AFTER AN EARTHQUAKE and tsunami set off the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011, the business of splitting atoms and capturing the energy for civilian purposes was cast under a dark shadow. The question was raised whether Japan’s catastrophe meant that nuclear energy is inherently too dangerous for mankind. Similar doubts arose after the accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986.
On Thursday, an illuminating and compelling answer was delivered in a report by an investigating commission appointed by the Japanese Diet. The mammoth earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters, beyond any mortal’s control. But the commission’s report shows that much of what went wrong at Fukushima — before, during and after the tsunami — was almost entirely the fault of man. The commission chairman, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, declared, “It was a profoundly man-made disaster — that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.”
The litany of errors charted by the commission is mind-numbing. The Japanese utility operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., had instruction manuals on hand in case of a severe accident, but they were missing diagrams. The manuals assumed that reactor readings could be monitored, but they failed to consider a prolonged blackout like the one that occurred. Seismic reinforcements were supposed to have been constructed, but the utility carelessly delayed and regulators looked the other way.
Even more disturbing, the report chronicles collusion among the utility, regulators and the government to avoid rigorous attention to safety issues and to promote nuclear energy as unquestionably safe. After the accident, the government failed to be transparent with the Japanese people about the health effects of radiation emissions, giving the public a false sense of security. Nor was the urgency of evacuation adequately explained.
No doubt, harnessing the atom is a technological, political, economic and regulatory challenge, and it will remain so as long as nuclear energy is needed to power our electricity-hungry societies. We believe it will be necessary for decades to come as an alternative to burning fossil fuels that lead to global warming. But there is an essential caveat: Nuclear energy demands exacting care and discipline to manage, as well as openness with the public about conditions and dangers. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island offered vital lessons on this score.
Sadly, the Fukushima report shows these lessons were never absorbed by Japan. To explain this lapse, Mr. Kurokawa courageously faults Japan’s ingrained cultural “mindset,” in particular its “reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” The elite, bureaucracy, government, regulators and business all pursued nuclear energy until it became an “unstoppable force.”
More than three decades ago, very similar worries were voiced by the commission that investigated Three Mile Island. Commission members declared that in addition to equipment, human beings are an essential “safety system” in managing nuclear energy. Regulation was overhauled in the United States and elsewhere. The most important lesson to draw from the world’s three major nuclear accidents is that they were not inevitable; they could have been prevented by people. Japan’s disaster is reason enough to make sure that the lessons of Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have been absorbed everywhere nuclear power plants are operating and being built today.