VI.A. Introduction

Each of the preceding sections of this report provides technical facts and analyses of what occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi NPS and what may be needed in the future technically. This section addresses the Japanese societal context within which the accident unfolded as well as communication during the crisis.

The earthquake/tsunami was a catastrophe of monumental, unanticipated proportions. That the challenges faced by the Japanese were extraordinary and profound must be recognized and respected. Given the backdrop of the situation, mistakes related to Fukushima Daiichi certainly should have been expected. However, there were serious problems with accident management and with risk communication and crisis communication that need to be examined. Poor communication engenders mistrust and anger and intensifies fear and stress, the effects of which can be long term. Indeed, there were missteps on the part of the Japanese government and TEPCO, but the behavior of others was problematic as well. However, to place blame is not productive; rather, behavior must be carefully, objectively, and critically examined so that valuable lessons are learned by mistakes. This is how meaning can be derived from tragedy.

Ideally, in a crisis, a government would communicate effectively to its people and the global community. Risks associated with the crisis and ongoing efforts to manage the crisis would be clearly articulated. Efforts would be made to provide factual reassurances to the international community. All of this would be done with timely information provided by recognized authorities in a coordinated fashion. Fundamental to such effective crisis communication would be adherence to a sound, well-researched accident management plan predicated on coordination and support among government entities and the utility (or utilities) involved and on trust among all parties, including the national and global communities.

None of the above happened with the Fukushima Daiichi accident. The reasons why are not entirely clear. Obviously, the Japanese government; safety authorities; and TEPCO, the nuclear utility, had a stake in the conduct and outcome of the accident, and they, for their own benefit at least, needed to provide reliable, timely information to their stakeholders and constituents. In addition, many other organizations across the globe had a stake in the conduct and outcome of the accident, and they too needed solid information to be provided to them so that they themselves could provide meaningful information to their decision makers, stakeholders, and constituents. What was actually executed was unfortunate for all parties involved.

The communication efforts during the Fukushima Daiichi accident will likely be studied in depth for years to come, but what we know today is that this is a complex story of mismanagement, culture, and sometimes even simple errors in translation, all amidst a voracious need for immediate information by governments and media.

VI.B. Conditions in Japan

VI.B.1. The Japanese Nuclear Industry

With more than one-third of its electricity derived from nuclear, Japan is second only to France in dependence upon nuclear power to drive the national economy. Like in France, the oil embargos of the 1970s had a severe impact on Japan’s national economy, and the drive to diversify its energy supply accelerated the expansion of NPP construction. So important was the electrification of Japan, the events at TMI-2 hardly slowed this expansion.

The push to expand nuclear power was driven by what became known as “Japan Inc.,” or the high degree of cooperative planning between Japan’s corporate and political sectors—so, too, were the relationships between the nuclear utilities and the governmental authorities, who were charged with overseeing safety. The term amakudari—or “descent from heaven”—was used to describe the common practice of senior government officials retiring to take highly paid jobs in industry. This environment contributed to a weakened nuclear regulatory structure.

One of the key lessons learned by the United States after the TMI-2 accident was the need to reform and strengthen the independence and technical competence of the NRC. Many other nations followed, recognizing the prudence in changing their governance approach to nuclear power. However, Japan did not change its regulatory governance because to do so would centralize too much authority in its central government, which would upset the shared authority arrangement with the prefectural governments.

The prefectural governments were highly dependent upon the subsidies provided by the central government for hosting the NPPs and exerted influence in maintaining the regulatory status quo. Furthermore, in a strange contrast to Western practices, the prefectures actually benefit from the inefficiency of the utility. Japan’s poor nuclear reactor capacity factors (percentage of actual annual electrical output compared to rated capacity) are about mid-60%, while those of the United States and Korea are near mid-90%.

The reasons for this disparity are simple: Japan’s reactors are required to shut down every 13 months for routine maintenance and cannot be restarted without the approval of the prefectural government. The extended utility outages are an economic boon to the regional economies (largely because of the hundreds of outage workers and vendors who fill the local hotels and restaurants), and few incentives exist to change the existing system of governance. The prefectural government, not the national safety regulator, has final say on NPP restart operations, which is a fact that is not lost on the NPP operators.

By U.S. standards, this system of shared regulatory authority and economic benefit would be viewed as flawed. Yet, this system allowed the Japanese to develop 58 reactors at 18 sites in a country whose national psyche is still affected by the atomic bomb. The Japanese created a system that promoted and enforced the safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy, and the Japanese had an enviable safety record. Unlike the United States, where states are independent governments, the Japanese prefectures are jurisdictions of the central government with subprefectural structures down to districts, townships, and villages. The hierarchical distribution of authority suits the Japanese culture, and the effectiveness of this governance structure was demonstrated during the evacuations around the Fukushima Daiichi NPS and in response to the earthquake/tsunami.

