Post-quake nuclear bungling in context, seawater-gate edition

This week, Japan’s political news was dominated by a political fight between the LDP and DPJ over whether Prime Minister Kan, the day after the March 11 earthquake, ordered Tepco to stop flooding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant with seawater. Something shocking happened that poured cold water on that debate, however. The head of the facility admitted that regardless of orders from corporate headquarters to stop (apparently relaying the PM’s wishes), he continued the flooding operations because it was the right thing to do.

In many ways this conflict is a tempest in a teapot, at best a distraction from dealing with the nuclear accident and post-quake situation right now. But it does offer us a window, however slight, into how information has flowed (or not) among stakeholders and the public.

The Nikkei has an interesting lowdown on the farcical sequence of events:

The controversy began with a document issued Saturday by the government’s joint task force with Tepco, purporting to tell the “facts” of how seawater was injected into the No. 1 reactor March 12, the day after a tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Tepco began pumping ocean water into the hot reactor at 7:04 p.m. without informing the government, according to the document. A company employee at the Prime Minister’s Office later telephoned the power plant and the injections stopped at 7:25, only to restart 55 minutes later, the report stated.

A different picture emerged Thursday.

At the time the pumping began, officials at company headquarters had decided there was next to no chance that the seawater would cause the fuel inside to go critical again, Tepco Vice President Sakae Muto told a news conference.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan had asked about that possibility in discussions with Nuclear Safety Commission Chairman Haruki Madarame and other advisers.

But what headquarters officials heard from the employee stationed at the Prime Minister’s Office was that the “atmosphere” there was that the cooling operation could not go ahead without the prime minister’s approval, according to Muto.

In a video conference with plant manager Masao Yoshida, Tepco officials decided to halt the seawater injections. But Yoshida disregarded that order, and the pumping continued. Although final authority did rest with the plant manager, he never reported his actions to headquarters. Head office officials, for their part, never confirmed with Yoshida that the order had been carried out.

At that stage in the crisis, with reactor coolant going up in steam and the fuel rods melting, every second counted. The plant’s emergency manual prescribes seawater injections in such a situation. Regardless of the “atmosphere” at the Prime Minister’s Office, turning off the pumps would have been the wrong decision, based on the conditions at the plant.

Asked why he decided to reveal that the seawater injections continued nonstop, Yoshida said he “thought it over again carefully after it became a controversy in the newspapers and the Diet.”


Right off the bat, I want to say that getting the “real” situation is basically impossible for the general public, and that’s kind of the point of this post. But assuming this report is basically true, it seems clear to me that this is definitely not a case of Tepco or the government hiding information, per se. Mr. Yoshida (who was apparently quoted indirectly through a Tepco spokesperson) was the only one hiding anything, for reasons he must think make sense, even if they deprive outside observers of an accurate picture of the situation.

Get a load of Tepco headquarters – they never confirmed whether he had actually stopped the water? I guess Yoshida just pretended to “restart” the operation when they said it was OK an hour later?

I have read so many articles saying that “Japan” has not been forthcoming with information about the nuclear accident, but I find that hard to believe. Information has been released by the truckload. The entire scandal got started when Tepco released a detailed breakdown of what happened. But even when important people have the best of intentions and submit a report in good faith, there’s no guarantee they will have all the facts.

The Kan government has recently announced an independent commission to study the accident, and the IAEA has its own people on the ground investigating. Openness isn’t the problem here. The problem is how difficult it is for outsiders to get a clear picture of a rapidly unfolding situation, even when the people in charge are trying to be forthcoming.

Again it’s hard to really feel like I have a sound basis to comment, but from my limited vantage point this incident makes a lot of people look bad, most of all the LDP who so quickly leaped on a potentially damaging decision by the prime minister for political gain, only to learn their entire premise was flawed. No one stopped the seawater because, thankfully enough, someone at Tepco had a cool enough head to not listen to superiors who were more worried about reading the Prime Minister’s “mood” than how to control the reactor.

