Lessons from Fukushima: An Assessment of the Investigations of the Nuclear Disaster

Lukner, Kerstin; Sakaki, Alexandra
May 2013
Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus;5/13/2013, Vol. 2013 Issue 19, p1
Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the Japanese Cabinet, the Japanese Diet, a private-sector group as well as the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility, TEPCO, each set up an investigation commission to examine the causes of the accident, scrutinize the crisis response and make recommendations for future policies. This article provides some background on the four commissions and then examines and assesses the contents of the reports. Four key conclusions emerge from the analysis. Firstly, the establishment of the commissions was accompanied by immense mistrust, as each of the initiators suspected bias in the other inquiries. Secondly, the comparison demonstrates that while biases can be detected to some extent, the four reports overall agree in their identification of fundamental issues and crucial problems. Thirdly, the article maintains that the four reports used in combination convey a more complete picture than any single one of them. A comparison of the reports highlights diverging interpretations and differing degrees of criticism, while exposing open questions and unresolved issues. Finally, the article argues that the four investigation reports can serve as important reference points, enabling critical assessments of reforms currently undertaken in Japan's nuclear power administration and crisis management system. Despite the severe consequences from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan's current government appears determined to return to the pre-disaster policy of promoting nuclear power as a key source of energy, promising improvements in safety standards.2The governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) will likely take controversial decisions on reactor restarts following the July 2013 Upper House election. Given this outlook, it seems crucial for Japan and others to reflect on and incorporate the lessons that can be drawn from the Fukushima disaster, so as to prevent or better contain possible future crises. Four major investigations were launched in Japan to examine the Fukushima disaster, its causes, and make recommendations for future policies. Each investigation commission was initiated by different actors and entities: one by the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Kan Naoto of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), one by the Japanese Diet, one by a private group of prominent citizens under the leadership of Funabashi Yoichi, former editor of the Asahi newspaper, and finally one by the operator of the Fukushima power plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). The reports issued by the four investigations are designed to serve as important reference points for Japan's ongoing reform efforts in its nuclear energy sector. This article seeks to elucidate and compare the main findings, arguments and recommendations of the reports. Thus far, a comprehensive comparison is lacking.3 The article introduces each of the four investigations, explaining why and how they were initiated and what methodology the commissions used. It then clarifies each report's major findings on three aspects: (1) the causes of the Fukushima disaster and the question of responsibility, (2) the evaluation of the crisis response by TEPCO, the Cabinet and regulatory agencies, and (3) the recommendations for future policies.186 Finally, the article briefly evaluates current reform efforts in Japan's nuclear energy sector in light of the investigation results. The analysis offers the following four key research findings: Firstly, the establishment of four different investigation commissions on the Fukushima accident was accompanied by enormous mistrust, as each of the four initiators was doubtful about the other inquiries, anticipating their results to be biased. This sense of suspicion also affected the selection criteria for commission members and methodologies used in the investigation. Secondly, the article demonstrates that while some of the reports are one-sided in particular depictions, they generally identify the same fundamental problems (though TEPCO's report is an exception on some points). For the most part, the commissions agree about the lack of risk preparedness prior to the accident, the absence of a culture of safety, weaknesses in regulatory oversight, and crisis management problems. Thirdly, the article contends that a comparative analysis of the four reports is nevertheless valuable, because each of the reports emphasizes different issues and provides distinct explanations and viewpoints. A comparison thus allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the complex disaster, while also exposing unresolved issues and open questions. Fourthly, the article shows that reforms are currently underway in Japan's nuclear power administration and crisis management system, apparently in line with key recommendations made by the four investigations. Nevertheless, it remains doubtful whether a fundamental change of mindset that puts public rather than utility interests first has occurred among those responsible for ensuring nuclear safety.


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