Government contingency plans proved useless during the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, with senior officials unable to obtain vital information about the unfolding disaster and communications between national and local leaders left in chaos.
The combination of the magnitude-9.0 quake and devastating tsunami on March 11 left a task force center set up in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, about 5 kilometers from the plant, largely powerless as the situation at the plant spiraled out of control, according to officials.
The center was left without power, just like the plant and the rest of the Tohoku region, and emergency power sources failed.
As a result, officials in charge were unable to obtain essential data such as the pressure and temperature of the stricken reactors as well as radiation levels in the compound.
The dual disaster left telephone networks in tatters, and rendered communications between the prime minister's office, the Fukushima prefectural government and local governments virtually impossible.
There were only a few satellite telephones available to officials at the center, where a total of 100 officials were expected to assemble.
Motohisa Ikeda, senior vice minister at Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and head of the emergency task force, met up with central government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. officials at the center on March 11, soon after Prime Minister Naoto Kan declared a state emergency.
But local officials and staff at the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, a government-affiliated organization that was supposed to operate facilities and equipment and distribute public information, did not arrive on the day of the quake.
An emergency meeting, which was supposed to have been held as soon as those officials arrived, had to be put off.
The dearth of information forced Kan to take direct control, obtaining updates directly from TEPCO, the plant's operator, and directing its efforts to restore the plant's cooling systems and vent steam to reduce pressure inside the reactors.
Meanwhile, the Fukushima prefectural government issued its own evacuation order to residents living within a 2-kilometer radius of the plant after contacting TEPCO.
Only 33 minutes after that order was given, Kan extended the range to a 3-km radius.
The task force center slowly began to get on its feet from March 12, but had to be closed three days later on March 15 after a radiation level of 12 microsieverts per hour was detected at the site the previous day. That level was considered too high for safety, and officials moved their headquarters to the Fukushima prefectural government.
The task force center was set up under a government manual drawn up in 2000 after the 1999 criticality accident in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, at a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility operated by JCO Co.
That manual, written primarily by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), appears to have completely failed to anticipate a disaster on the scale of the events of March 11.
Its 123 pages, based on the nuclear disaster special measures law, catalogue detailed responses to be taken collectively by government ministries and agencies, local governments, utilities and other organizations.
But they fail to anticipate a blackout at a task force center, the need for a backup site if the front-line base was put out of action, measures to prevent disarray in the chain of command, or an accident requiring more than a week to be brought under control.
The task force center in Okuma had insufficient facilities to allow officials to rest and lacked equipment to protect workers from radiation exposure or helicopters to ferry staff where they were needed.
The government acknowledged in a report submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on June 7 that it had "failed to perform its role of gathering information and reporting."
Atsuyuki Sassa, a specialist in crisis management and former director-general of the Cabinet Security Affairs Office, said the manual was inadequate because it was based on the fundamental assumption that a severe nuclear accident could not occur in Japan.
"The manual was founded on the view that elaborating a plan to minimize the damage from a contingency will only fuel the concerns of local residents," he said. "That is why the manual proved useless in handling the crisis."
The manual was not short on detail. It dictated how many personnel should be sent by relevant organizations and what their roles would be in tackling a crisis. The setting up of the task force base near the scene, so that officials could share updates and propose steps to the prime minister's office, was at the heart of the plan.
"(Our aim was) to be able to have access to the latest information so that we could decide on the steps to take," said an official at the Japan Atomic Energy Commission.
Task force centers to deal with nuclear crises were established at 22 locations near the nuclear plants across the nation and equipped with systems to allow TV conferences with the METI and report on the status of power plants live through dedicated lines. The total investment was up to 1 billion yen ($12.5 million).
The plans were revised seven times since they were originally written to reflect experiences from emergency drills.
However, the manual's worst-case scenario was an event on par with the Tokai event, a level 4 accident on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
The Fukushima accident, rated as a level 7 accident on the INES scale, coupled with the huge quake and tsunami, overwhelmed all contingency planning, according to a senior official at the Cabinet Secretariat.
Based on the lessons of the Fukushima crisis, the central government has set to work on a drastic overhaul of the manual, but it is unclear when the new plans will be completed.
The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the regulator of the nuclear power industry, is working to revise the manual. There have been suggestions from the IAEA as well as the government that NISA might be taken out of the jurisdiction of METI, which has a history of promoting nuclear power, but such a restructuring might mean delays to the contingency planning.
A special government panel, appointed by the Cabinet, is compiling a report on the crisis slated to be published next summer.
The key challenge for the authors of the new manual will be ensuring that task force centers are able to continue to operate in the face of the sort of system failure triggered by the March 11 earthquake and that the structure is able to rebuild a chain of command even if communication networks are disrupted.
In its report to the IAEA, the government noted that a local government office might better serve the purpose envisaged by the emergency manual than the task force centers.
Keiji Kanda, professor emeritus of energy policy at Kyoto University, said that a new site should be built at a location 15-20 km from a nuclear plant in case officials cannot stay in the original off-site center.
But Sassa said any new structure should go beyond the framework of the existing special measures law.
"Information on the accident should be concentrated in the prime minister's office to address a new accident," he said. "A nuclear accident is a national security matter."
(This article was written by Takuya Suzuki and Kazuo Yamagishi.)
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