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Yoichi Funabashi on the nuclear disaster

March 8, 2013

LESSON FROM THE NUCLEAR DISASTER: Too much focus on laws and systems instead of true leadership



Award-winning journalist Yoichi Funabashi has spent much of the past two years trying to uncover the full story behind Japan's gravest national crisis of the postwar era: the reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.


Renowned for his insightful reporting on national security and Japan-U.S. trade and foreign policy issues, Funabashi is a former columnist, diplomatic correspondent and editor in chief of The Asahi Shimbun.

He recently published a two-volume work titled "Countdown to Meltdown" (from Bungeishunju Ltd.) that describes the actions taken by the major players as they confronted the disaster triggered by the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake.

As chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, Funabashi established the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident, the only private-sector organization to take an in-depth look at how this unprecedented disaster unfolded.

The commission released its report in February 2012, but Funabashi wanted to gain a fuller understanding of what went through the minds of the individuals concerned as they grappled with the crisis.

A major difference from the commission's report was the inclusion in his book of the words and deeds of many U.S. officials interviewed by Funabashi. In total, close to 300 people in Japan and the United States were questioned, and many spoke on the record.

Over the course of more than 900 pages, Funabashi describes how meltdowns occurred at three of the Fukushima plant's reactors after all electricity sources and cooling systems were lost.

He goes on to describe the struggles that emerged between government officials, executives of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Self-Defense Forces and central ministry bureaucrats in the immediate aftermath.

Added to the picture are the interactions with various counterparts in the United States that at times hindered rather than helped the situation, especially in the early stages.

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Funabashi explained the purpose for writing the book and his assessment of what has changed since then.


Question: Your latest publication re-creates how the key individuals involved dealt with the Fukushima nuclear crisis. What are some of the key points that you wanted to present to readers?


Funabashi: I wanted to describe the essence of that crisis. I thought about whether it would be possible to do so by describing what the key players actually did.

I wanted to present an overall picture, much like a mosaic, by describing the various players and what they went through as the crisis unfolded. The people involved range from officials in the prime minister's office, those in the nuclear plant operation room as well as the emergency response headquarters on-site and those who were involved in evacuating residents.

Because looking into the cause of the accident is important, that was handled by the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident.

I also wanted to paint a bigger picture about the crisis by writing the stories about the many individuals who were involved.

Rather than say that such-and-such a person was good or that person was bad, I wanted to show that before the problem of radioactive fallout, everyone was weak like a baby because they were consumed by fear.

I believe the four nuclear safety inspectors failed to live up to their tasks. In the first chapter I wrote about inspectors fleeing the scene even as the emergency was unfolding.


Q: What was the major issue at question during the crisis?


A: That would be "in an emergency, can this nation put up a fight?" I was left with the feeling that the spirit, mettle and preparedness needed for such a battle also suffered a meltdown during the crisis. At the same time, I was not in a position to point fingers at people and criticize them. It was a reflection of Japan as a nation in the postwar era and its people, including all of us who lived through that era. While people may have enjoyed living through that time, the future will not be like that at all.

The governments of both Japan and the United States made every effort to protect their own people. In that vein, 20,000 Americans were sent to Japan to participate in "Operation Tomodachi."

In that situation, it was made clear that an alliance cannot be maintained unless Japan was a nation that was capable of protecting its own people.

For its part, it was only natural for the United States to think about protecting its citizens within the context of its own global strategy. Given the difficult circumstances, the United States acted admirably. But Japan also had to face the very important question of whether it had the mettle and preparedness to protect its own people.

That is the element that I most wanted to describe.


Q: The United States didn't entirely trust the Japanese government to take all the right actions. It thought the response should not be left solely up to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator, and that the Self-Defense Forces had to be brought into the picture. How serious were such considerations in dealing with the crisis?


A: An explosion hit the No. 3 reactor building at 11:01 a.m. on March 14, 2011. That caused the United States to realize that a far from normal situation was unfolding. At the same time, the United States began trying to gain a grasp of core temperatures and radiation levels by using Global Hawk surveillance aircraft as well as other aircraft to collect air samples. After a while, they also began monitoring radiation levels at lower altitudes.


Of course, no one knew what was happening in the cores, not Japan, not TEPCO nor the United States. However, the United States had the tools to monitor the situation from the air. Monitoring on the ground was also done by personnel with the U.S. Navy's Naval Reactors (responsible for safety and proper operations of the Navy's nuclear reactors). Those measurements were conducted at 15-minute intervals around the clock.

The gap between Japan and the United States in grasping the gravity of the situation was made decisive by the difference in monitoring capabilities. The United States quickly realized the situation was far more severe than Japan did. That led the United States to reach the conclusion that the SDF had to be used much earlier than the Japanese government realized. Japan was unable to decide whether the situation could be left entirely to TEPCO.


