On March 11, 2011, Japan's northern coast was shaken by the biggest earthquake ever to strike the island in recorded history. With a gigantic tsunami and the nuclear meltdown that followed, 3/11 was the worst disaster to hit the developed world for a hundred years. Confronted with tough questions about its dependence on nuclear power, about the competence of its leaders both in the private and public sectors, about the economy's ability to rebound from a shock, the country has been plunged into crisis. After centuries of earthquakes, tsunamis, war, and a long list of other disasters, natural and unnatural, the Japanese people are accustomed to building back stronger — but how do they recover from such a devastating blow, and what will that new future look like?
FP's latest ebook, Tsunami: Japan's Post-Fukushima Future, the in-depth look at the quake's aftermath, assembles an exclusive collection of the top writers and scholars working in Japan today to answer these questions. In the excerpts published here, a group of Japan-watchers debate the country's nuclear future: Will TEPCO, which supplies 29 percent of all of Japan's electricity, be able to rebuild or will its collapse drag down the Japanese economy? What was the role of Japan's famous "nuclear village" — the close-knit, revolving-door community of nuclear-industry officials, regulators, and lobbyists who've managed to keep Japan pro-nuclear even after the shocks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — in allowing the Fukushima disaster to happen? And does it make sense to continue building nuclear power plants in a country so susceptible to natural disaster, or would a new smart grid based on renewable energy sources be a better solution for Japan's north, as Andrew DeWit and Masaru Keneko argue?
For a longer look, plus articles on many other angles of Japan's disaster, check out the ebook — with proceeds going to the Japan Society's tsunami relief efforts.
Could the Meltdown Have Been Averted?
Lawrence Repeta is a professor of law at Meiji University.
According to Greek legend, the god Apollo bestowed on the beautiful Cassandra the gift of prophecy, but when she resisted his charms, he applied the curse that no one would believe the truths she foretold. Thus, the Trojans ignored her warnings of impending doom.
A government hearing on TEPCO's interim report about Fukushima No. 1 provided the stage for an eerie forewarning of the tragedy to come. At this June 2009 gathering, a Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry official named Yukinobu Okamura presented research concerning another great tsunami that had appeared more than a millennium ago, in the year 869 (the Jogan earthquake and tsunami). Soil analysis and other work indicated that the waters from this tsunami had penetrated as far as three to four kilometers inland into the area of the modern city of Sendai. Sendai lies between the coastal zones to the north decimated by the great tsunamis of 1933 and 1896 and Fukushima No. 1, about 100 kilometers to the south of the city. The March 11 quake and tsunami are thought to bear many similarities to the Jogan monster of 869. Okamura asserted that TEPCO's plans were inadequate to protect the Fukushima complex against tsunami waves of the size and location generated by the great Jogan quake and demanded better defenses. Like Cassandra's prophecies, however, Okamura's warnings were laid aside, perhaps to be considered another day.
According to comments of a Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) official published by the Associated Press after the disaster, NISA had never demanded that TEPCO explain its tsunami protection measures and had not conducted its own studies of what degree of protection might be "appropriate." Various published reports indicate that TEPCO assumed that tsunami waves would not exceed 5.7 meters. This official further said that NISA was about to begin a study of tsunami risks this year.
The story of the Fukushima reactors is intimately tied to Japan's postwar pursuit of rapid economic growth. The most fundamental cause of the disaster is the boundless appetite for power needed to drive the economy.
Surely the die was cast when the first Fukushima reactors were built. Japan's nuclear industry was in its infancy. Contractors followed blueprints and designs provided by General Electric (GE), and GE sent technical staff to Japan to advise on construction. Perhaps the GE design team was not familiar with local tsunami risk and the Japanese contractors were overly focused on successfully completing their work according to GE's plans. Some have even suggested that the Fukushima No. 1 complex was a "learning experience" for Japanese engineers.
In accordance with the GE plans, the emergency power generators and water pumps were placed between the reactor buildings and the sea. Fukushima No. 1 continued in operation for more than 40 years. Despite local knowledge of tsunami history, the better plan developed for Fukushima No. 2 and a senior official's specific objections to the TEPCO report in 2009, neither TEPCO nor any agency of the Japanese government took action to address the risks at Fukushima No. 1. Just before the disaster, NISA renewed TEPCO's license to operate the complex for another 10 years.
The evidence suggests that regulators are under the thumb of the regulated and that critical voices are ignored. Japan's present regulatory apparatus is weak and constrained by profound conflicts. It is simply not up to the role of contending with the dominant force of the nuclear power village. Coastal communities built seawalls on the assumption that another great tsunami would come one day. TEPCO operated its Fukushima No. 1 reactors on the assumption that it would not. As long as the facility continued to generate power and profits, institutional resistance to change overcame the faint glimmering of tsunami risk. The people relied on public officials to protect them, but the officials failed.
The obvious lesson from the Tohoku disaster is that if we continue to rely on nuclear power, we must establish independent regulatory agencies free of the control of private corporations driven by profit and of the bureaucratic mindset that denies all challenge to conventional wisdom. It's not clear that this is possible. Humanity may have learned the science necessary to dominate the forces of nature to produce nuclear power, but it has not yet evolved the human structures needed to ensure that this science is applied safely.
To read more excerpts visit please visit Foreign Policy.