A lesson not yet learned - Satoko Kogure
The Fukushima disaster was a shock and a tragedy. Now, one year on, it's time for a careful assessment of what happened and how to avoid anything like it happening again.
A system of irresponsibility – this is what political scientist Masao Maruyama called the pre-war imperialism that led Japan to the disastrous Second World War. Maruyama described the pre-war Japanese social structure and mentality that escalated militarism as absence of subjective sense of responsibility, whereby every act was perceived as part of righteous imperialism. After the war, the top military officials at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials did not fully understand their accountability, much less the Japanese public, who became the victims of militarism and two atomic bombs.
Over the year since Japan was hit by the huge tsunami and the ensuing crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, this system of irresponsibility has arisen again. The question of who is responsible for the disaster in Fukushima, which is assessed as level seven (the highest on the international scale), was made even more obscure amid the clear smoke of radiation. Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), which owns Fukushima Daiichi plant, has attempted to escape accountability by suggesting the huge tsunami was 'beyond estimation', while the Japanese prosecutors seem uninterested in pursuing TEPCO. Critical questions remain unanswered: was there enough risk management to avoid the severe accident at the plant, as well as the massive exposure of the local residents to unnecessary amounts of radiation? And, if not, who is accountable for the failure?
'It's very incomprehensible and strange,' says Hiroyuki Kawai, a Tokyo-based attorney who has been involved in anti-nuclear power trials for years. Kawai questions the prosecutors' inaction against TEPCO, comparing it to the past prompt prosecutions of big companies such as the recent one against Japanese camera-maker Olympus and its former executives. Kawai assumes the reason for the silence of prosecutors over TEPCO is that nuclear policy has been developed under government auspices. As such, the Government, which is to supervise the risky nuclear power plants, shares part of the blame.
Concerned about this apparent absence of responsibility for the crisis, in March, a group of shareholders of TEPCO launched a legal case against the company's 27 executives who held senior posts at the company from 2002. The charge is that TEPCO failed to heed government warnings over the risks posed by earthquakes, and failed to take sufficient measures to protect the plant.
It seems obvious that TEPCO has resorted to the Act on Compensation for Nuclear Damage, which absolves a nuclear operator of responsibility for damages caused by 'an exceptionally massive disaster'. However, last summer, government-led investigation team found that TEPCO estimated a possible tsunami could be over 15 metres in 2008 (the tsunami that hit Fukushima last year was 14–15 metres) but did not take sufficient measures. These would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars. This is one of a series of findings that indicate human error by TEPCO before, during and after the accident.
The plaintiffs are seeking record damages of $67 billion from TEPCO executives for the victims of the disaster. Ultimately, though, it is not about money but 'social responsibility', says Kawai, who represents the plaintiffs. 'Without holding individuals responsible, it won't be possible to correct the system of "collective irresponsibility" in the nuclear industry,' he says.
It is not only TEPCO that is facing blame for the worldwide catastrophe. The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) Yukiya Amano recently criticised the Japanese Government's failure. He described this failure to effectively supervise TEPCO as one of the most serious 'human errors', contributing to an escalation of the crisis.
'Human errors' made by the Government have gradually been revealed throughout the year. As Amano also pointed out in the interview by Kyodo News that there were problems with the Government's decision-making and the way it released information at the early stages. The most controversial error concerns its evacuation directive and risk communication to prevent radioactive contamination of the population. It was later revealed that the Government had not released the data from SPEEDI (System for the Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information), which showed the direction of the radiation plume during the first days. This resulted in the unnecessary contamination of the locals who evacuated in the same direction of the plume. Through the scandalous reports this year that the Government had not made records of the emergency meetings in which they discussed the response to the nuclear disaster, it emerged that the Government calculated a week after the tsunami that meltdown had already occurred at the No 1, No 2 and No 3 reactors of Daiichi plant. But it took two months for the Government to admit to the occurrence and, in the meantime, it kept announcing that 'there is no immediate danger to your health' in order to avoid panic.
What is more pressing now than focusing on the Government's errors is holding it responsible for the ongoing suffering of residents of, and evacuees from, Fukushima. The radioactive contamination of the land and ocean around the plant still continues, and it makes it impossible for some 160,000 Fukushima residents staying in shelters around the country to go home. The health check of the people who could have been exposed to a certain level of radiation has not been conducted thoroughly, partly because the people are scattered around the country. Support for those in shelters has been slow and minimal, with little hope of going home to resume their lives based on fishery and farming. Complaints from the locals even indicate serious human rights violations, such as 50 deaths of hospital patients during evacuation, suicides over the Fukushima crisis and discrimination against Fukushima people. In February, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations called on the Government to extend inclusive humanitarian assistance to the Fukushima people, demonstrating its duty under the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Operational Guidelines on Human Rights and Natural Disasters(2006).
What responsibility lies with the public for the disaster? How did the only country that suffered the atomic bombs and the country that is well known for its earthquake risks accept 54 nuclear reactors on its soil? These questions are critical while the Government is trying to resume the remaining nuclear power plants.
The public has targeted TEPCO, Japanese politicians, nuclear experts and the media, which has promoted the myth of safe nuclear plants for the past 50 years. The question of whether the public accepted the myth has not been widely addressed. There is a growing anti-nuclear power movement among the public but it remains somewhat peripheral, with people fearing a loss of energy supply or a hike in prices. Behind the scenes, there are moves in some areas of Japan to reject radioactive rubble from Fukushima, while Fukushima residents feel abandoned by their own state(in fact, the consumers of Fukushima Daiichi plant are not the residents of Fukushima, but the residents of the Kanto region around Tokyo).
What is different now from post-war Japan is that the battle is not yet over. Nuclear fuel requires continued cooling, even after a plant is shut down or it melts down, releasing radiation. There is no reasonable process for decontamination, which needs countless workers amid radioactivity – reportedly many of those hired are likely to be Fukushima locals. Whether the country will consider its responsibility for such realities, now and in the future, or become instead a collective victim of the 'unexpected disaster', remains to be seen.
Satoko Kogure is a freelance journalist based in Japan.