So, why did this system, built up over many decades, fail in crisis communication during the Fukushima Daiichi accident? Many have cited the lack of a central authority; others have cited the widespread distrust of TEPCO. Both of these factors contributed to the failure in crisis management, but the simplest explanation is that the government did not use the system that was in place to address this very issue.

VI.B.2. Emergency Management

Exactly why the Japanese government chose not to follow its established process for managing a nuclear crisis is still a mystery, but we know that it revolved around personalities; a widespread distrust of TEPCO; and a general low regard of the Japanese regulatory system, which was driven more by process than by analysis.

There is little doubt that the magnitude and devastation caused by the earthquake/tsunami were enough to overwhelm any governmental emergency management system. Japan is an island affected by large and destructive earthquakes with some frequency, and the people and government have demonstrated resilience in dealing with natural disasters. The multiple-unit NPPs at the Fukushima Daiichi NPS and Fukushima Daini NPS posed unique problems for the emergency managers—problems that the emergency planners assumed would be controlled by the utility.

In the United States, the NRC expects and requires utility operators to be at the forefront of any response to an emergency. In an emergency, the role of the NRC is not to supervise but to coordinate the federal response and to ensure at all times that the operator is capable of implementing adequate protective measures—and, perhaps most importantly, to provide those assurances to the president, Congress, and the American people.

On a periodic basis the NRC, along with other organizations at the federal, state, and local levels, conducts widespread exercises at each NPP to test the regional emergency management systems. These exercises are critiqued not only by the NRC but also by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, a peer-review organization composed of representatives from other U.S. utilities. The goal of the critique is to gain insight and a common understanding of how the utilities and the NRC can make better decisions.

Japan, too, routinely exercises its nuclear emergency management system and has modeled much of its system after that of the United States. But, unlike the United States, Japan rarely tests the limits of the system and training of personnel by using highly unusual events or crafting scenarios that are impossible to recover from. Culturally, the Japanese do not accept failure as a learning opportunity. The Japanese system is largely designed to test the proficiency of the operators in responding to known scenarios. The problem with this approach is that if a scenario has not been incorporated into the design basis, the ability to anticipate and respond is lessened.

We have learned from documents released by the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency that TEPCO had “no operational manual that envisioned a loss of all power sources needed to activate emergency condensers and backup water injection devices to cool down nuclear reactors” [19]. In addition, according to the New York Times,

In a country that gave the world the word tsunami, the Japanese nuclear establishment largely disregarded the potentially destructive force of the walls of water. The word did not even appear in government guidelines until 2006, decades after plants … began dotting the Japanese coastline [20].

Basically, TEPCO’s emergency management plans never contemplated an extended SBO or the potential devastation of a tsunami, and therefore, neither the utility nor the safety regulator ever practiced these scenarios.

VI.B.3. Tokyo Electric Power Company

Tokyo Electric Power Company, whose service area includes the capital, Tokyo, is one of the largest utilities in Japan. Its influence in politics at all levels is substantial. In Japan’s regulated markets, it controls both the production and the distribution of about one-third of all the electricity in Japan. Considered by many to be an essential part of the economic engine that drove Japan Inc., it also has a long history of providing postretirement jobs to government officials and exerting influence to protect its monopoly. Embroiled in controversy since 1990 for several failures in its nuclear operations, TEPCO saw a series of senior managers resign as part of a ritual process for accepting blame for corporate misconduct, which included falsifying records and submitting false information to the regulators. While honor may have been satisfied, it is not clear that any change in corporate safety culture was achieved.

In July 2007, a major earthquake hit TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki Kariwa NPPs. The subsequent investigations by regulatory bodies and external reviewers showed many fundamental weaknesses and failures by TEPCO to implement recommended safety procedures. TEPCO crisis communication and management capabilities were also of particular concern to the safety authorities, but it appears that TEPCO did little to fundamentally change its approach.

The inadequate response by TEPCO to the unfolding events at Fukushima Daiichi should not have been a surprise to anyone. TEPCO had not anticipated a severe earthquake and tsunami event, had no operational procedures to handle an extended SBO scenario, and had not practiced or learned from the Kashiwazaki Kariwa earthquake how to manage and communicate during a crisis.

