INTERVIEW/ YOICHI FUNABASHI: Fukushima nuclear crisis revealed Japan's governing defects

February 29, 2012

By ROY K. AKAGAWA/ Staff Writer

The first report by a private-sector committee investigating the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which was announced earlier this week, has drawn wide international attention for its detailed research that digs out many facts about what had really happened at the plant.

The report was put together by the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident, a committee of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, led by Yoichi Funabashi, a former editor in chief of The Asahi Shimbun.

In an interview on Feb. 29, Funabashi presented his view that the Japan-U.S. alliance was in a crisis situation in the first week after the Fukushima nuclear accident. He also expressed understanding for the sense of fear that former Prime Minister Naoto Kan felt about the possibility Japan would have to come under the control of the United States and Russia if it was unable to handle the accident by itself.

(Details of the report are available in stories at: private panel-1, private panel-2, editorial )

Excerpts of the interview follow:

The Asahi Shimbun AJW: What is the key fact that you concentrated on about the confused government response, including micromanaging by Kan?

Funabashi: The one area that we were really interested in, as well as what many people wanted to know, was how serious Tokyo Electric Power Co. was about pulling all of its workers out of the Fukushima No. 1 plant because there was nothing they could do.

We wanted to find out if there was the intention among top TEPCO management to make the decision or come one step toward making the decision to pull out all of its workers.

In that respect, from late March 14 through early March 15, Masataka Shimizu, the TEPCO president, tried to phone Banri Kaieda, the then industry minister, then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano and Goshi Hosono, then special adviser to Kan. Shimizu called Kaieda a number of times because he did not answer. The question arose as to why he had to make so many phone calls that late at night. If it involved simply temporarily evacuating the workers to the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant, he would not have had to do what he did. There must have been some very important development for him to do that. We wanted to find out what that was.

In its interim report issued last year, TEPCO explained that the company was only thinking about a temporary withdrawal rather than the complete withdrawal of all workers. That has become the company's official position.

In the interviews we conducted with the politicians who were at the center of the government, they all said their view was that TEPCO wanted to withdraw completely.

Politicians tend to say things that are popular with the public and since there was the possibility that all the politicians were told to give the same story, we searched for individuals who took memos as well as interviewed bureaucrats to find out what TEPCO officials told them.

There were other TEPCO officials who were at the Prime Minister's Official Residence. So, we looked into such matters as much as possible.

From that, we feel that many of the bureaucrats also held the view that TEPCO wanted to withdraw all of its workers.

So, it was not only politicians who felt that the company wanted to pull out all of its workers.

The government's interim report takes the view that the politicians had misunderstood. If one takes that view, that would mean they were making much ado about nothing because they had become frightened by the situation they faced.

But our investigation finds that there was something much deeper and that TEPCO seriously considered withdrawing all of its workers.

But, we were unable to reach a definite conclusion in our report.

We presented the possibility that TEPCO had considered withdrawing to a much greater degree than was contained in the government's interim report due to the circumstantial evidence that we found.

That is the one area that we really wanted to uncover.

Q: Are you saying the bureaucrats felt that way about TEPCO'S intention?

A: Not all of them held that interpretation.

For example, Nobuaki Terasaka, the then head of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, talked with Shimizu before Shimizu tried to call Kaieda. Terasaka said he never felt that Shimizu asked to withdraw all TEPCO employees when they held discussions on what should be done as the No. 2 reactor approached a dangerous stage.

We included what Terasaka said in our report.

I hope the Diet investigative committee will thoroughly look into this matter, by checking internal TEPCO documents, telephone records and memos. All the teleconference sessions between TEPCO headquarters and the Fukushima plant are recorded and should still be in storage somewhere. The Diet should force the company to release those recordings to look into what was said by whom.

Q: Since the report was published on Feb. 27, have you received any reaction from TEPCO?

A: Surprisingly, there has been no response. They may just ignore us until the very end.

Q: If it does come out that TEPCO executives had called for a complete withdrawal, would that have been simply an unthinkable decision?

A: The government put together a worst-case scenario. I only learned about that in September.

While Kan unintentionally revealed the existence of such a scenario, all other government officials were in unison in denying such a scenario.

We only obtained a copy of the scenario in December.

The development described in that scenario is similar to what would have happened if TEPCO had withdrawn all of its workers. The trigger for the worst-case scenario is a situation where the radiation levels were so high that no workers could enter the area. The No. 4 reactor was considered the most vulnerable link in that scenario.

The No. 4 reactor was not operating because it was undergoing a periodic inspection. The fuel rods were moved to a storage pool. In the scenario, if the fuel rods became exposed, it would heat up and come into contact with the concrete and begin a reaction that would melt through it. Because the fuel rods were not in the containment vessel or pressure vessel, but exposed, all workers nearby would not be able to work there.

