What was that nuclear accident?
The investigation into the nuclear accident is continuing at a snail’s pace. This is because it is still impossible to get a clear understanding of just what the accident entailed.
There have been countless incomprehensible moves surrounding the accident, and while a large number of issues remain unresolved, only the obliteration of memory moves forward. Smothering over errors is tantamount to the abandoning of a determination of the causes of the accident and the pursuit of liability, and because of this there is a lack of opportunity for self-reflection, which is likely to be the reason why the same errors are repeated over again. If so, this in itself can be said to be another error. In this sense, the expression the “erosion of memory” is not necessarily correct, and there are doubts that anything such as “understanding” worthy of erosion existed in the first place.
One example would be the explosion that occurred in Unit 4 during the accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS), in spite of it being shut down for regular inspections. The reasons given for this are absolutely incomprehensible. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) “estimates” that the explosion occurred “because vent gasses, including hydrogen, associated with a vent of the Unit 3 containment vessel, flowed into Unit 4 through an exhaust pipe,” (“Why did a hydrogen explosion occur in Unit 4?” TEPCO website) but this cannot be readily accepted. There are many other issues that need to be investigated, such as the tangled information regarding the “explosion” in Unit 2, information regarding pipe ruptures before the arrival of the tsunami, and whether or not, in the first place, the operations to bring the emergency at FDNPS to an end were carried out in accordance with the procedure manuals.
Neglect of these facts seems to have created an atmosphere where horrifying claims such as “It cannot be proven that shut down nuclear reactors are safer than those in operation” are allowed to become widespread, albeit on the net.
The investigation of errors gets put on the backburner when people are up to their eyebrows in issues that appear without limit from one day to the next. That is why unearthing of the true causes and problems of the nuclear accident is not carried out and liability becomes ambiguous, leaving countermeasures to fall behind, ending up with the current reality of permitting nuclear restarts. As plainly indicated by the example of Monju, which was operated without any decommissioning technology being available, it has now become the norm to “think while running” even with issues that pose serious risks to people’s life and health.
Isn’t it just at this time that we should be pausing for thought, and finding it necessary to engage in self-reflection and investigation of the errors? If we did so, as the investigation of the accident progressed, the difficulties of getting at the truth of the causes would probably become more apparent, and if that happened, it should be impossible to do anything like permit facile restarts of nuclear power plants.
3/11 as a Big Bang
One of the important pillars of the nuclear accident investigation is verification of the damage and suffering involved. The complexity of the damage has been emphasized, and that trend is deepening even today. However, if the realities are untangled one by one, the actual situation is not really all that complex. The haphazard handling of the situation in the wake of the nuclear accident has contributed to the confusion, but if we look back and consider the origins of the incident, the essential matters come into view. With the accident’s first instant as the point of departure, problems spread, people moved around, and it became difficult to see what was happening. Disorganized and inconsistent handling of the accident occurred repeatedly. These became the causes for the inconsistent conclusions that were drawn.
Therefore, in the investigation of the damage and suffering caused by the nuclear accident, if we liken the first instant of the accident to a “big bang,” the complexity can be overcome by probing into what occurred after that in chronological order.
In contrast, if we peer at the situation from the stated premises of “the evacuation zones determined by the government” or the various “safety standards,” and so on, the problems (here, the “damage”) become obscured, and it would be necessary to add the processes by which these responses were made to the list of items for investigation.
What the “three-hour blank” brought about
The tsunami arrived at FDNPS at around 50 minutes after the earthquake struck at 14:46 on March 11 2011. (There are several views about the precise time of the arrival of the tsunami.) At around 15:37 to 15:41, all AC power was lost to Units 1, 3, and 2 in that order. This caused TEPCO to issue, at 15:42, an “Article 10 notification” to the government based on Article 10 of the Act on Special Measures Concerning Nuclear Emergency Preparedness (hereafter, “Act on Special Measures”). Following that, it was judged that the power station was now experiencing a station blackout (SBO – loss of all power) when, at 16:36, DC power (from batteries) was lost in Units 1 and 2, and thus TEPCO issued, at 16:45, an “Article 15 notification” to the government (based on Article 15 of the Act on Special Measures). This signified the occurrence of a severe accident.
Strangely, in March 2016 (around the same time that the manual on the assessment of a meltdown was “discovered”), it was “found” that the batteries had been submerged when the tsunami arrived, and thus the DC power had also been lost at the time when all the AC power was lost. We can therefore see that, by rights, the Article 15 notification should have been issued at that point (around 15:40). A delay of around one hour occurred at the stage of the report by TEPCO to the government.
It is stipulated in the Act on Special Measures (Article 15, paragraph 2) that the Prime Minister, upon receiving an Article 15 notification, must “immediately” announce a Declaration of a Nuclear Emergency Situation (hereafter, “Declaration”). Furthermore, it is also stipulated that the Prime Minister should take such action as issue instructions on evacuation and indoor sheltering to the mayors or governors of the relevant municipalities and prefectures.
