take “heroic measures” and risk more lives to get the meltdown under control.

And they did — with enduring consequences.

Today in Japan, the military forces Kan hoped to disband are now widely accepted by Japanese citizens after they risked their lives to secure the Fukushima plant, Fackler said. That same military, called Japan Self-Defense Forces, also performs more joint maneuvers with their American counterparts. And, after the crisis, Japan started preparing for future emergencies, including potential war. “It really needed to get its act together in order to handle itself in a dangerous neighborhood,” said Fackler.

The Fukushima accident also motivated other countries, including the U.S., to practice for out-of-the-box scenarios (“Even if they’re farfetched,” Howitt said), and crises like famine, drought, pandemics, and superstorms, such as Hurricane Sandy.

A lot of people had believed this kind of disaster couldn’t happen in Japan, Fackler said. “Fukushima was a wake-up call.”

Caitlin McDermott-Murphy is senior writer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and a freelance science writer. This article is published courtesy of the Harvard Gazette, Harvard University’s official newspaper.