A similar situation would have occurred if all workers left.

It is at that time that Kan probably felt the fear of having Japan come under control of the international community.

Early on March 15, when Kan went to TEPCO headquarters, he said if nothing was done, eastern Japan would be devastated. If Japan was unable to do anything, it could be occupied by the United States and Russia. "If that should occur, what would happen to Japan?" Kan said at that time.

When one reads such comments now, one probably will think something was wrong with Kan, but I can really understand the fear that he felt. That would mean that Japan was saying to the world that it did not have the ability to handle its own problems.

That would mean the end of Japan because it could not even handle its own nuclear accident even though it had the Self-Defense Forces. I think that is the sense of fear held by Kan at that time.

When I knew that, I felt I had come to the true core of the fear that Kan felt.

Q: Was the decision by Kan to stop TEPCO from withdrawing the watershed in the crisis?

A: Kan did many things that were unnecessary, raising questions about minor details. That is a form of accident management. Leaders should not be involved in accident management, but should only handle crisis management.

While he excessively micromanaged, he also understood what the government had to do at the most vital time of the crisis and what decision had to be made at that time.

At that time, Kan was correct.

Even among bureaucrats who were displeased with the Democratic Party of Japan-led government, especially METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) officials who were made out to be the villains, many acknowledged privately that Kan was the right man for the job at that time.

Q: What does the report say about crisis management at such times?

A: That is a difficult issue. The Fukushima nuclear accident was one where manuals about what should be done were worthless because the events that unfolded were not contained in any manual. At such times, what becomes the decisive factor is who the leader is.

The fact that it was Kan who was the leader at that time may have been lucky for Japan.

There were other factors that were also lucky.

March 11 was a Friday, meaning there were 6,000 workers there. If it had been on the weekend, there would only have been one-tenth the number of workers.

The winds also blew out toward the Pacific every day until March 15, which helped the venting process.

Rain also did not fall, which would have brought radiation to the ground with it.

For the first four days, there was good luck.

Another incident was the storage pool for nuclear fuel at the No. 4 reactor. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said there was no water covering the pool. However, for some reason an explosion at the No. 3 reactor sent water to the storage pool in the No. 4 reactor. That is nothing more than sheer luck.

However, our report states that while another crisis will not arise in a similar manner so will there never be another instance of such good luck coming our way either.

Q: Do you feel the maturity of Japanese democracy was tested by the crisis?

A: What was most tested at that time was the ability of the nation to govern as well as the capability and structure for crisis management.

Many of the problems related to governance emerged at the same time, such as risk-adverse thinking, stovepiping and bureaucratic turf battles.

What was probably most lacking was the desire to form a partnership with the public to deal with the crisis.

For example, there was no attempt to explain what the situation was and provide context for the information to be supplied.

Information has to be provided in the proper context and explanations about what will be done in order to seek out cooperation from the people. While that stance and words and the presence of such a leader is what is most necessary to deal with a crisis, that is what was most missing in the Fukushima case.

Q: What sort of information should the government have released more quickly?

A: One problem was waiting until March 22 before releasing information from the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI).

Another major problem was not being able to measure conditions within the nuclear reactors because measurement devices were not working.

The problem then becomes one of what does the government tell the people when it does not have the information. It may have to say we do not know.

That is most difficult for the Japanese government because officials always want to believe they know everything.

If government officials said they did not have the information, they would face criticism from the media, so those officials would have to bear with that criticism.

In an interview with us, Edano told us the most difficult experience he had was when the No. 1 reactor exploded on March 12. After two hours, they had no idea what happened, but reporters were asking why was no explanation given and saying the public would become worried if nothing was announced. But, he did not know what to say when he had no data to announce to the people.

The issue becomes one of whether the government had the will to communicate with the public.

But, when the government later decided that the public were still children who would panic if given the true information, that was when the fundamental mistake was made by the government in how it handled the crisis because it failed to gain the trust of the public.

Even amid the crisis, support ratings for the Kan Cabinet only rose by 6 percentage points at the most. That was because the government failed to give off a sense of trust in the public.

Q: What was the interaction between the governments of Japan and the United States in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident?

A: We were fortunate to have Nobumasa Akiyama, an expert on nuclear non-proliferation at Hitotsubashi University, interview officials in the United States, including Steven Chu, the U.S. energy secretary, as well as officials at the NRC, White House, Pentagon and State Department.

In a word, between March 11 and March 17, the Japan-U.S. alliance was in a crisis situation.

It appeared when the United States issued a travel advisory recommending not entering an 80-kilometer radius from the Fukushima No. 1 plant when the Japanese government had established a 20-kilometer radius evacuation zone.

Japan did not provide adequate information to the United States, including the fact that it was unable to obtain the necessary information.