Japan also did not have a unit to handle an emergency situation of this scale. There was no legal definition of the primary task for the SDF of spraying water into the nuclear plants and storage pools for spent nuclear fuel. The government had to use extralegal measures to deploy the SDF. As a result, the actual spraying of water on March 17 got under way barely in the nick of time.

In terms of understanding the need for crisis management, the United States was certainly quicker off the mark.


Q: The United States faced problems in not knowing who to contact in the Japanese government to obtain reliable information. How would you evaluate the response by Japan?


A: Under the special measures law to deal with nuclear accidents, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) is legally supposed to serve as the secretariat. However, the head of the agency failed to function after being yelled at by Prime Minister Naoto Kan. There were many items that had to be taken care of, including sending officials to the local response headquarters and dealing with the barrage of media inquiries.


The local response headquarters also did not work smoothly.


Given these circumstances, politicians in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan felt they had to take the initiative in dealing with the crisis.


Kan also got into action. However, at first, it was not clear who was really in charge in the government for giving out orders.


For those reasons, the United States did not know if it had to obtain information at the accident site, through TEPCO headquarters or NISA.

When the United States thought the prime minister's office might have the information, it asked to be allowed to base officials there.


All of that added up to considerable frustration for the United States.

Q: However, Japan rejected that request to base officials at the prime minister's office on grounds it would violate Japan's sovereignty.


A: I felt Japan's argument was more convincing. It would be unthinkable if Japan made a similar request regarding the White House. Ambassador John Roos at that time became hyperactive because he was under pressure from so many quarters in Washington due to the inability to obtain information.


Q: Was there any possibility of the Japan-U.S. alliance falling into a crisis situation?


A: If the United States had closed its embassy, much like many other nations, and left Tokyo, it would have had incomparable significance. Japan would likely have been thrown into turmoil and left with the feeling that it had been abandoned in a time of emergency. That would have been a major blow to the Japanese public.


Would that have led to the end of the alliance? The issue is not as simple as that. But the trauma from such an event would have been considerable.

The Naval Reactors viewed the situation in a very pessimistic way because it is in charge of nuclear regulation for U.S. aircraft carriers. It would have been difficult even for the top U.S. Navy officer to argue for the importance of the alliance if the Naval Reactors had stated its case strongly.

Even Adm. Robert Willard, the U.S. Pacific Command commander, said at a White House meeting that in a worst-case scenario, the Navy might have to leave Yokosuka. That was how serious the situation was.

That would have been the first instance in the postwar era of the United States removing its troops based in Japan under enormous risk, a possibility that was never considered previously.

In the White House meeting, questions were raised about how difficult it would be from the standpoint of public sentiment and politically to have the U.S. troops return once they had decided to leave. The view was also raised that such a move would represent the beginning of the end of the alliance. The United States really struggled with that question because it was the first such instance in the postwar era.


Q: During the confrontation in the United States between the Navy and State Department, John Holdren, the president's science and technology adviser, entered the picture and decided on what course of action to take. Wasn't that very different from the situation in Japan?


A: That's right. During my interviews, I heard the opinion that there was no telling what would have happened if he had not gotten involved and skillfully led the discussion. In Japan, there is no equivalent post as science adviser to the president.


If one were to seek out someone with a similar position, it might have been Haruki Madarame, the head of the then Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan.

Unfortunately for him, however, after telling Kan that no explosion would occur at the No. 1 reactor, an explosion did actually happen. That led to an immediate drop in the appraisal of Madarame so he was unable to play the role of science adviser.

Because he was head of one agency involved in safety regulation, he also became wrapped up in bureaucratic turf wars. That prevented him from rising above the crisis, as Holdren did.

There is a real need for an independent adviser assisting the president through his expertise and by working solely in the interests of the president. That is because it involves making judgments based on scientific knowledge.


Q: Why was there such a gap in understanding between Japan and the United States over events that had unfolded at the Fukushima plant?


A: On the issue of whether there was water in the storage pool for spent nuclear fuel in the No. 4 reactor, the U.S. view was there was no water. In Japan, Ichiro Takekuro, a senior TEPCO official, also held the view there was no water. However, the official Japanese view was that as of the night of March 16, 2011, there still was water in the pool. That judgment was made on the basis of a photo taken of the pool from a SDF helicopter. The United States viewed the same photo and came to the conclusion that it did not see any water. There was that difference in views.


Although aerial monitoring can show what the temperature is over the pool area, it did not help in determining if there really was water in the pool. While the two sides did not always know what was occurring, the United States was much farther ahead in terms of around-the-clock monitoring to grasp what was happening on the ground.

While similar measurements were conducted by Japanese agencies, such as the science ministry, TEPCO and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, the methods used were not uniform so there was a low capability for making a comprehensive appraisal. That led to the gap in understanding between the two sides.