In fact, however, the Declaration was announced at sometime after 19:00, more than two hours after the Article 15 notification had been received. Why was that?
Since the main membership of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters had been prescribed in advance by law (Act on Special Measures, Article 17), it was not because there was a delay in selecting the members. In addition, since the actual Declaration made no mention of “zones where emergency response measures should be implemented,” it was not that the delay was caused by determination of the scope within which emergency response measures were to be implemented. So, what was the hesitation in the delay of the announcement all about?
Naturally, since everyone was rushing about responding to the earthquake and tsunami, one possible explanation is that there was simply no time to issue the Declaration. However, with just that eventuality in mind, the Act on Special Measures calls for an “automatic” response that allows no margin for rumination.
Even today, the reason for the delay has not been made clear. What we know is that in the process of announcing the Declaration TEPCO and the government brought about delays of one hour and two hours, respectively. The “unlawful handling of the nuclear power plant accident” began as a continuation from this point onwards.
“Derailment” due to double standard
In contrast to the Basic Act on Disaster Control Measures, a general law, the Act on Special Measures is a special law that takes the stance of the precautionary principle by containing provisions that handle some matters in advance if there is a “probability” of the occurrence of a nuclear accident. The reason is that taking measures after an accident occurs would make it impossible to protect the livelihoods, lives and health of local residents. The “automatic implementation” of the Declaration is adopted for just that reason, but this crucial measure was not carried out according to the rules.
Once “derailment” begins, the next derailment occurs in the cover-up and justification of the first. The Declaration that was announced carries no specification of the announcing body, nor the time of announcement (which is an anomaly for an administrative document), and is written as if it had been automatically announced on receipt of the notification of the station blackout at “16:36.” This chain of derailments was later not limited to cover-ups and falsification of information, but induced a simultaneous, but contradictory, double handling of the situation.
Already on the day of the earthquake disaster, March 11, evacuation buses were arranged in Ohkuma Town by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT), and this was communicated to the General Affairs Department at Ohkuma Town Office sometime after 20:00 that day. At the chief cabinet secretary’s press conference, begun at 19:42, however, it was stated that “At the present time, there is no confirmation of impacts outside the facility due to radioactive materials. Thus, it is not necessary for residents and others present inside the relevant zones to take any immediate special action now. Please stand by in your homes or in your current location and act according to latest information from the administrative disaster prevention wireless, television, radio and so on, without beginning to evacuate in a hurried manner” (Office of the Prime Minister website). In the evening of March 12, at Tsushima, Namie Town, it is reported that people wearing “full protective clothing and gas masks of a kind never seen before” were encouraging people to evacuate by yelling out, “Please get out of here! You are in danger!” (Owada, T., Kitazawa, T., (ed.) Nuclear Refugees: Shrieking Notes, Akashi Shoten).
Despite clear knowledge of a large-scale release of radioactive materials, the government issued a contradictory press release that emphasized the “soundness of the nuclear reactor.” A local newspaper reported that “The government Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters has stated that ‘it is unlikely that serious damage has occurred to the containment vessels’” (Fukushima Minpo, March 17, 2011).
Fudging safety standards
At the accident site, safety standards were altered in a haphazard manner. These, however, were not changes based on laws or regulations, but literally case-by-case changes made to fit local convenience. For instance, the decontamination “screening level” for residents in the affected area was raised from 13,000 cpm (counts per minute) to 100,000 cpm. Since this standard is linked to the standard for taking iodine tablets, the alteration had the effect of dramatically reducing the number of people who need to take the tablets. Relaxation of the safety standards eliminated the necessity itself of making accident responses. “Experts” gave their approval to this.
Very early on the decision was made that when serious contamination was confirmed, the evacuation zones and those to be evacuated were not to be expanded, but the safety standards relaxed to give an underestimation. It was the people at the accident site who shouldered the risks.
This is how the responses to the nuclear accident cleaved into the “window-dressing scenario” that attempted to underestimate the damage and suffering, and the dire “back-room scenario” at the accident site. This signified the fact that the various types of safety standards that were established before the nuclear accident to protect people’s lives and health were relegated to the “back-room scenario,” and underestimation of the accident became the “window-dressing scenario.”
The actual responses, having issued the Declaration, were such as to explain the “current exposure situation,” and the “front” and “back” scenarios have continued to meander in confusion to this day. In addition, in contaminated areas, 20 mSv/y (millisievert per year) was set as the new standard for the public exposure dose limit, while in other areas it was maintained at the previous 1 mSv/y. This double standard has also become the norm. The doubt arises as to what the pre-accident standard meant.
In the midst of this confusion there arose the “custom” of not keeping minutes even at meetings where important decisions were taken. This is a topic that is also continuing to this day, as everyone knows. Hide anything inconvenient; if it gets out, evade responsibility; falsify information, etc., etc. If this is the premise we are to go on, then it would be no surprise if someone said that minutes were meaningless in the first place.
