The 2011 Japan nuclear disaster is the third known nuclear accident to happen in world history. It showed serious government and institutional failures in protecting human life and important national establishments. This paper shows that the government’s response to the disaster was inadequate and often misleading.
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Furthermore, based on independent investigations, there were serious cases of off-site crisis mismanagement. Based on these observations, this paper recommends that the Japanese government should improve nuclear safety standards, enhance its decision-making competencies, and improve its crisis response mechanisms to mitigate a future disaster, of similar magnitude.
In March 2011, a tsunami caused a nuclear accident at a Japanese power plant (Fukushima Daiichi). Scientists have termed the disaster a “catastrophic event” because it caused the dispersion of harmful radioactive materials to the environment (Denny, 2013).
Consequently, people living around the affected power plant suffered a high risk of developing cancer and other health complications (Denny, 2013). Although reports show that the accident caused no (known) human deaths, a 9.0 earthquake that caused the tsunami led to the death of more than 18,000 people (Yao, 2012).
Globally, there have been only about three such nuclear disasters. The first occurred in 1979, in a US nuclear power plant, when its water pump coolers malfunctioned and caused the dispersion of radioactive materials to the environment (Watts, 2013). A 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident (in Russia) was the second such accident to occur in world history when a power failure melted nuclear cores, thereby causing the spread and dispersion of radioactive material to the environment (Watts, 2013, p. 316).
Unlike the US nuclear disaster, the Chernobyl nuclear accident had a greater effect on the environment and human life because it affected both Russia and the wider European region (Watts, 2013, p. 316). The Japan nuclear disaster is the third such disaster to occur in human history.
This paper explores the intrigues and the significance of the disaster to nuclear safety by explaining the events surrounding the accident, the government’s response to the disaster, and the actions that the government could take to mitigate such a disaster if it happened in the Future. The last section of this paper summarizes the findings of this study.
How the Event Occurred
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident occurred when a tsunami caused a power outage that shut down nuclear reactors in the power plant. Consequently, reactor cores melted and several hydrogen explosions occurred (Koichi, 2012). However, the tsunami occurred one hour after the earthquake happened. The plant’s sea walls were unable to prevent tsunami waters from entering the facility because they were four meters shorter than the tsunami (Koichi, 2012).
Consequently, water flooded the ground floor of the plant and disabled the emergency generators (Suzuki & Kaneko, 2013). Consequently, they malfunctioned and caused the nuclear reactors to overheat. In such an event, battery-powered generators were supposed to provide electric power as an alternative power source. They did. However, this lasted for only 24 hours before the generators drained out of power, and the nuclear reactors started to heat up again (Suzuki & Kaneko, 2013).
Consequently, on 12 March, the plant’s active cooling systems and cooling instruments failed completely. Employees tried to find alternative power to cool the reactors, but they were unsuccessful because several hydrogen explosions in the nuclear plant prevented them from doing so (Koichi, 2012). These explosions happened for more than three days (Suzuki & Kaneko, 2013). Later, radioactive leakages occurred (Koichi, 2012).
How the Government Responded
After the nuclear accident occurred, the Japanese government ordered people who lived within a 20-kilometer radius around the plant to evacuate (Suzuki & Kaneko, 2013). It also ordered people who lived outside a 30-kilometer radius (around the facility) to stay indoors. Later, they had to evacuate the area because of the uncertain impact of the radioactive leakage (Suzuki & Kaneko, 2013).
When the accident happened, people called on the government to avail decontamination equipment (immediately) to manage the spread of radioactive elements to the environment. However, the Japanese government was slow to avail of the equipment (Suzuki & Kaneko, 2013). When the experts finally started to use the equipment, they decontaminated more than 100 areas that had severe radiation contamination.
Critics termed this move as inadequate because the threshold of decontamination was lower than the globally accepted health standards (Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2013). Consequently, the government decided to educate people about the levels of harmful radiation exposures created by the disaster. This campaign later angered the public because they believed the government was “playing down” the scope of the accident and its potential effects on their health (Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2013).
Months after the nuclear accident, the Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, started taking a firm stance against nuclear power plant expansions. For example, he ordered the closure of the Hamaoka nuclear power plant because it had the same risks as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (Suzuki & Kaneko, 2013). In July of the same year, the Prime Minister also expressed fears about Japan’s continued reliance on nuclear technology because of its potential dangers.
