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Can lessons be learned from Fukushima ?

March 1, 2012


Editorial: Independent nuke disaster panel must scrutinize gov't crisis management



An independent fact-finding panel on the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis, which has published a report on its investigation into the accident, is urged to thoroughly scrutinize the government's crisis-management system.

The independent panel has interviewed those involved from a standpoint different from those of the government's fact-finding panel and the Diet's investigative committee that is also investigating the crisis.

What is notable is that the independent panel incorporated its interviews with Cabinet ministers concerned in its report and has concluded that there were serious problems with the crisis-management system of the Prime Minister's Office.

The crisis-management system to respond to not only nuclear accidents but also all kinds of serious disasters is a key issue in Japan's national policy. Nevertheless, an interim report worked out by the government's investigative panel at the end of last year postponed specific scrutiny of the crisis-management system of the Prime Minister's Office even though it briefly touched on the matter.

The government's panel is urged to interview Cabinet ministers concerned and take other steps to thoroughly scrutinize the crisis-management system before it compiles a final report. The Diet's panel on the nuclear accident, which is to be legally given broad power including authority to summon witnesses to testify under oath, should also clarify problems involving the government's crisis management from an independent standpoint.

The independent panel touched on the qualities of Naoto Kan, who was prime minister when the nuclear crisis broke out in March 2011. However, it would be wrong if problems involving the government's response to the crisis were attributed to an individual's character. The government would unlikely have managed the nuclear crisis in an appropriate manner if anybody else had been prime minister. Rather, the government's response to the nuclear crisis should be thoroughly scrutinized from the aspects of both its system and how it was implemented so that lessons learned from the response can be put to good use for the future.

For example, the finding that then Prime Minister Kan gave an instruction to procure batteries on his mobile phone came as a surprise, but he was forced to do so because the government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan lacked the ability to deal with the situation and were useless. Lessons learned from the finding should be put to good use for a new nuclear energy regulatory body. The new regulatory body will be set up based on reflections on the fact that mutual distrust between the Prime Minister's Office and other administrative bodies adversely affected the government's response to the nuclear crisis.

Mobile phones cannot be used at the crisis-management center on the basement of the Prime Minister's Office for security reasons. However, considering the urgent need to gather information at the time of serious disasters, such technical challenges need to be addressed.

The Prime Minister's Office is not solely responsible for the management of the nuclear crisis. It is necessary to scrutinize whether Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, responded to the crisis in an appropriate manner. Additionally, the chain of command between the central government's nerve center and officials at disaster scenes needs to be reviewed.

TEPCO headquarters instructed the Fukushima power station to discontinue injecting sea water into the No. 1 reactor in an effort to cool down its core, but the manager of the plant continued to do so in defiance of the order. The independent fact-finding panel underscores the importance of lower-ranking organizations following instructions from higher-ranking bodies. However, it is better to clarify what lower-ranking bodies can do at their own discretion and leave that to them.

What is of urgent necessity now is to speedily create a new crisis-management system based on lessons learned from thoroughly scrutinizing the response to the Fukushima nuclear crisis. It is also indispensable to secure and develop human resources.

Light was shed on problems involving the government's crisis management system when the Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated Kobe and surrounding areas in January 1995. If the government's crisis-management system is left as it is now, we fear we may have to point out the same problems again in five or 10 years' time.

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