Lessons from Fukushima

Author: Editors, East Asia Forum

As we approach the 5th anniversary of the 11 March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown which devastated Japan’s Tohoku region, how has the Japanese state absorbed the lessons of that triple disaster?

The scale of the disaster was massive: a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the most powerful to hit Japan in recorded history, which triggered a 40-metre-high tsunami that took out the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Over 20,000 perished, an evacuation zone carved out around Fukushima Daiichi will remain uninhabitable for tens of thousands of years, and 100,000 people from the evacuation zone and surrounding areas are still living as nuclear refugees.

‘The official response to the disaster has resolutely focused on positive thinking. The much repeated mantras are fukko [recovery] and kizuna [social solidarity]’, writes Tessa Morris-Suzuki. In some areas the government has made commendable progress. A government expert panel approved on 4 March a new draft policy for the reconstruction of areas in Tohoku damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. The policy aims to complete reconstruction in five years, just in time for the world’s gaze to return to Japan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The quest ‘to improve regulatory oversight culminated in the creation of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) in September 2012’, says Florentine Koppenborg. The NRA’s predecessor, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, was housed under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), the very ministry charged in 2010 with the ambition of expanding nuclear power to cover 70 per cent of Japan’s electricity needs by 2030, and many of whose officials would ‘descend from heaven’ (amakudari) upon retirement with plum jobs as consultants to utilities. The NRA is housed under the umbrella of the Ministry of Environment to try to eradicate this egregious conflict of interest. ‘[O]n 29 February 2016 three executives of TEPCO (the operator of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant) were indicted for professional negligence causing death and injury’. As Morris-Suzuki observes, ‘their trial will doubtless be a long and contentious one’.

But dig a bit deeper and it’s far from clear what lessons have been learned from Fukushima.

As Kay Kitazawa, of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation (RJIF), explains this week, Japan’s crisis management systems were overwhelmed in the aftermath of the disaster. An RJIF study of hospital responses to the disaster found medical care for the afflicted was only able to continue at significantly reduced capacity because kizuna — social solidarity built upon people-to-people bonds, social networks and personal contacts — swung into action to mobilise armies of volunteers in forming the core engine of recovery. It was the residents of Fukushima who heroically banded together to manage the crisis. ‘[I]t is an unfortunate reality that in 2011 Japan had to resort to kizuna, even during the initial phase of crisis management, due to inadequate centralised management…Japan must now look beyond kizuna and build a crisis response apparatus that doesn’t overly rely on the goodwill of the Japanese people’.

On the question of Japan’s future energy mix, Koppenborg explains that the Abe government’s nuclear power plans don’t add up. In spite of overwhelming public opinion against restarting nuclear reactors, the Abe government has resolved to do just that. At present just three of Japan’s nuclear reactors have been successfully restarted, while a fourth restart recently had to be shut down after three days due to a fault. But, according to METI’s Energy Mix 2030 document published in 2015, the objective is for nuclear power to make up 20–22 per cent of total electricity generation by 2030.

‘To date, the NRA has received safety review applications for a total of 25 of the 43 existing commercial reactors’, Koppenborg reports. Commercial interests now have to face up to the NRA’s new regulatory teeth. It appears unlikely that further applications will be made and not all of these 25 applications can count on being successful. But ‘if Japan is to meet its goal of generating 20–22 per cent of its power through nuclear energy by 2030 it needs to reopen 30 reactors’, says Koppenborg.

It is evident that ‘the 20–22 per cent nuclear power goal for 2030 serves the sole purpose of showing that the Abe government will continue to promote nuclear power’. Waiting for an opportune time to move forward with restarting the construction of half-built reactors which were abandoned after the accident may also be on the cards, but that would be politically tricky.

While nuclear power could still play a role in the country’s future energy mix, to meet an energy policy in line with the government’s stated objectives of energy security, lowering electricity costs, and reducing CO2 emissions, Japan needs to double down on investment and research and development in green and renewable energy technologies.

In our lead essay this week, Richard Samuels argues that ‘perhaps the most striking development in the weeks and months after the devastation was how champions of existing institutions, practices, preferences and ideas — even those that failed so spectacularly and so indisputably — rallied to define the lessons that would be drawn. Political entrepreneurs from every corner framed the catastrophe to justify, legitimate, fortify and sell their pre-existing preferences. Japanese politics became a competition for control of who would define the heroes and the villains of the tragedy — and for the power to determine what would come next. Five years on, the 3.11 master narrative is still under construction’.

This mindset is a key obstacle in the political gridlock that blocks improved disaster preparedness and strengthening Japan’s crisis management system as well as a more wholehearted approach to renewable energy sources.

The response to the triple disaster in 2011 showed the world the best of Japanese society: orderly, humane and resilient. It also exposed the governance deficit and that needs to be fixed. The people of Japan deserve better than having to rely on kizuna next time round.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

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