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Following this move, the Japanese Government-subsidized alternative energy in the country to make it more affordable and a viable substitute for nuclear energy (Suzuki & Kaneko, 2013). Three months after the accident, the government said some areas around the power plant would be inhabitable (Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2013). It announced plans to buy land from people who owned the “contaminated areas” to dispose of the radioactive waste
Independent investigations into the Japan nuclear accident created conflicting narrations about whether the accident was “man-made” or natural (The Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2014). Technically, a natural disaster (tsunami) caused the power outage that later caused the nuclear accident. However, the government’s slow response to containing the disaster caused some observers to believe the disaster could have been easily contained, thereby affirming the “man-made disaster” theory.
For example, The Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident (2014) says the Japanese government adopted “delay tactics” that failed to contain the disaster when it occurred. Stated differently, it believes that the indirect causes of the Japanese nuclear accident resulted from off-site mismanagement of the crisis (The Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2014).
The Fukushima Nuclear Accident independent Commission also affirms this theory by saying that the government failed to undertake damage assessment processes for nuclear accidents (The Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2014).
Particularly, it apportions blame to nuclear safety institutions, such as the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) for failing to prepare for collateral damage and failing to have an evacuation plan when the disaster happened (The Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2014).
Recently, the Japanese government admitted to the above failures by saying that poor law enforcement and poor oversight standards could have contributed to its failure to manage the accident effectively (Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2013).
However, they have not responded to allegations that they withheld crucial information about the accident because of the “politically connected” and “economically powerful” players in the nuclear industry. Overall, many people (especially those who lived around the plant) perceived the government’s reaction to the nuclear accident as inadequate.
What the government could do to mitigate a Similar Event in the Future
Although the Japanese government admitted that it slowly adopted nuclear safety regulations to protect the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, it did not lack the knowledge about crisis management. Many advanced countries, like Japan, which use nuclear technology to produce energy, should have reviewed their nuclear safety standards to prevent such a disaster (The Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2014).
Acton & Hibbs (2012) recommend that the government should review these safety standards in ten-year intervals. Comparatively, global executives and safety experts, that are familiar with international safety standards for nuclear disaster management said the Japanese government should have taken part in global initiatives to review the safety of nuclear power plants (Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2013).
Based on this recommendation, the Japanese Government and TEPCO should have made engineering adjustments to the plant to protect it from a similar catastrophic event.
Expert knowledge of international best practices for nuclear safety and the wealth of knowledge gathered from operating the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant show that TEPCO and the Japanese Government should introduce new safety standards to prevent such a catastrophe from happening in the Future (The Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2014).
First, the plant engineers should relocate emergency generators to higher ground to prevent them from malfunctioning when tsunami waters flood low-lying floors of the nuclear power plant. To affirm this recommendation, Acton & Hibbs (2012) say TEPCO should “Install emergency power equipment and cooling pumps in dedicated, bunkered, watertight buildings or compartments” (p. 17).
Some critics would argue that relocating emergency power generators to higher ground would make them vulnerable to external earthquake shocks. In fact, such people would argue that the main purpose of positioning the emergency generators on the ground floor is to reduce the risk of damage from earthquakes. However, the risk of seismic shock would not increase if the engineers installed the generators on a platform that could resist such shocks.
Moreover, engineers have introduced such safety measures in other plants. For example, the Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC) erected high sea walls on Tokai-2 power plant (off Japan’s east Coast) (Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2013). Unfortunately, a tsunami struck before the engineers completed the construction work. Before the flooding occurred, JAPC had constructed a wall that prevented seawater from flooding two pits at the plant (Acton & Hibbs, 2012).
Water flooded one incompletely build the pit. Consequently, an emergency generator (housed in the pit) malfunctioned. However, the water did not flood the other pit where they had completed the construction work. Since two cooling pumps were in this pit, the safety measure protected the emergency generator from damage, thereby providing power to run the two cooling pumps. Although a tsunami struck before they finished their job, the finished segments showed the versatility of this safety measure if a tsunami occurred.
Besides building high sea walls, plant engineers should make sure the power supply (from the emergency generators) is waterproof. This measure would make sure that even when natural calamities occur, the power supply system is safe from damage. Since the walls of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were unable to prevent the tsunami waters from entering the plant, it is also crucial for the plant engineers to construct dikes to prevent the future entry of seawater into the plant’s premises.
Lastly, the government should make sure that the infrastructure for seawater-supply is adequate and robust. This measure would ensure the plant has robust resources to perform the role of the plant’s heat sink (Acton & Hibbs, 2012).