While the United States may have been somewhat pushy, Japan should have moved faster in setting up meetings with Japanese officials when NRC officials came to Japan.

Fundamentally, Japanese officials were embarrassed and did not want the U.S. officials to see what had happened. Japanese officials may have also had a sense of pride at being able to handle the situation by themselves.

On March 15, an NRC delegation led by Charles Casto arrived in Japan and that changed the situation.

He made the appropriate judgments and also had consideration for what the other party was going through. That led to an increase of trust among Japanese officials.

On March 17, Japan demonstrated its will as a nation when the SDF dropped water from helicopters over two reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.

The United States was frustrated that Japan was not employing all the assets that it had, including the SDF. That message was eventually passed on to Kan and Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa.

Hosono, former parliamentary defense minister Akihisa Nagashima and others met with U.S. officials, including Ambassador John Roos, on March 18. A decision was made that the Prime Minister's office had to take the initiative to establish a bilateral body to deal with the nuclear accident on March 22.

That led to a more coordinated effort by the Japanese government, although it took 11 days to achieve.

Q: Turning to your original motivation, what were the reasons and significance behind your decision to set up a private-sector committee to investigate the Fukushima nuclear accident?

A: After March 11, I thought about how to view the accident.

Some of my friends asked me "Isn't what is happening a total meltdown?"

Others said, "I have two young children, and I am thinking about fleeing to Hong Kong."

Those were some of the concerns being raised by my friends.

Because of my long background as a journalist, I also received many questions from people who said, "You must know something."

I also wanted to find out what was happening so what I did was interview politicians and those in the policy field, such as top officials in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

I also had the question in my mind of "What exactly is going on here?"

From about March 16 or 17, more blogs emerged about the accident and my friends called me and said, "Isn't something really major happening?"

I also followed media reports closely and I also interviewed a number of government officials, including those at the very center of authority. But, despite those efforts I still did not know was happening in the first few days.

I realized later, sometime in late March or early April, that something really terrible likely occurred. It was only in May that TEPCO admitted that a meltdown had actually occurred. That was when everyone understood that something really bad had happened.

When I realized the extent to which I had not understood what had happened as well as the extent to which the public was not informed about the accident, I asked myself what was it that caused the government to not properly handle the situation.

The Japanese government faced with a similar situation in the past has never accurately passed on information to the public or conducted investigations. The Diet has also done nothing. That was repeated a number of times in the past, but I felt that could absolutely not be allowed to happen this time.

I thought about entering into a partnership with a university, but, although this is not easy to say, starting with TEPCO, the electric power industry and the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan have considerable influence by distributing subsidies and if I were to work with any institution that received such funds it would be difficult to do.

I felt that I had to start something new and ask for funds and start from zero because that would be much cleaner. I discussed this with my friends from about April and decided to set up the foundation.

What was important there was the concept of independence.

Japan is a heavily interlocking society with nepotistic ties prevalent everywhere.

Everyone is connected to someone so people do not want to say the truth because that may cause trouble to others. So, people remain silent even if they know something and there is no discussion. That has often been repeated in the past.

But I held the feeling that such a situation could never be allowed this time.

So, that is the major motive behind setting up the committee.

Q: What were your guiding principles for your investigation effort?

A: The slogan for creating the organization was "Truth, independence and humanity."

The model we were trying to emulate was the investigative committees set up by NASA to look into the accidents involving the space shuttles Challenger and, especially, Columbia.

The NASA report about the Columbia accident was lent to me by my friend John Hamre, the president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I met him in Washington in late April and asked for his advice in setting up the foundation. He lent me the report and after reading it I felt that the United States had outstanding oversight capabilities because the work involved an independent group of investigators with a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise who were given access to interview those involved and confirm each and every fact. They were very thorough.

In the United States, it is usually Congress that plays a leading role in such investigations, but think tanks also play such a function. There were actually a number of committees set up to look into the Columbia accident.

At that time, the Japanese government had already decided to set up its own investigative commission, but I thought a totally independent investigation should be carried out.

We brought together about 30 such individuals and began forming an organization from June before the foundation was actually established.

We were not trying to conduct a kangaroo court and look for the guilty parties. What we were interested in was finding out what actually happened, what response was carried out, what judgments were made for those responses, what actually happened as a result, what appraisal was made of those actions and as a result what policy results emerged.

That was our true aim.

The third factor of humanity is related to the fact that Japan is like the Galapagos in being satisfied if only it was safe and being overly confident that they were in fact safe.

But, there was a major blind spot there. That is one thing we have learned through our investigation.

Q: A blind spot?