The derailment that began from the March 11 point of departure continued to expand in scale across all sectors. Take, for instance, the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, the security-related legislation and clauses on emergency responses, the Okinawa base construction and the issue of interference in local government, and so on; it is necessary to understand these as a “series of events flowing” (towards collapse) along a line extrapolated out from the original derailment.
What was “completely under control”? (1)
Looking back in this way, what was under control was not the radioactive material or the contaminated water, and certainly not the nuclear reactors involved in the accident, but the media and information, the views of “experts,” and the actions of the residents in the affected areas.
Despite the “emergency,” large numbers of residents not evacuated from the contaminated areas were forced to continue their daily lives without any panic occurring and with no ostensible opposition movement arising. One can only say that it was absolutely “brilliant.”
What probably made this rare feat possible was the daily exercise of “risk management.” In the context of media control, for example, under the regional electric power monopoly (which granted ten privately-owned regional power companies a monopoly on power supply in each region), which was in place from 1931 until last year (2016), we can discern the reason why the power companies shouldered huge advertising costs to continually bombard the public with unnecessary commercials. It was “insurance” against just such a crisis as we have now. This “media countermeasure cost” was also included in the “overall costs” as one of the items passed on to the power users, but with this mechanism being set up in 1931, advertising on this basis has a long history.
More importantly, many Japanese people swallowed whole the information given out by the government and “experts” without any doubts. This is also a blessing ensuing from long years of “education.” In studying for entrance exams, conducted on the principle that for each question there is only one correct answer, what you end up with is people who think that “in a crisis, we are assisted by the correct and uniform information that the government provides.” There is also a long history of various forms of favored treatment for the research carried out by “experts.”
In contrast, social pressure not to cause a panic probably generates a normality bias. Indeed, the “safety declaration” issued by the administration was precisely the “words we want to hear,” “the required response” for the local residents that wanted to believe it. In this sense, also, these psy chological mechanisms were nothing more than a normality bias.
At the time of a tsunami or other such event, this normality bias will magnify the damage and suffering by suppressing the sense of crisis, but for the stratum that wishes to control people’s behavior, it is desirable that the people are “rational” human beings who act with “composure.” The fact that elementary schoolchildren were made to sit in a schoolyard for a headcount in the face of an oncoming tsunami (2) is symbolic of this kind of society. The fable of Chumon no Ooi Ryoriten (The Restaurant of Many Orders)
was written by Kenji Miyazawa a century ago, but contains warnings about this kind of social atmosphere that are valid even now.
The Anti-nuke movement
At first glance, the administration’s and media’s responses – the window-dressing responses mentioned above – that began with the 3/11 “derailment” appear to have been abrupt phenomena brought about by the occurrence of a huge and unprecedented accident. As we have seen above, however, isn’t it more likely that they were the “prefabricated” responses to an accident that was waiting to happen? In other words, it was perhaps true to say that the two kinds of responses were already built into the preparations themselves.
The larger the accident, the greater will be the responsibility associated with it. In the case of nuclear power, therefore, there would have been the necessity to create a mechanism for “evading responsibility” in order not to expose errors in national policy.
At the time of an investigation of a nuclear accident, the actual knowledge of and an inquest on the process of preparation of these kinds of responses (which are, unfortunately, the “window-dressing responses”) is essential. Although it doesn’t bear thinking about, without knowing how the “responses” that sacrificed the residents of the affected areas and exposed their lives and health to critical risks, the ultimate significance of the nuclear accident may never become clear. This is the way the author (Arakida) perceives the situation now, at the beginning of 2017.
3/11 brought us the end of “a society which protects local residents at the time of an accident.” It was already nothing more than a “public position” anyway, but this abandonment of society became clearly apparent in the attitude of those in power. Thus, the manifestation of the “big bang” was perhaps the opening of Pandora’s box. The author’s conclusion is that the “three-hour blank” was the time it took to make the decision to turn the rudder in that direction. I have said earlier that the notion of “not protecting local residents at the time of an accident” is not simply an issue of the nuclear accident and local residents. The proof of this is amply illustrated by the example of the sole application of the provisions of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution being brought to the brink of death by the security-related legislation, symbolized by the clauses on emergency responses. Thus, the issue of the nuclear accident was not simply an issue of the nuclear accident alone.
At present, with the true intentions and undisguised violence of power holders taking society by storm, this is not the time for a restoration of the “public position.”
The nuclear phase out/anti-nuke movement has been accorded new meaning after 311: The regeneration of the world we live in. I believe that from now on it will be necessary to conduct our activities with our eyes on the horizon of the “building of a new world” beyond the issues of nuclear restarts and local consent.
<Takeru Arakida, Associate Professor, Faculty of Administration and Social Scientists, Fukushima University>
( 1) Prime Minister Abe used the phrase “completely under control,” (referring to Fukushima Daiichi) in his address to the International Olympic Committee in September 2013 when urging them to select Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics.
(2) This refers to Okawa Elementary School in Miyagi Prefecture, where 74 children and 10 staff lost their lives, failing to evacuate the school before the tsunami engulfed them.