Critical Analysis: Fukushima Reactor and Japanese Nuclear Policy

The Image of Fukushima in the Japanese Mind (Guardian)
The Image of Fukushima in the Japanese Mind (Guardian)

In the wake of wide-scale protests in Tokyo on June 29 over the restart of two Kansai Electric Power Co. nuclear reactors, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission released an 88-page report that describes Fukushima as a “profoundly man-made disaster.” The report disputes the government’s argument of the failure of the Fukushima cooling systems as due to an unavoidable natural disaster; instead, it argues that the events of March were born out of Japanese culture and willful negligence by Japanese executives, regulators, and government officials.

The Image of Fukushima in the Japanese Mind (Guardian)

After being hit by an undersea megathrust earthquake and the subsequent tsunami in March 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan lost connection with the electrical grid and its backup generators, which crippled the cooling system and subsequently melted down the plant. However, according to the recent report released by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, the failure of the Fukushima reactors, which triggered a series of reactor safety investigations across the globe and widespread backlash against the nuclear energy industry in Japan and overseas, “cannot be regarded as a natural disaster.” The report departs from other government-sanctioned reports that concluded the reactors withstood the earthquake, only to be disabled when the ensuing tsunami slammed into the plant. Instead, the report argues that the plant’s cooling systems were likely damaged during the earthquake due to a lack of safeguard brought about by the “collusion” between Tokyo Electric and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency to avoid implementing new safety regulations.

The report accuses the government, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), and nuclear regulators of failing “to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements — such as assessing the probability of damage, preparing for containing collateral damage from such a disaster, and developing evacuation plans.” According to the report, even though the government Nuclear Safety Commission revised earthquake resistance standards in 2006 and mandated that nuclear operators in Japan inspect their reactors, Tepco did not carry out any of the mandated inspections, and regulators neglected to ensure that Tepco was following through with the inspections. However, while the report assigns widespread blame from government regulators to the private sectors, the report avoids calling for the reprimand of specific executives or officials, claiming that criminal prosecution is out of its scope and “a matter for others to pursue.”

Instead, the report attributes the country’s failure to adhere to its own nuclear safeguards to what it deems a prevalent culture in Japan: one of willful negligence in the name of suppressing dissent and maintaining social harmony. The opening message of the report from the commission’s chairman describes the failure of the Fukushima reactors as “a disaster ‘made in Japan’.” The report goes on to attribute the fundamental cause as ingrained in the “conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the programme’; and our ‘insularity’.” In turn, neither Tepco nor the government agencies involved emerged with any credit for “effectively betray[ing] the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents” as “the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.”

With newspaper polls in June showing as much as 71 percent of the Japanese population opposing the restart of Japan’s nuclear energy program, this attribution of the failure of the Fukushima reactors to a cultural phenomenon may be seen by some as (and may very well be) an attempt by the Japanese government to win back the Japanese public through calming their fears of the dangers of nuclear reactors.  Regardless, whether or not the report is a policy ploy, the failure to safely use nuclear energy and adhere to proper safeguards for any reason remains a concern for the international law community at large. Indeed, Japan is a member to the Nuclear Safety Standards (NUSS) of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, because IAEA was not involved with the nuclear activities of the Fukushima reactor, the safeguards were binding only on a voluntary and selective basis.  Even nuclear problems cast as “made in Japan” are not mindful of state borders: problems”“made in Japan” are exported to other countries as demonstrated by recent cases of radioactive material from Japan washing onto U.S. shores. As such, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, ensuring that state actors utilize nuclear energy in a safe way may require a global examination into best practices and possibly into whether non-binding standards need to become binding commitments.

Cassandra Kirsch is a rising third year law student at the Univeristy of Denver and a Senior Editor on The View From Above