Candidly Speaking, Japan could have learned from Three Mile Island

Ken Silverstein | Mar 04, 2012

Share/Save  

The Japanese are considered reserved. It is that characteristic for which that government and its utility are being sharply criticized, all in the context of the Fukushima nuclear accident almost a year ago.

While those in charge have said that they didn’t have enough reliable information to disclose at the height of the crisis, an independent review concludes otherwise. The confusion and frustration had reached such a pinnacle in the days after the nuclear meltdown that U.S. officials were doubting what their Japanese counterparts were saying. That’s one reason why the U.S. government had ordered its citizens to be at least 50 miles away from the scene of the accident as opposed to the 12 that Japan had suggested.

“The relevance of these accidents and related damages are not restricted solely to the technical and operational collapse of nuclear reactors and nuclear power plants,” says Yoichi Funabashi, chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation that penned the report. “They also highlight a governance crisis involving corporations along with municipal and central government agencies, as well as something inherent in the way Japanese citizens think.”

The report details how how the utility operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., had called the then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan four days after the March 11 disaster. The utility had reportedly said that the situation was too dangerous and that it was going to evacuate the hundreds of workers it had on site who were trying to minimize the damages and control radiation leaks.

But Prime Minister Kan had angrily insisted that the workers stay put and get the matter under control. In the end, about 50 dedicated employees did just that, preventing what some say would have been a massive flight out of Tokyo.
Despite that recognition, the investigative report said that the Japanese leader had micromanaged the crisis, as well as withheld information. 

TEPCO, which chose not to be interviewed for the foundation’s report, denies that it had demanded a complete withdrawal from the crippled plants, saying that it asked for a partial pullout. It was able to pump seawater into the reactors to keep the fuel rods cool.

“I give my heartfelt respects to the efforts of the commission,” says former Prime Minister Kan, in a prepared statement. “I want to do my utmost to prevent a recurrence.” He has said subsequently that he didn’t have accurate information and that his government’s relative silence reflects that reality.


Hold Nothing Back

The Japanese government said in December 2011 that the Fukushima site was safely controlled. But it added that would take four decades to completely decommission those destroyed plants. Prior to the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, a quarter of Japan’s power supply had come from 54 nuclear reactors. Today, only two such units there are operating.

Japan’s Trade Minister Yukio Edano recently said that of the 52 that remain off line, all are likely to stay that way through at least the end of the summer. The whole system is going through maintenance and safety checks, and must be given the go ahead to restart from those in the highest echelons of government.

Leaders there are saying that they will do their best to minimize power outages during extreme summer heat and will do so by importing liquefied natural gas and oil from abroad. Such fuels are tied to world markets where prices have been steadily rising in the wake of both current and potential Middle Eastern conflicts.

The observations that Japan is less-than-forthcoming are not rooted in the Fukushima crisis. Less than two years earlier and during a much less severe nuclear accident, TEPCO was faulted for taking too long to report broken pipes and small release of radioactive material. It was not until hours later when smoke and fire were seen that the utility made a public statement, noting that 315 gallons of radioactive water had made its way into the Sea of Japan.

Japan could have learned from Three Mile Island, where fears spread because of a perceived lack of candor. That event in 1979 taught the nuclear industry here, along with the rest of corporate America, to disseminate information during a crisis in a coherent and honest way.

Back then, the facility’s owner, Metropolitan Edison, told the public it didn’t feel it had to report every nuance of the situation, which helped cause the angst that residents within a 300-mile radius had for five days. Calm would not prevail until President Carter came to reassure the people.

"Get the head guy out there and do it quickly. Get the message out yourself or others will do it for you. Hold nothing back no matter how bad it may seem,” says Bill Esrey, chairman emeritus of Sprint Nextel, in a previous talk with this reporter.

The Japanese are now wrestling with the aftermath of the Fukushima crisis in their own way. While they mishandled the communications during the heat of the battle, they did successfully minimize the fallout from the nuclear meltdown.


EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Follow Ken on  www.twitter.com/ken_silverstein

energybizinsider@energycentral.com

Industry thought leaders will be discussing this topic and more at the upcoming EnergyBiz Leadership Forum, Harnessing Disruption, taking place in Washington D.C., March 19-21, 2012. Review full conference details by visiting www.energybizforum.com

Related Topics

Comments

Why didn't the Japanese Learn?

The article on the nuclear industry's need for forthright communications was on target.  In March of 1979, I was working with a small group of research engineers testing scaled configurations of downcomer quenchers for GE Mark I and Mark II BWR's, to reduce the hydraulic shock from Safety Relief Valve operation.  The events that cracked the torus of one of the Fukushima reactors is evidence they did not succeed in those 32 years in solving the known problem.
 
We stopped midway in those tests because of the melting down of Three Mile Island #2, and watched as the lies from Metropolitan Edison began to spill out.  We knew in the early hours the core had melted, from the radiation screaming from the top of containment, but they lied for weeks about it.
 
Nuclear power was in the "born secret" category, and will not be able to compete with other sources of electric power if all the real costs become evident.
 
George Kamburoff
Pleasant Hill CA

TMI Experience

As to the headline for this report- a consortium of Japanese utilities actually posted 19 engineers to TMI from 1982 to 1984 for a tuition fee.  The whole idea was to provide first hand experience in the cleanup as well as an understanding of the accident itself.  Have they all retired?