Decision-making and Crisis Response Changes
The Japan nuclear disaster showed a lot of crisis management weaknesses associated with the government’s response to the disaster. One area that stood out was the government’s poor decision-making ability. For example, after the disaster, the location of Government and civilian resources to mitigate the crisis was unclear (Acton & Hibbs, 2012).
The Sasakawa Peace Foundation (2013) says such crises often require the government and plant operators to control the disaster and prevent it from further degenerating into a national or international crisis, as witnessed in the accident. Based on this recommendation, the Japanese government should consider deploying a greater pool of resources to manage such a crisis.
This recommendation requires that the government adopt more crisis management measures, such as mobilizing and integrating diverse expert knowledge into its mitigation plan. Therefore, the government should not only rely on traditional national resources, such as the police and firefighters but also contain such disasters. Instead, it should also deploy scientific, technical, and engineering resources to contain the disaster (The Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2014).
Another notable weakness of the government’s response to the disaster was its indecisiveness regarding how to manage public expectations. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation (2013) proposes that the government should not be afraid to infringe on some civil rights.
For example, it suggests that the government should not hesitate to evacuate their citizens, even if they do not want the government to relocate them (Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2013). Similarly, it says the government should be firmer in preventing its citizens from entering some “contaminated” areas (Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2013).
One issue that emerged from the Japan nuclear disaster was its decentralized crisis management structure that limited the nation’s disaster coordination efforts. However, nuclear disasters are potentially serious occurrences that relevant authorities cannot manage from a decentralized crisis management structure. Particularly, considering nuclear disasters could potentially be terrorist targets, it is crucial for the Japanese government to establish a centralized crisis management structure.
The US has such a structure (controlled by the National Security Council) (Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2013). The US department of Homeland Security also sits at the helm of this structure. Comparatively, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (2013) says Japan does not have a similar structure that could effectively coordinate the country’s security processes.
The Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident (2014) also believes the lack of proper coordination of disaster response efforts stem from the lack of a proper legislative framework to guide government activities.
For example, when the nuclear disaster happened, Japan’s Prime Minister, and his close circle of politicians relied on unconfirmed information about on-site operations, despite the legal existence of a Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarter (The Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident, 2014). The decision-making process integrated two centers of power (the office of the Prime Minister and TEPCO).
However, of concern was its lack of legal backing (the law did not support the activities of this decision-making unit). Some people could argue that although unifying the two centers of power was an ad hoc measure; it eliminated the need for unnecessary communications between the Government and TEPCO. However, it ignored the government systems and distorted the organizational structure that should guide government crisis management activities.
This confusion contributed to the poor coordination of activities seen during the disaster. Consequently, it is crucial to formulate a legal system for crisis management that would eliminate the ambiguous procedures that guided government responses during the crisis (Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2013).
For example, the Japanese government should envision a national crisis management law that guides all disaster mitigation activities. Similarly, it could envision creating a national security basic law that coordinates all government departments during such a disaster (Sasakawa Peace Foundation, 2013).
The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident was among the most serious global accidents to occur in recent years. The accident showed the dangers of nuclear technology and the need for governments to adopt extra safety control measures for preventing such disasters from happening. However, the Japanese government failed in this regard. This paper shows that the public perceived its response as inadequate and suspicious.
Particularly, the quest by the government to “downplay” the seriousness of the disaster undermined its public perception in crisis management. Consequently, this paper proposes that the Japanese government should adopt a more coordinated effort in mitigating such a crisis.
Furthermore, it should make sure it reviews its nuclear safety standards to improve the make its nuclear power plants safer. Furthermore, the government should order a design change of all nuclear power plants to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis. These recommendations should help to prevent such accidents and improve the government’s response to the same.
Acton, J., & Hibbs, M. (2012). Why Fukushima Was Preventable. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Denny, M. (2013). Lights On!: The Science of Power Generation. New York, NY: JHU Press.
Koichi, H. (2012). Facing Nuclear Risks: Lessons From The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. International Journal Of Japanese Sociology, 21(1), 84-91.
Suzuki, I., & Kaneko, Y. (2013). Japan’s Disaster Governance: How was the 3.11 Crisis Managed? New York, NY: Springer.
The Independent Investigation of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident. (2014). The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Disaster: Investigating the Myth and Reality. London, UK: Routledge.
Watts, R. G. (2013). Engineering Response to Climate Change, Second Edition. New York, NY: CRC Press.
Yao, T. (2012). Zero-Carbon Energy Kyoto 2011: Special Edition of Jointed Symposium of Kyoto University Global COE. New York, NY: Springer.