Yoshida might be punished by Tepco for not reporting his actions, but I think he deserves a lot of credit for taking the necessary action. It also bears mentioning that his actions fly in the face of the common stereotype of Japanese deference to power.

27 thoughts on “Post-quake nuclear bungling in context, seawater-gate edition

  1. Adamu makes all the right points. What’s surprising to me is that they needed to be made at all; but unfortunately, there are many people and groups (and media players) who have had their swords drawn from the start, ready to criticize every move without bothering to check their own facts and assumptions.
    I would go further and say that the mass media routinely report stories without doing the research and fact-checking to know if their reporting is correct. This has always been true, but is all the more devastating because of the seriousness of the situations they are reporting this time around.
    Oh, and that Nishioka guy. Didn’t he base his critique of Kan on the assumption that Kan ordered the seawater flooding to stop? But that “fact” has by no means been established, so why isn’t there more blowback in his face?

  2. Has anyone yet come up with an honest to goodness “information was hidden” for more than a few days of review or double check?

    The Japanese government has made some bad decisions (not immediately moving on evacuating high radiation areas outside of the arbitrary 30km radius) – but lying?

  3. What is happening now? Is the situation under control? Ozawa has made some alarming statements, but I have not been able to read them in the Wall Street Journal because I haven’t paid, and also haven’t seen the Japanese original. There are large amounts of radioactive materials in the reactors at Fukushima, and it is not at all clear that these materials are under control. Yeah, Ozawa may be politicizing, and Ozawa is damn well responsible for this happening in the first place, but is he privy to information that we need to know?

  4. Whether or not Kan ordered an action which we are told occurred despite his order means, what? What is happening now?

  5. Here’s another thing Ozawa said. He raises an interesting point – should they expose themselves to intense radiation to . . . to what? Can they stop it? Should they be asked to die to stop it? I don’t know. But Adamu, I don’t think you have any idea of how serious this situation is.

  6. Gerald Curtis has it right:

    “Gerald Curtis, a professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University, said that while Mr. Kan’s leadership has proved to be far from effective, the political in-fighting shows scant regard for the issues facing Japan.

    “This low-level jockeying for political power by small-minded men occupied in petty politics will only disgust the public,” Mr. Curtis said.

    “Ozawa has no chance of coming back as prime minister,” he said. “All he will create is political chaos, effectively breaking up the DPJ—that’s what Ozawa does.””

  7. I hope that is not a response to what I said, because it completely misses the point.

  8. Great article

    According to Professor Koide of Kyoto University (http://www.rri.kyoto-u.ac.jp/)
    we are in “未知の世界” (unchartered waters) at this stage of the game.

    It’s a bit like the macondo well strategy with BP - deny at first, then steady drip of news for days on end till everyone is either confused or has given up.

    Will Hawaii’s waters become unswimmable due to radiation fears I wonder?
    Or is the radiation diluted the further out to sea it gets?

  9. Dwight

    I am still not sure what you want, but Ozawa is just exaggerating the situation for his political purpose. Fukushima Daiichi is still not completely under control but at least it is now enough under control that you can go in and estimate what actually happened.

    I dont know whether you can read Japanese but if you can, then there is an interesting link.

    http://www.shippai.org/images/html/news559/
    YoshiokaMemo42.pdf

  10. All I can say is Curtis isn’t exactly a great Nagatacho watcher….

  11. “All I can say is Curtis isn’t exactly a great Nagatacho watcher….”

    I agree that he is probably not a great watcher (no effective foreseeing records…), but at least the most honest watcher or fair watcher (unabashedly leaned to LDP , but distanced enough if recognizing a problem in his previous attitude)

  12. “All I can say is Curtis isn’t exactly a great Nagatacho watcher….”

    Can you please explain why you think this is so? And who out there in academia IS a great Nagatacho watcher?

