Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Was the Fukushima response a failure?

A 507-page report on the Japanese government and TEPCO's response to the accident at Fukushima was released yesterday.  The report took months to prepare and included the interviews of 400 people.  It found that various mistakes were made both before and after the accident. 

Before the tsunami, TEPCO was found not to have considered the possibility of a tsunami nine metres or higher, and didn't take precautions such as building a higher sea wall or preparing for the possibility that cooling systems would be flooded.  And after the tsunami, a number of other miscalculations or errors were made.  These include breakdowns in communication between officials and on-site workers, switching off the wrong cooling system at reactor number 3, and waiting longer than necessary to start emergency cooling at reactor number 1, mistakenly believing an alternative system was still operational.  On the other hand, the report indicates that it is unclear to what extent these mishaps contributed to the partial or full meltdowns that occurred.

The government was also found to have reacted imperfectly.  Communication among officials at the prime minister's office and the ministries was insufficient.  Specifically, a more accurate estimate of radiation exposure was available, in some forgotten office, that the one the prime minister had immediate access to.  Without the more accurate estimates, the government decided on an evacuation zone of a simple 20 km radius from the plant.  This resulted, for example, in instances of people evacuating to areas which had higher radiation than the places they evacuated from.

All of these criticisms of the response to the nuclear accident are valid.  And there are others as well.  But a little perspective is in order.  On March 11, Japan was hit by major disasters.  An unprecedented tsunami killed 20,000 people.  Mistakes were made.  But I feel that it must be pointed out that in any situation of such magnitude, mistakes are inevitable.  No system is perfect, let alone the Japanese government or bureacratic power companies.  To be completely honest, I am in awe of the government's response, and considering the circumstances it is difficult to imagine anything that would have been more effective.  I challenge the Australian or American governments to respond half so well.  Does anybody remember Katrina? 

I clearly recall the first few days after March 11: 24 hour English news coverage, daily updates by the prime minister.  One had the feeling of a system struggling, being tested certainly.  But also responding to the best of its ability.  The more I think about it, the more awe I feel.  Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated, housed and fed for months.  Without a single radiation-caused death or injury.  Massive amounts of aid pouring in.  Distribution systems stretched to the limit.  Hundreds of workers flocking to the crippled plant, working 24 hours a day to ensure its safety.

In the cold light of reason, the government and TEPCO both come out well.  Yes, TEPCO could have anticipated a tsunami greater than 10 meters.  Or 20.  Or 200.  But there are limits to what can be prepared for.  And you can be certain of one thing: it is impossible for a 14-meter sea wall to be built all around Japan.  And if just around nuclear power plants, why not populated areas?  Are they less important?  And as for the mix-up with the radiation exposures, what the newspaper articles based on the report neglect to mention is the scientific fact that nobody outside the plant, no matter where they were, received enough radiation to adversely affect their health.

It is right and proper that a report be made on the response to the Fukushima accident.  It is appropriate that the mistakes that were made are exposed and analysed, so that improvements can be made.  But to label this response a failure, as newspaper reports around the world have done, is very disappointing. 

The report itself makes no dramatic claim.  Indeed the reporting of the panel's findings by different media sources is a lesson in itself, a lesson in how public opinion is manipulated by the media.  Associated press-sourced articles are headlined "Nuclear disaster response failed", whereas the Mainichi Daily news headlines their article with "Fukushima accident shows need to prepare for the unexpected." Inside, the article's contents are virtually identical.

Makes you think.

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