VI.B.4. The Japanese Government

The prime minister of Japan entered the accident situation having a widely known distrust of TEPCO and its relationships with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and with MEXT. The New York Times reported that the prime minister

had built his career on suspicion of the collusive ties between Japan’s industry and bureaucracy.… At the drama’s heart was an outsider prime minister who saw the need for quick action but whose well-founded mistrust of a system of alliances between powerful plant operators, compliant bureaucrats and sympathetic politicians deprived him of resources he could have used to make better-informed decisions.… He struggled to manage the nuclear crisis because he felt he could not rely on the very mechanisms established by his predecessors to respond to such a crisis. Instead, he turned at the beginning only to a handful of close, overwhelmed advisers who knew little about nuclear plants and who barely exchanged information with the plant’s operator and nuclear regulators.[21]

Japan had a system designed specifically to monitor, assess, and report on radioactive releases during emergencies. But, it was ignored during the early stages of the crisis and provided little or no help coordinating analyses and managing communication for the central government. Why it was ignored is still a question. We know the advisors put in charge by the prime minister neither were familiar with nor understood the hierarchical role of data reporting from the utility and regulatory body. The process of transforming data into useful information was likely viewed suspiciously as a filtering of information, and certainly, direct access to data from the utility would be timelier.

Ironically, in bypassing the existing nuclear emergency management system, the central government under the prime minister was solely reliant on information from TEPCO, a company he did not trust. The people he made responsible for dealing with TEPCO and the regulators had little or no experience with nuclear issues and were soon overwhelmed. Moreover, they were reluctant to challenge the views of the prime minister or accept support from others with more expertise in managing a nuclear crisis. When asked why an immediate offer of assistance from the United States was largely ignored, people close to the situation in Japan privately told members of the Committee that because of “questionable leadership of the prime minister’s office,” the offer was not understood. Early in the crisis—when time was of the essence—the offers of assistance from the international community were never forwarded for action but instead were assigned to lower-level bureaucrats for consideration and appropriate response.

VI.C. Progression of Events

We know that early in the crisis, the Japanese Cabinet Office was in contact with TEPCO and understood the status of the Fukushima Daiichi NPS and the problems it faced. But, information was sparse and slow in coming. The extent of the damage was not known, but it appeared that all the reactors had survived the earthquake/tsunami without any radioactive releases.

Then, troubling reports began to trickle in from TEPCO on its ability to recover from SBO and the loss of water level in Unit 1. At 7:03 p.m., a nuclear emergency was declared, and 2 hours later, an evacuation within 3 km of the NPP was announced. By 1:30 a.m. on March 12, the decision was made to vent the containment in Unit 1, which would relieve pressure and allow injection of water, but venting was not begun. By 5:44 a.m., the prime minister ordered the evacuation extended from 3 km to 10 km from the NPS boundary. The continual escalation of reports, the seeming failure of TEPCO to begin venting of Unit 1, and the inability to establish communication with senior TEPCO leaders were a source of tremendous frustration to the prime minister, so he visited the site at first light to speak directly to the NPP operators to find out why the utility had not started venting Unit 1. After a briefing at the Fukushima Daiichi NPS, the prime minister departed the site, and at 9:00 a.m., the venting started.

The failure to begin venting Unit 1 was seen by the media as a TEPCO attempt to avoid taking the unprecedented step of releasing radioactivity, which would have harmed its corporate image. It became a source of friction between the prime minister and the TEPCO operators and ultimately tainted all attempts to bring perspective to crisis communication. But, the records show that in the early morning of March 12, the pressure levels allowed the utility to begin injecting freshwater into the RPV using fire truck pumps. While venting was needed, the ability to add water was a priority. Another reason given by TEPCO was that it delayed venting until the evacuation was largely complete.

There has been much speculation that TEPCO executives hesitated in directing or authorizing the actions taken that would destroy the economic value of the reactor site. While there may have been those discussions at some level in TEPCO and perhaps the government, it is not apparent that was the case at the NPS, where managers and employees were attempting to prevent a catastrophe. While the extent of core damage was not known, they knew early on that the core had most likely been exposed and that without off-site power they would need to resort to seawater cooling.

VI.D. Cultural Perspectives

In the West, we may not be able to fully appreciate cultural differences that drive and motivate the Japanese public. The extraordinary efforts to control the disaster made by TEPCO employees and many others in the Japanese nuclear industry were widely reported as acts of desperation rather than a coordinated attack on the problem. Acts of heroism and sacrifice were symbolized by the “Fukushima Fifty,” a group of employees and emergency responders who temporarily stayed behind to man the control systems and site while the bulk of NPP employees were relocated. The Fukushima Fifty remained only 50 in number for a short time, and soon hundreds of NPP workers, military, firefighters, and TEPCO employees from other reactors arrived to support recovery operations [22]. For the Japanese, the Fukushima Fifty were a symbol of national resolve and willingness to sacrifice to protect the nation. The Fukushima Fifty were a source of national pride and became a rally point for finally bringing the coordinated national and international response effort needed to bring the situation under control.

In contrast, in the Western media the Fukushima Fifty were a symbol of the desperate measures required—a shocking sign of how desperate things had become. The Fukushima Fifty illustrate the power of symbols, cultural perceptions, and interpretations in communication with the public. Effective communication across the globe is predicated on having a common understanding, with cultural differences being recognized, understood, and embraced.