  13. Curtis changed his attitude toward Koizumi very dramatically about a decade ago.
    I also wasn’t very impressed with his perception of the politicization of the comfort women issue over ForeignPolicy interview in the past.Seems to me either he didn’t know what it was all about,or rather not got involved in the event by answering the question to American journos…
    Added to that,I don’t find statement like “low-level jockeying for political power by small-minded men occupied in petty politics”particulary impressive when it’s coming out from the mouth of a Japan expert and not from a taxi driver.

    Don’t have the answer to the second question.

  14. Here is a prime example of the attitude that is often taken in situations like this:

    放射性物質を含む汚泥の影響とみられるが、都は「検出場所は屋内。敷地の境界では問題なく、誤解を招く恐れがある」
    http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/national/news/20110608-OYT1T00603.htm

    They were getting serious readings of radioactivity in sewage sludge at a processing plant. The information was not released, because—gosh, some people might be upset and worried, when there was simply no reason to worry.

    They decide what you need to know, and then tell you. They are the parent. You are the child. Those who complain that we need more information or are being kept in the dark are merely spoiled children. That’s the attitude.

    It’s an elitism that invites nondisclosure, even when disclosure would have been better. Knowledge is fallible. Science is fallible. Without submitting ourself to a process that vets ideas in an open forum, bias always takes over. That’s why openness is preferred.

    The idea that the government has been completely open with information or that TEPCO has been open and forthcoming is simply not an idea that can be seriously entertained. There are simply too many obvious counterexamples. However, this is probably a serious institutional problem and not anything sinister.

  15. The Yomiuri article refers to a regrettable Tokyo government decision. Can you list some of the obvious counterexamples of the central government not being open with information?

  16. Visit:
    http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/

    I would challenge you to find a single day in which some information hasn’t come out that should have been released already.

    I don’t doubt that for you, M-Bone, each and everyone of these are simply unfortunate misunderstandings and mistakes.

    All swans are white.
    But here is a black one.
    No, that’s a dirty swan.
    But I washed it.
    The soap you used caused it to be dirty.
    ... and so on.

    If you think the government is being efficient and completely open in the manner and timing in which it releases reports, then at this point I can’t imagine anything persuading you differently.

    Again, though this is an institutional problem. Elites simply think it’s in people’s best interest to get only what they give them. However, such an attitude feeds bias.

  17. Let’s examine one of the more shocking claims made on that blog.

    On June 4, the author wrote:
    “Last time, the Ministry put out on May 10 the WSPEEDI simulation done on March 25. That simulation, if disclosed in a timely manner, may have prevented many, many children from developing thyroid cancer in the future.”

    This is a key claim: government inaction may cause many, many deaths or serious illnesses.

    Here, the author refers to what was reported under “Ministry of Education Quietly Released WSPEEDI Simulation, It Shows Very High Organ Dose of Iodine-131 for Infants in Wide Area” on Sunday, May 22.

    The author makes an accusation alleging what sounds like a criminal conspiracy to hide data: “So this is what TPTB wanted to hide at all cost, and released in a sneaky fashion after 2 months, and it’s only about iodine-131 whose half life is 8 days.”

    If this were true, someone should go to jail.

    The author is technically correct – a WSPEEDI I-131 map was not released until well over a month after the fact. Framing it in the way that he/she does, however, is an irresponsible misrepresentation of what was actually going on, ending with an accusation that the Japanese government concealed information that could have prevented a mass thyroid cancer outbreak.

    Let’s consider the fundamental “hide at all cost” premise.

    Check Link A in the next post for a chronology of IAEA updates (spam filter sometimes eats links).

    The Japanese government was cooperating with the IAEA to release I-131 deposition levels from March 17.

    IAEA was taking independent measures as of the 18th.

    “As mentioned yesterday, regular dose rate information is now being received from 47 Japanese cities. Dose rates in Tokyo and other cities remain far from levels which would require action – in other words they are not dangerous to human health. First measurements in Tokyo by the Agency’s newly arrived radiation monitoring team today showed no indication of Iodine-131 or Caesium-137. A second sampling will be carried out overnight.”

