A Japanese technician checks radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP

The 10th anniversary of Japan’s March 11, 2011, Richter scale 9.1 mega-earthquake and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster is bringing the predictable tsunami of painful memories and agonized regrets.  

We also saw some revival of postmortems into the mistakes made by Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO), manager of the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

But there has still been little attempt to look into the thinking that led to those mistakes. For example, how could people have convinced themselves that nuclear reactors located alongside one of the world’s most active tectonic zones could be free from danger? 

Even sleep-deprived passengers on flights coming into Tokyo from the east could not fail to see how the in-cabin flight screen shows an ominous streak of dark blue along the northeast coast of Japan they were about to cross.

That dark blue streak marks the Japan Trench – an 800-kilometer underwater fissure reaching depths of 6,000 meters or more, caused as the Pacific plate pushes under the plate holding the Japanese islands, dislocating the latter at a rate of eight or nine centimeters a year. 

Mega-earthquakes are inevitable.  

Coastal debris reveals the regular arrival of tsunamis over the centuries, the latest one before 2011 striking in 1896 following an 8.5 earthquake on the Richter scale. The year 1938 saw a succession of scale 7 quakes. 

And yet the TEPCO planners saw fit to locate a row of reactors along a fault-ridden coastline looking out directly at that tectonic trench and protected by no more than a flimsy seven-meter sea wall.

This photo from April 13, 2011, shows the west side of the first reactor building of the Fukushima No1 nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP/TEPCO

Beyond our expectation

Overconfidence had even led them to locate the plants at sea level rather than on a safer hill site back from the ocean.   

Confronted by the evidence of these dangers after the disaster, TEPCO officials could only repeat the mantra of sotei gai – it was beyond our expectation. 

How could people be so reckless?

I probably had more premonition than most, thanks to a two-year spell on two nuclear industry safety committees and commissions three years before the Fukushima disasters. 

In both TEPCO and the government regulatory organizations, the usual array of elite bureaucratic types with vested interests in turf protection were in control. Even an industry amateur such as myself could not fail to be alarmed by the overweening confidence of experts paraded before us.  

Yes, dangerous nuclear accidents had occurred in the United States and the Soviet Union, they admitted. But those were due to sloppy management. In Japan, with its much higher standards of quality control, such accidents were inconceivable. 

I confined my questions to non-technical topics. Was there any system for rewarding whistleblowers? The reply was a lecture on Japanese culture,  group loyalty and group responsibility. 

In Japan, we do not need to rely on rewards to encourage people to go out and find worksite problems, I was told, archly.  

One area where I could claim some expertise concerned the argument then being used constantly to justify the very expensive efforts being made to reprocess waste reactor fuel to extract plutonium.  

The plutonium from the planned Rokkasho reprocessing plant in Hokkaido would then be used to create the MOX fuel to operate the model of a new type of reactor, Monju, also being built at great expense near Niigata. 

This handout picture taken by Tokyo Electric Power Co on March 15, 2011, shows white smoke rising from the unit 3 reactor building at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant at Okuma town in Fukushima prefecture. Photo: AFP / Tepco

Uranium supplies

The argument used to justify these costly nuclear playthings was that the world would soon be running out of uranium ore, so reprocessing was needed.  

As someone who had spent some time on Australian mineral resource committees, I could with some authority pass along the fact that uranium ore surveys in northern Australia were being phased out. Why? The abundance of ore being discovered was depressing global uranium ore prices.  

I also focused on what I saw as the main problem facing the industry: the constant and destructive battle between powerful nuclear industry advocates and the anti-nuclear movements trying to oppose them. 

The main industry answers to this problem were expensive PR campaigns and town hall meetings where pro-nuclear experts, TV stars and spokespersons would be brought in from across the nation to recite the industry’s safety mantras.   

True, the anti-nuclear camp had its share of ideologues who needed to be countered. But it also included some with serious knowledge of reactor problems and dangers.

Surely it would be in the interests of all to begin a dialogue with those people, I argued.

Why not give them a free hand to see plans and enter reactors. They were, after all, the people with the strongest motivation to discover if genuine problems existed. 

In so doing the industry would do much to damp down its damaging public image of excessive secrecy.  

That, at least, is what I argued. But my argument did not even get to first base. The dislike, even hatred, of the anti-nuclear camp had become too deeply embedded over the years.

The Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility of Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd in Rokkasyo Village, northern Japan, on May 7, 2020. Photo: AFP/Kaname Yoneyama/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Ignoring problems, accidents

The idea of even talking to those people was taboo.

And so the industry was allowed to sail on happily for another three years, ignoring problems and minor accidents until its biases and arrogance finally met their inevitable fate at Fukushima. 

The billions poured into Rokkasho and Monju have been written off. Regulation laxity has been replaced by regulation overkill to the point where by the end of 2020, only nine of Japan’s 54 reactors had been cleared for restarting. 

Many have been phased out. 

The aftermath saw some people searching for cultural reasons leading to the disaster. One such was, of course, the dominance of those bureaucrats.

The plant at Onagawa, closer to the quake epicenter, avoided serious damage. It was built by Tohoku Denryoku, a company beyond the range of the bureaucrats and known for its reliance on quake-expert engineers. 

They had the sense to build the plant on a hill well above sea level. It even served as a refuge for the citizens of the Onagawa fishing port. 

Overall, we saw the strange Japanese optimism and reluctance to indulge in contingency planning for pioneer projects.  

According to a Nikkei publication, Nikkei Weekly, quoting a bureaucratic source after the Fukushima disaster, Japanese people dislike speculating about future disasters for fear that the speculation itself might encourage disasters to occur.  

It is hard to believe that such fears could exist in a modern sophisticated nation like Japan.  But then again, the semi-official religion of Japan is the animistic Shinto.

It demands, for example, that before digging into mountains a ceremony is required to assuage the mountain spirits. And it forbids women from entering tunnel construction sites.

Activists gather in front of the Tokyo District Court on September 19, 2019, after the court acquitted three former officials from the firm that operated the Fukushima nuclear plant. Photo: AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi

In 1980, I was invited to survey management in a large joint Japanese-US enterprise. The US side complained about the lack of Japanese attention to contingency planning.

The Japanese side complained about US nagging over something called “contingency planning.”

It seems Japanese planners could do with a lot more nagging.

Based in Japan, Gregory Clark is a former president and vice-president of two Japanese universities and a former Australian diplomat.