A: We learned that the United States asked on a number of occasions if Japan had really taken the necessary precautions if all power sources were lost. While the United States had not considered the possibility of tsunami for the total loss of power sources, they did think about a terrorist attack. But, preparations for both situations are the same. So, if the adequate security measures had been prepared, such a major disaster at Fukushima would never have occurred and Japan would not have shown the world just how thoroughly unprepared it was.

One factor was that after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the United States has not constructed a single new nuclear reactor. But Japan has constructed several so there was the thinking that Japan had become an advanced nation in terms of nuclear energy technology. Japan ignored the warnings made by foreign nations.

One argument made by Japan early on was that terrorist attacks do not occur here.

But, after realizing that such an argument was not convincing, Japan decided in 2005 to strengthen measures for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel and the nuclear reactors. Those measures were in a sense designed also against terrorist attacks at nuclear reactors.

However, those measures were not very effective.

There is no other field like the nuclear business where there are as many international regulations because of the dangers associated with it. There are many regulations related to nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear safety.

We wanted to conduct our investigation within such a global context because we feel that is a common theme of humanity regarding safety.

We felt that even if our group was a small one, the most important factor was to be totally independent.

In the end, that is what we most wanted--independence.

Q: What were the barriers that were raised because of that independence?

A: We were prepared for that.

For one thing, TEPCO was uncooperative throughout the entire process.

We submitted written requests for interviews with the top executives at the time of the accident as well as those in charge at the Fukushima plant.

But, we received no cooperation. That was very regrettable.

We did speak with some TEPCO sources on deep background.

We also spoke to retired executives, but we wanted to know what decisions had been made by those in the top positions at the time of the accident. That would mean talking to those who were making those decisions at that time.

To be honest, that is one area where I felt the limits to what we could do.

Q: How did you try to overcome these difficulties?

A: We also created a channel on the Internet to allow individuals to provide information, be they TEPCO employees, those who worked to deal with the accident as well as evacuees.

We wanted information and data that could provide help in uncovering what happened rather than opinions.

There were a few that were like diamonds in the information that was contained.

We included the information from one such individual in the prologue. The individual worked in the on-site center designed to withstand quake damage at the time of the earthquake and tsunami.

The individual described what Masao Yoshida, the head of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and others in the operation center said in their discussions with TEPCO headquarters. While we received the information in an e-mail message, we did not know if everything was accurate, so we had one of our investigators spend a day checking on the facts with the individual. After we determined the individual was genuine we decided to use what was described in the prologue of our report.

That may not necessarily be a pursuit of truth because all it is is what one individual experienced at the time of the accident.

Because our work involves humans investigating humans, we decided to include such information as what humans felt at that time and what the blind spots or misperceptions felt by humans are. By checking on such factors, we could determine what may have been mistaken and we included that additional information that we uncovered.

Q: You have interviewed a number of key political leaders involved in the crisis management at the prime minister's office.

A: Starting in September and lasting until February, we conducted in-depth interviews with those who were at the core of government, such as Kan, Kaieda, Edano, Hosono, and Tetsuro Fukuyama, then deputy chief Cabinet secretary.

We had a two-hour interview with Kan and later met him on three other occasions.

Unfortunately, we wanted more contact with TEPCO executives, but because we couldn't we used the Internet channel for information.

While there were limits to what the government investigative committee could do, the report on what happened on-site, such as which reactor was the first to experience meltdown, why the venting process was delayed and other analysis of operational and technical matters, including confirmation of what actually happened, was very detailed.

Because we could not meet directly with TEPCO officials, we relied to a considerable extent on the interim report of the government investigative committee.

However, there were several differences in the conclusion we reached and the nuances to the reports that were released by our organization and the government committee.

Q: What do you think will be the international perception or appraisal of what Japan did or should have done?

A: While everyone is looking critically at the response now, things could change in 10 to 20 years.

People might change to an appraisal that Japan actually did a good job considering the extent of the disaster. It will depend on whether any severe radiation cases emerge in the future. Despite the amount of radiation released, no one has yet died, including among the workers who dealt with the accident.

The sense of purpose and courage of the Fukushima 50 should be praised.

There were problems with the systematic negligence on the part of TEPCO and the decision by executives to send in the workers under very dangerous conditions was very problematic. At the same time, we also have to separate that from what the workers who went into the reactors risking their lives did.

And, finally, when Kan and his team decided that TEPCO could not withdraw and realized that the nation had to in the end take responsibility that was what saved the nation.

Having said that, there were also many problems including a lack of proper regulation.

There was also the self-defeating logic of the myth of total safety in nuclear plants in Japan. Under the logic that nuclear plants are 100 percent safe, no further preparations should be made for any sort of accident.

Anyone would realize how wrong that logic is.

By ROY K. AKAGAWA/ Staff Writer
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Yoichi Funabashi (The Asahi Shimbun)

Yoichi Funabashi (The Asahi Shimbun)

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