    Rates of I-131 deposition quickly changed, however. Nobody concealed this.

    Here is a compilation of all kinds of data for Iodine-131 and CS-137 released by the Japanese government and IAEA on March 22 that is totally consistent with the data that the blogger states was being hidden: see Link B below.

    The data was available, international experts sounded in, and sources like the IAEA as well as independent scientists at the journals “Science” and “Nature” were manifestly not talking about many, many children developing thyroid cancer or widespread health impacts in Tokyo – two emotive images that do not fit with the available data in the second and third week of the crisis.

    The blogger writes: “No WSPEEDI data from the earlier days, nor after March 25.” This is true, but how relevant is this? I would say not very. The author makes a blanket statement about “no WSPEEDI data”, but this is just for I-131 deposition, as mSv exposure level graphs were constantly being released. In addition, while the author is using WSPEEDI I-131 data as his/her fundamental disclosure demand for the Japanese government, the fact that the Japanese government was releasing DAILY I-131 deposition measures for Tokyo is not mentioned. Data here for the first 10 days of April (I use this example because of a rather scary spike at that time that was widely reported): See Link C below.

    The author seems to be poorly informed about what WSPEEDI actually is. It is a system that correlates radiation release data with air currents and topography. It itself does not “read” radiation. Data input is needed and if the government was directly releasing figures for daily, I-131 deposition in SHINJUKU, as well as dozens of other centers, why be hung up on WSPEEDI? Criticize the Japanese government for not releasing the map, sure, but criticize the blogger for not mentioning that the map is largely irrelevant if the data components of the map were being released daily.

    Here we effectively have one marginal document being turned into a conspiracy that will cause many, many thyroid cancers. This is just plain irresponsible and fits with the tone of much online accusation – poor grasp of what was released and when, poor grasp of science, a blind rush for any alternative doomsaying, and so on.

    The important public health moment for Tokyo relating to I-131 was the Japanese government ringing alarm bells for its presence in drinking water, which seems to have been prudent.

    That blog is doing a great job of following various TEPCO nonsense, but accusing the Japanese government of an I-131 cover-up based on a late released chart of far earlier released information is either a simple attempt to defame or shows that the author is ill-informed about precisely what information was available at different points.

    This is important, especially if it is going to come with allegations of hidden data being a harbinger of widespread public health effects.

    I picked apart one example that I thought was particularly dramatic and do not have the time to take on others. I feel that I have shown, however, that what is widely reported as sneaky non-disclosure (the I-131 point having been taken up on dozens of blogs) can be very misleading.

  18. BTW, I don’t think that the Japanese government has done a particularly good job. There is plenty to criticize about the handling of things IN Fukushima especially. The internet meme of public health effects in Tokyo being covered up, however, in my opinion just distracts from important discussions. The Japanese left seems, once again, to be well on its way to conspiracy theory-ing its way out of potentially profitable policy debates. People need to go to the Japanese government with “this is what we needed to know, this is when we needed to know it, and this is a system / institution / network / mandate for outside vetting that could provide that information if this happens again.” Just saying “you LIED” about information that was being provided is the same old recipe for self-marginalization.

  19. I just don’t think it’s controversial to say the release of information has been clumsy and not at all timely. There is certainly room to fuel suspicion, and so people are welcome to theorize as they wish. I have no interest in offering people public relations advice on how anyone should frame their ideas.

    As far as radiation, the effects of low level radiation are simply not well known. The best source of data would have been Chernobyl, I suppose, but there simply wasn’t good documentation here for a variety of reasons. How much or how little cancer came about as a result of fallout depends on whom you ask. Predictably as we stare into the ambiguous blob of data, those who support nuclear energy see that actually things weren’t so bad at all, but those who worry over nuclear energy see cancer everywhere. Sadly, no clear picture emerged.