Q: In the postscript of your book, you wrote that you wanted to shed light on the lack of independence on the part of Japan. The inability to think outside of the box by those involved in the nuclear energy sector was also evident. That all led to a wavering of the Japan-U.S. alliance. In the ensuing two years, has there been some change regarding that independence on the part of Japan?


A: In the report by the Independent Investigation Commission, the expression was used of "governance conducted by a village mentality and atmosphere."

In a sense, governance means the use and distribution of state power and authority in the most effective way to make the most use of social, human and economic resources to obtain a certain objective.


However, in the case of Japan, it often means only using homogeneous elements and eliminating what is considered heterogeneous. While it may stop short of not recognizing diversity at all, diversity is not always welcomed. Holding an independent viewpoint is not appreciated by others.

In conducting discussions, the conclusion is decided beforehand so that no one loses face. No one is satisfied unless everything is settled beforehand. That is the same for training exercises. There is a tendency not to conduct real training without a predetermined scenario which could lead to everyone being made uncomfortable.


In that way, no one loses face and no one's authority is disparaged. Everything is settled within a predetermined plan and everyone is thinking about everyone else. Risks are considered taboo and not brought out into the open. Risk is also not appraised independently. Because risk is only considered in a way convenient to management and order, in the end, when it has to come into play, it is of absolutely no use.

Normally, there would be a need to incorporate a much more diverse set of viewpoints as well as heterogeneity, but in the past two years there has been almost no change in that respect.

For example, regarding where to store topsoil contaminated by radiation, while many people may feel in their hearts that it should be kept somewhere in Fukushima Prefecture, if that feeling is actually voiced, discussions quickly come to a halt because some will say that would further hurt and bully the residents of Fukushima.

What has not changed is the ability to minimize loss through a process of bringing out risk into the open, discussing the issues in an objective manner and setting priorities before deciding how to keep the loss at a minimum.


Q: There was failure to conduct real training exercises and SPEEDI (the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information) was not helpful. What lessons can be learned from that?


A: There may have been the acquisition of better hardware over the past two years, but there are still many shortcomings with regard to software. There are doubts as to how much specialization was really improved, as well as whether a command structure was decided on. In terms of enforcement of measures, not much has changed.


A true system to deal with crises has not yet been established.

For example, a major change might be possible if, in deciding to resume operations at nuclear plants, the decision was made to permanently base inspectors from the newly established Nuclear Regulation Authority at the plants and have them work together with officials of the plant operator when a crisis arose.

Another possibility would be to have those who would be actually manning the control rooms at the plants to inspect the new operation room and ask them if they would be satisfied that the changes incorporated would be sufficient even if earthquakes and tsunami led to a failure of the cooling system.

In the end, people will have to screen the changes proposed. Regardless of how skillfully the procedures, system and organization are put together, in the end it is people who determine if those factors actually work.

Those people who would handle operations at the control room should be asked if they feel satisfied that the changes will protect their safety and keep the plant under control.

That sort of thinking of asking the people who will actually use the procedures and systems to screen the changes is not currently found in Japan. Everything is about laws and systems.

But, in the end, it is about people and leadership.

Looking at municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture, those with true leadership have recovered to a much greater degree.

In order to respond effectively to a crisis, priorities have to be set and decisions made on what should be saved first. Only leadership is capable of achieving that. People will have to play central roles in screening whether proposed changes will really work.

However, I have doubts about the extent to which there have been changes in thinking along those lines over the past two years.

(This article was written by Izumi Sakurai and Roy K. Akagawa.)



Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and a former editor in chief and columnist for The Asahi Shimbun. He is a contributing editor of Foreign Policy (Washington, D.C.).

He served as correspondent for The Asahi Shimbun in Beijing (1980-81) and Washington (1984-87), and as American General Bureau chief (1993-97). In 1985 he received the Vaughn-Ueda Prize for his reporting on international affairs.

His books in English include "The Peninsula Question" (Brookings Institute, 2007); "Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific, ed." (USIP, 2003); "Alliance Tomorrow, ed." (Tokyo Foundation, 2001); and "Alliance Adrift" (Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1998, winner of the Shincho Arts and Sciences Award).

His recent articles and papers in English include: "Fukushima in review: a complex disaster, a disastrous response" (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2012); "Lessons from Japan's nuclear accident" (East Asia Forum, March 26, 2012); "The end of Japanese illusions" (New York Times, March 11, 2012).

He received his B.A. from the University of Tokyo in 1968 and his Ph.D. from Keio University in 1992. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University (1975-76), a visiting Fellow at the Institute for International Economics (1987), a Donald Keene Fellow at Columbia University (2003), and a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo Public Policy Institute (2005-2006).

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