Fukushima lessons for India

Published: 11th July 2012 11:51 PM  |   Last Updated: 11th July 2012 11:51 PM   |  A+A-

Veteran Japanese diplomat Ichiro Kawasaki’s Japan Unmasked came out in the early 1970s, precisely at a time when Japan was basking in the glory of its phoenix like resurrection. The book sent shock-waves around the country. It exposed the weaknesses of Japan such as lack of territory, population and resources and criticised the very cultural and civilisational traits that had won admiration abroad. It thoroughly demolished the expectation that the Japanese miracle would endure. That was a traumatic experience for Japan.

The official report of The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation, commissioned by the Japanese Parliament and released on July 5 will be more traumatic to the Japanese establishment in general and the nuclear community in particular. The report came at a time when Japan had earned the respect of the world for handling a natural disaster with equanimity and poise. Volumes were written about the courage and compassion of the victims and the methodical manner in which the aftermath of the tragedy was managed. One of the reactors, which were shut down soon after Fukushima, has just reopened. To be told at this time that the disaster was not only ‘man-made’, but also characteristically Japanese (‘Made in Japan’) was ‘the most unkindest cut of all’.

Surprise of surprises, the commission did not subscribe to the official theory, accepted by the international community that it was the tsunami rather than the earthquake that damaged the Daiichi reactor and suggested that another commission should look into that aspect. For the causes of the disaster, the commission went beyond the natural calamities. In the words of the commission, ‘the fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture, our reflexive obedience, our reluctance to question authority, our devotion to sticking with the program, our groupism and our insularity’. It said it was the result of collusion between government agencies and Japan’s leading energy company. ‘They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents’.

The report said that it was unable to devote any attention to the future energy policy of Japan or whether nuclear power should be promoted or abolished. It made it clear that the problem lay in the passionate pursuit of nuclear power in the wake of the oil shock of the 1970s. Japan accelerated the development of nuclear power in an effort to achieve national energy security. Consequently, nuclear power became ‘an unstoppable force, which became immune to scrutiny by the civil society’. The nuclear bureaucracy grew powerful and pursued its organisational interests. In the process, sufficient attention was not given to the development of alternate sources of energy. Safety and security became the casualties of multiplication of nuclear capability. In its blind faith in its own capabilities, the Japanese nuclear establishment did not learn any lessons from the Chernobyl or the Three Mile Island accidents.

The report did not touch upon the military aspect of the issue, but Japanese advance in nuclear technology as a major preoccupation could not be divorced from security concerns.

The detailed account of the events of March 2011 did not differ from the versions released by Japanese authorities and authenticated by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The crucial question raised was whether the earthquake itself had damaged the reactor. The report alleged that the authorities were aware that the reactor could not withstand an earthquake, but did nothing to make structural changes required for the safety of the reactor. Since 2006, authorities were also aware that a total outage of power would be disastrous. Many layers of security were breached. The report was also critical of the emergency response teams, which had won wide approbation nationally and internationally.

The commission made a number of recommendations for safety and security of nuclear reactors, none of them new or dramatically different from suggestions made earlier by experts in Japan and abroad. The report could not suggest any solution for the fundamental issue of Japanese cultural and civilisational flaws, which the report highlighted. ‘The consequences of negligence at Fukushima stand out as catastrophic, but the mindset that supported can be found across Japan’, said the report. Such a conclusion confused the whole issue of science and technology and shifted the blame unfairly to the cultural idiosyncrasies of the Japanese people. The conventional wisdom is that unwritten community rituals, value sharing and community mindedness can overrule laws in Japan. It might convey the wrong, but comforting impression that Fukushima would not happen anywhere else.

By placing the Fukushima disaster in the Japanese cultural context rather than analysing it as a scientific phenomenon, the report served no purpose from the point of nuclear power. At the same time, the report criticised the dogmatic pursuit of nuclear power, which prevented the authorities from taking safety measures or taking the public into confidence. This should be a lesson for others, who treat nuclear power as the panacea for their energy problems. The secrecy surrounding nuclear power should also come up for scrutiny in the context of the report. The link with military uses makes it hard for complete transparency.

With all its harsh criticism of the Japanese government, the nuclear agencies and the operating company, there is serious suspicion that the report was meant to dispel the widespread public apprehension and distrust of nuclear power. In effect, the nuclear industry must have heaved a collective sigh of relief even if the report did not mean to detract from the seriousness of the Fukushima disaster and the need to learn lessons from that experience.

Many of the characteristics of Japanese society enumerated in the report are not present in India. Indians are known to be highly individualistic and questioning in nature, without much respect for social or official hierarchies. In the nuclear arena, however, we seem to share the Japanese devotion to indigenous development of nuclear power in secrecy. Our long-term commitment to nuclear power, in spite of the recent debate on the issue is also striking. Taking the civil society into confidence, making generation of nuclear power transparent, creation of adequate regulatory mechanisms and better coordination between various agencies are as applicable to us as to the Japanese.

Ironically, the very Japanese social and cultural traits, which had won acclaim at the time of the Fukushima disaster, stand indicted by the report of the commission. Just as the unmasking of Japan by Ichiro Kawasaki resulted in prompting the Japanese society to take note and move on, this report might also be taken in its stride by Japan. The debate on the desirability or otherwise of relying on nuclear power will continue in the meantime.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India and governor for India of the IAEA.


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