NAIIC Report on Fukushima: Lessons Learned & Next Steps Forward

October 17, 2012

Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, former Chairman, National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC, December 2011-July 2012); Academic Fellow, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS); Chairman, Health and Global Policy Institute; Professor Emeritus, University of Tokyo

Daniel Bases
, Correspondent, Thomson Reuters

On October 17, 2012, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, MD, a physician and former professor of medicine who served as founding Chairman of the Diet's Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), visited Japan Society to talk about the causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and how Japan can make its nuclear power systems safer for the future.

Fukushima "was a huge shock to the world," Dr. Kurokawa said. Having this happen in Japan, a major economic power with great expertise in science, technology and engineering, shook the confidence of international observers in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, among other nations, sparking major changes in national policy on nuclear energy. How had this happened? What could be done to prevent future disasters, and what did this mean for the future of nuclear energy?

The Japanese government's daily briefings in the early days and weeks after March 11 weren't reassuring. "Everybody thought they were saying almost nothing about the facts," Dr. Kurokawa said. And "no business leaders ever commented in public on TEPCO's press briefings." Major Japanese media and "nuclear experts" were losing trust, too. Before long, "the entire 'Japan Inc.' began to lose the trust of the global community."

Dr. Kurokawa delivered a paper to the prime minister urging that an independent international task force be set up to investigate the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, even though Japan had never done this before. He also appealed several times to lawmakers.

"Consider Europe's handling of the mad cow disease crisis involving UK beef, which was a matter of global relevance," Dr. Kurokawa told a group of Diet members. The EU—not the UK—organized an independent study panel (at that time the UK government thought it unlikely that mad cow disease was unlikely to occur in humans, thus a few years later they lost public trust). Its members "worked very hard and they invited even non-EU experts and implemented a series of commission hearings and research. The results, with minority opinions, were posted on their website, and they submitted a series of reports to the UK government." The UK government followed through, but even so, a total of 20 years passed before UK beef was allowed back in the export markets since the time when mad cow was first found. "So, once trust is lost it takes many years, diligent work and transparency [to restore it] in this time and this kind of connected Wiki world, " Dr. Kurokawa said.

The NAIIC Investigation
In September 2011, six months after the Fukushima accident, the Diet passed legislation to create a 10-member independent commission which officially launched on December 8. Dr. Kurokawa was asked to chair the group. Their task was to investigate the causes of the accident, both direct and indirect. The law gave them six months to complete their work and report on their findings.

It was "mission impossible," Dr. Kurokawa said in the first press briefing of December 8.

The NAIIC had the 10 commissioners plus six parliamentary staff members, none of them knowledgeable about nuclear energy. The commissioners managed to recruit additional staff with the required expertise, but most worked only part time.

Dr. Kurokawa's first concern was the Commission's information security. Everyone was issued a laptop and a mobile phone with the higher level of security, their use to be strictly siloed: all Commission work would be done on these devices, without exception, and they would be used only for Commission work.

His next big issue was transparency. After an initial organizational meeting in Fukushima City during a two-day visit to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant site, adjacent towns, evacuee transient housing and decontamination sites, all Commission meetings were opened to the public and press and also made available online, and all had (except for the first meeting) simultaneous English translations.

Early on, the commissioners visited Fukushima to see the site and some of the evacuation and decontamination areas first hand; in all, a total of nine nuclear power plant visits and three visits abroad were made. Nine hundred hours of hearings were held, involving the testimony of over 1,000 people.

Three teams made oversea visits. Dr. Kurokawa led a team on visits to Washington, DC, GE Nuclear HQ in Wilmington, NC and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's training center in Chattanooga, TN. The Commission surveyed more than 20,000 evacuees by questionnaire. They interviewed many onsite workers, received questionnaires from more than 2,000 workers and conducted town meetings with evacuees in three different municipalities.

Cooperation from TEPCO officials was mixed. They balked at giving the Commission materials that they viewed as confidential, citing TEPCO's status as a private company. Their attitude softened when a storm of criticism greeted the revelation—which took place at a NAIIC meeting—that during a visit to the company HQ by Prime Minister Naoto Kan TEPCO had somehow failed to record in its videotaping records the voices of those speaking during one particular segment of the video. "Then, TEPCO was forced to allow the media to come. So, that transparency and openness really helped to make the change."

Conclusions: "A Real Manmade Disaster"
"In the end, I think we documented that this was a real manmade disaster," Dr. Kurokawa said.

At METI, at TEPCO, perhaps at the manufacturers too, "every responsible person knew" about the added safeguards adopted by the U.S., France, the UK, and elsewhere following various nuclear accidents within their borders. They all knew what practices the IAEA recommended. But they failed to force the industry to implement them.

This was "Regulatory Capture," Dr. Kurokawa declared. The industry "has more information, more expertise" than government, so much so that its private interests "somehow... are just embracing government. Or [it is] failure of the government."

The NAIIC addressed the argument, advanced by some analysts, that the Fukushima plant would have held up against the earthquake, and failed simply because the tsunami was huge beyond precedent. Fukushima's earthquake protections were more than adequate, these observers said.

