Official Fukushima Report Blames Japanese Culture, Not Nuclear Power

The government-tasked commission tackles regulators and officials, buts it also makes some unusual assumptions about the March 2011 disaster.

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Fukushima commission chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa uses a fan during the group's official meeting in Tokyo. (Reuters).

The Japanese government's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded, in a 641-page report released Thursday, that the March 11, 2011 nuclear incident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant was a "profoundly man-made disaster." The "enormous amount of radioactive material" that was emitted into the environment, the study found, was the result of human negligence, rather than a natural disaster or -- in the parlance of theologians and insurance adjustors -- an act of god. The Commission held 900 hours of hearings and interviewed 1,167 people, finding that the nuclear meltdown was avoidable. The Commission's conclusions leave the jarring implication that regulators believe there is a category of nuclear disaster that might be unavoidable. Americans might be especially concerned, because the chairman of our own Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggested Friday that Fukushima did not violate any American safety standards.

The event that immediate precipitated the meltdown was, of course, the earthquake. At a magnitude of 9.0, it was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and one of the most powerful earthquakes ever measured. It sent a tsunami, a 133-foot-tall wall of water, crashing onto the coast. Together, the trembling earth and thundering water killed over 15,000 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings. They also overwhelmed the Fukushima plant, triggering a still-disputed chain of events leading to the nuclear disaster.

The plant operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) claimed that its safety infrastructure survived the initial earthquake, succumbing only the subsequent tsunami. The Commission disagreed, finding that many crucial safety systems failed before the flood. Moreover, the Commission characterized TEPCO's explanation as "an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected (the tsunami) ... and not on the more foreseeable earthquake."

In other words, because TEPCO was supposed to plan for an earthquake, it would be culpable for damage the earthquake caused; if, however, the destruction were attributed to the tsunami, a rarer event, TEPCO wouldn't be found negligent. After all, the thinking goes, who can be held responsible for an unpredictable act of god?

Leaving aside the dubious assumption that a tsunami on the island of Japan was an unimaginable occurrence, for the hundreds of people exposed to high levels of radioactivity, or the thousands of people who have had to relocate from the contaminated area, the distinction is likely cold comfort anyway -- and it doesn't do much to help Japan avoid the next catastrophe.

"Was the accident preventable?" the report asks, before launching into a necessarily technical discussion of which engineering precautions were not, but should have been, employed. What the report misses in its careful scrutiny, though, is the common sense answer: of course the accident was preventable. If you don't want to risk nuclear disaster, don't build nuclear power plants. Or don't build them in areas susceptible to earthquakes as well as tsunamis that also happen to be not too far from densely populated areas.

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Andy Horowitz is a Ph.D. candidate in American History at Yale University.

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