The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

BOOKS | REVIEW

JULY 2014
House of Cards
Refusal to acknowledge worst-case scenario is worrying

By Vicki L. Beyer

BookEven for those of us who closely followed the events at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, understanding what happened when, how, and why has been a challenge.

Information available at the time was variously filtered, withheld, erroneous, and even, in some instances, accurate. But how can we discern fact from fiction?

Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster attempts to sort through the information and the events to present a more accurate view such as can only be assembled in retrospect.

At the same time, it acknowledges that much remains unknown about the series of accidents at the plant and just how they occurred, noting that the damaged reactors are still “black boxes, far too dangerous for humans to enter.”

This book was written for a US-based audience seeking to understand the events from the perspective of “can it happen here?” Still, it provides many useful insights for readers in Japan.

Written by two scientists, who specialize in nuclear safety and global security, and a journalist experienced in reporting on nuclear accidents, the book’s explanations of nuclear science and technology can be understood even by non-science types.

The authors attempt to chronicle the events of the first 10 days of the disaster in a minute-by-minute narration that is well paced to give the reader the same “flying blind” sense that was experienced by the workers on-site in Fukushima, the management of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) in Tokyo, and the government itself.

The book goes on to provide background information on the nuclear industry, its cozy relationship with its own regulators, its safety standards, and past accidents.

There is also information on near-misses, acknowledging that in many of these cases the fact that a major accident did not occur was as much a function of luck as anything else.

It was particularly interesting to learn that when President Barack Obama asked for a worst-case scenario, no one could provide it because it didn’t exist; planners had never prepared for this and claimed it wasn’t possible to do so.

One cannot help but wonder if this is because the worst case is simply too awful even for experts in the field to acknowledge.

Clearly the perspective of this book is that the nuclear industry (both in Japan and the United States) has a head-in-the-sand approach to safety.

It literally ignores any “inconvenient” potential accident by deciding, somewhat randomly, that the scenario is too remotely possible to warrant planning. The result is that in situations of multiple failures, such as occurred at Fukushima Dai-ichi, the safety measures that do exist prove to be a house of cards.

Noting that the official line in Japan is that the Fukushima meltdown was the result of a natural disaster outside human control, the authors contend “There’s no question that TEPCO and the Japanese regulatory system bear much responsibility. Each clearly could have done more … but [they] were merely the Japanese affiliate of a global nuclear establishment of power companies, vendors, regulators, and supporters, all of whom share the complacent attitude that made an accident like Fukushima possible.”

Most safety planning, including that at Fukushima Dai-ichi, is based on a few hours of alternate power sources and redundant containment systems.

Planners content themselves with the notions that any power outage will be remedied in less than eight hours and the redundancy will prevent the escape of deadly radiation.

We now know these are false hopes.

Yet it seems planners in both Japan and the United States still work from computer models rather than physical walk-throughs or material testing.

In that case, how can they ever know that an emergency valve will open or close when needed? And what will happen when mechanical systems have failed and deadly high doses of radiation make human intervention impossible?

The official line still appears to be: “That can’t happen.” •

Vicki-new

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Vicki L. Beyer is a vice president of the ACCJ.

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