This reasoning is flawed, Dr. Kurokawa said. The NAIIC found "very suggestive evidence," albeit not conclusive, that electric power at the oldest Fukushima plant, the number one plant, may have been knocked out by the earthquake before the tsunami hit the plant. So even if the tsunami had been minor, a nuclear accident might well have happened anyway. Fukushima's lessons on earthquake risks must be taken seriously in that earthquakes of significant magnitudes, e.g., greater than 4, hit Japan more often than the rest of the world and Japan has more than 50 nuclear plants.

NAIIC Recommendations on Structural Reforms
The NAIIC's final recommendations included a number of structural reforms, Dr. Kurokawa explained.

• The job of monitoring the nuclear regulatory body should be given to the Diet. The potential for conflicts of interest when the administrative arm of government serves as both watchdog and industry promoter undermines the mission of keeping the system safe, and is unacceptable.

• Japan's crisis management system must be reformed, and government responsibility for public health and welfare clarified.

• Criteria for the new, legislative-branch regulatory body must be developed, and "the legislature should have certain authority" to monitor TEPCO.

• Laws relating to nuclear energy have to be revised, and a system of independent investigation commissions established.

In his foreword to the NAIIC report, Dr. Kurokawa noted, he chose to reflect on lessons offered by Kanichi Asakawa, a brilliant scholar of history and international relations who was born and brought up in Fukushima Prefecture toward the end of the 19th century.

Asakawa studied at an institution that later became Waseda University, and then at Dartmouth College. He earned a PhD in History at Yale University, where he also taught for many years as a professor. His book, Crisis of Japan, offered a strenuous and prescient critique of Japan's activities in Manchuria around the turn of the century after Japan's victory over Russia. "Just listen to me, because I see Japan is doing something wrong," Asakawa wrote. Unless Japan changes her existing policy in Manchuria, "eventually Japan will get in[to a conflict] with China and America [which] is one that you are going to lose for certain."

Asakawa's warning is in parallel with the core message of the NAIIC report, Dr. Kurokawa said. "Many of you may have been in the U.S. and you can see how Japan is viewed by foreign countries in the bigger picture. Therefore, you become very concerned about why Japan is not changing and adapting in this global world. That's the same thing."

The NAIIC report's "made in Japan" theme has generated "a lot of uproar," he acknowledged. Yet we must understand that the rigid social hierarchies that laid the foundation for the Fukushima disaster are in fact unique to Japan. They're not found elsewhere in the world, including elsewhere in Asia.

To achieve success in Japan even now, it's not enough to work hard, "you have to study harder in high school and get to the University of Tokyo Law School," then land a position at the Ministry of Finance or at a big company like TEPCO, then climb a single track, hierarchical ladder where progress, year by year, is predetermined.

"Somehow we have to create a better, more functional democracy, watching and suppressing each other's power among the three branches of the democracy, i.e., the legislative, administrative and judicial branches," Dr. Kurokawa concluded.

Since Three Mile Island and over the past three decades, "the U.S. has been trying to make the nuclear regulatory authority and utility companies that operate nuclear plants each do their best to at least respond, accountably and transparently, to the people for changes in the social and world environs." Their efforts don't always succeed, but the approach has great merit. "There are always certain [elements of] regulatory capture--bribes, economics and power, and everything is politics, of course. But at least we have to build a better governance of the administrative and legislative arms."

"That's you, people of Japan. Each one of you has to try to recognize that this is a process of democracy."


The Q&A began with questions from the presider, Daniel Bases of Thomson Reuters:

You were pretty forthcoming in your report. You said "a multitude of errors and willful negligence." What was the most surprising finding from this investigation?

It was a shock to hear the answer to a simple question: "'Where is the spent fuel?' It was completely exposed and not protected," Dr. Kurokawa said. It was a shock in the U.S. too, after 9/11, to learn that there's spent fuel that is unprotected at every nuclear plant. "I think that not many people know this, except the experts in the field... This is a very easy target for terrorists."

Has Japanese society taken to heart the lessons of the disaster, beyond the humanitarian aspects that it has so clearly embraced?

"I'm not so sure," he replied. There's one grassroots development that may signal change. Starting last summer, groups of people have held quiet demonstrations across from the prime minister's office every Friday at 6 pm. Often whole families are present with children; the atmosphere is almost like a picnic. Could it be a sign of change? One journalist thinks yes, because it shows "they are willing to protest to the authority."

Audience members posed their own questions:

Can ratings be assigned to each facility showing how safe they are?

"I suggested the rating issue for each nuclear plant when we called the head of NISA (Nuclear and Industry Safety Agency)—the government body that regulates nuclear operating companies," Dr. Kurokawa said. Having data about the reactor models, records of operation, locations, earthquake histories and other natural disasters, and rankings on which of the existing 50 plants are the safest, will make the public feel less anxious about having some of them reopened.

The NISA official's response can be seen in a video of the interview posted on the NAIIC website, he added drily. "We are not making any judgments. The people of Japan and the world can see our session to judge."

You call it a manmade disaster. Does this mean you believe it's manageable to have nuclear plants in Japan?

"Yes. If you change the mindset," Dr. Kurokawa advised. Think outside the box; have more outside directors, more women and non-Japanese board members; create more transparency, which "is the foundation of trust" in any organization and even any nation in this connected Wiki world.

—Written by Katherine Hyde, with revisions and additions by the speaker

Topics:  Business, Policy

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