    There are those who argue low levels of radiation might actually be good for you. I take this as a serious idea and don’t discount it. However, the current leading theory is still the linear model. The linear model basically suggests that any level of radiation increases the risk of cancer. If radiation goes up, your chances of cancer go up. If you are dealing with large numbers, then it’s easy to imagine an impact on public health.

    Clearly, it will take decades before we can make an fair assessment of what the health impact has been. I do think data collection will be much better than it was in Chernobyl, and so I expect a clearer picture to arise—much better than the ambiguous blob of data we got from Chernobyl.

    People have a right to be worried and concerned, because we’re dealing with an unknown. We simply lack the data that would make it possible for anyone to make a responsible judgement about what level of radiation is safe. Three things confound this as well,

    1. Uneven distribution.
    2. Radiation via particles that go into the body not just external radiation.
    3. Radiation taken in via the food chain. (Such that even if you are far from the source, it might have some type of impact you.)

    It’s clear that the governments continuing response here could be much, much worse. But it’s also clear, it could be a lot better.

    I think characteristic of the unknown factor here, you see a lot of polarized opinions as to how to respond. As I have children, the more criticism I see of what’s going on, and the greater push there is for caution, the more secure I feel.

  20. We’re definitely on the same side here – I just think that we need to be just as critical of alternative positions offered online as we do of government. Perhaps more so as demanding accuracy in one’s own part of the public sphere counts for a lot more than poking at government indirectly.

    My concern about Fukushima blogging and allegations of a cover up is, I think, well founded. When you Google “Fukushima cover up” you get a zinger from the early days of the crisis “40 YEARS OF SPENT NUCLEAR RODS BLOWN SKY HIGH” – which, of course, was dangerous nonsense.

    In addition, the problem of government inaccuracy tilted the other way at a few points – there was a dramatic overestimation of radiation in waste water in late March that was a real holy crap moment for me (I can provide a link if needed). None of the conspiracy narratives have factored in points like this one.

    “Sadly, no clear picture emerged.”

    You’re absolutely correct. The incompetence here, however, is certainly shared with the anti-nuclear side as vetting and concise public health advice was slow and released in a spotty and seldom coherent manner.

    “People have a right to be worried and concerned, because we’re dealing with an unknown.”

    Another area of Chernobyl data should be considered, however, and that is a large rise in suicide, stress related illnesses, alcoholism and drug abuse, etc. among evacuated populations. This point has been abused by those who would downplay radiation impacts, but it should be taken seriously nonetheless, not as an excuse to hide data, but as a part of a multi-dimensional public health problem which has to include stress and the impact of displacement.

    “We simply lack the data that would make it possible for anyone to make a responsible judgement about what level of radiation is safe.”

    We don’t just lack the data, we lack a scientific consensus on the health effects of low levels of radiation. There won’t be any certainty. The scientific consensus, however, holds that Tokyo will not see measurable effects and that appropriate I-131 countermeasures were taken by the Japanese government.

    You’ll note, however, that initial disagreement was not over government incompetence and, in some areas, a lack of effective collection of data. It was over the government hiding data. Hiding data would be criminal and I think that we have to be very, very careful with that distinction.

    “the more criticism I see of what’s going on, and the greater push there is for caution”

    I want to see more people gathering alternative data, independent watchdogs, and so on. What concerns me about the conspiracy theory turn seen in some sources like the blog that we were discussing, however, is that they are heavy on insinuations, light on alternatives. We need more alternatives, but they won’t come from simply tearing down what the Japanese government has done.

  21. Hello! I found your blog via the Japan Blog List and I have a question for you.

    As I am moving to Japan in the coming months I am making a list of places to go and things to do while in Japan. I would like to make a similar list for my blog featuring other Japan bloggers.

    All I ask of you is to send a paragraph (or more if you’d like) explaining your favorite part of Japan and why, maybe include a picture of it if you’d like. Just send me an email at kaleyjapan@gmail.com with your reply (or questions) and I’d love to feature you!

    Thanks, I look forward to hearing from you!

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