March 11, 2011, was a transformational moment for the Japanese people. It not only shattered the public myth of absolute safety that had been nurtured by the Japanese nuclear-power industry and its proponents. It also destroyed Japan’s self-image as a “safe and secure nation” that grew out of the country’s pacifism since World War II.
The moment the disaster struck signaled the end of Japan’s long, long postwar period. In the early hours of March 15, Prime Minister Naoto Kan stormed the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power with an impassioned order that the company not abandon operations at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. He entreated civilian workers at the plant, run by Tepco, to put their lives on the line, insisting that Japan’s “viability as a nation” was at stake. It was a message, delivered perhaps unwittingly, that Mr. Kan’s predecessors had never ventured to give: Be prepared to die for your country.
With this exhortation, Mr. Kan also bridged the great divide that has long existed between the military and politics in Japan. He called for the massive mobilization of Japan’s military arm, the Self-Defense Forces, assigning troops to onsite operations to cool spent fuel and tame reactors by injecting water into the pools. As Lieut. Gen. Eiji Kimizuka, commander of ground operations at the S.D.F. Tohoku Headquarters, has put it: “The Self-Defense Forces were the final bulwark. There was never a time in the past when the distance separating the S.D.F. from politics had grown so close.”
In hindsight, all this may have come too late. The situation on the ground had by then already deteriorated; the S.D.F. should have been mobilized much earlier into the “war zone” of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and been charged with commanding water-injection operations.
Still, the government’s resolve to put Japanese lives on the line for the mission was a powerful signal to the Japanese people and to Japan’s allies.
In the thick of the terrible uncertainty surrounding the accident, the Japanese leadership was quietly preparing for the worst. A contingency report prepared by Shunsuke Kondo, chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, envisioned a worst-case scenario that would entail the evacuation of the Tokyo metropolitan area’s 30 million residents.
This was an unprecedented step — the first time Japan’s government undertook such contingency planning. As it turns out, the mass evacuation was unnecessary. But the situation may have come dangerously close to Mr. Kondo’s nightmare scenario, according to a report released last month by the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident, a nonprofit and nonpartisan working group of 30 scholars, lawyers and journalists.
We Japanese have long prided ourselves on being a society that provides safety and security; this has been our trademark overseas and it has enjoyed broad popular appeal at home. But it also has given rise to a pacifistic-to-the-point-of-avoidance approach to national security. That same reluctance has been matched by our aversion to facing the potential threat of nuclear emergencies.
Our officials and politicians have long emphasized safety in small doses, and in the process may have inadvertently sacrificed the security of the nation at large. Any drills for a nuclear emergency were meticulously designed to avoid giving any impression that an accident could possibly progress to the severity of a meltdown, and municipalities were discouraged from taking action to anticipate the compounded risks that would be involved in the event of an earthquake, for example.
After all, why stir up unnecessary anxiety when such contingencies simply are unthinkable?
But avoidance ultimately translated into unpreparedness. A national program to develop robots for use in nuclear emergencies was terminated in midstream because it smacked too much of underlying danger. Japan, supposedly a major power in robotics, had none to send in to Fukushima at the critical hour.
Similarly, Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission stipulated in its safety guidelines for light-water nuclear facilities that “the potential for extended loss of power need not be considered.” But just such an extended loss of power contributed to the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear facilities.
Shortly after 9/11, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission passed new regulations to deal with a possible terrorist attack on a nuclear plant. These included comprehensive guidelines and strategies “to maintain or restore core cooling, containment, and spent fuel pool cooling capabilities,” the so-called B.5.b measures.
Despite the urgings of the U.S. authorities and official briefings on B.5.b in 2006 and 2008, the Japanese nuclear regulatory agencies failed to implement pertinent precautionary measures in Japan — because, of course, they did not consider power failure to be an imminent threat. The resulting lack of critical guidelines is severely criticized in the recent report by the Independent Investigation Commission.
In the face of natural calamity or man-made disasters, human society is a remarkably fragile thing. The Great East Japan Earthquake disaster brought to the fore the deficiency in Japan’s postwar vision of itself as a nation of peace: the lack of a vision for a national security state.
By Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor-in-chief of Asahi Shimbun and chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, which set up the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident.