Japan’s Disastrous “Safety Myth”: Ignoring the Lessons of Minor Nuclear Incidents

Nippon.com | Sassa Atsuyuki | 30 April 2015



By denying the existence of risk, the myth of absolute safety, associated particularly with the nuclear power industry, has hampered much-needed improvements in crisis management. Yet over the years before the Fukushima crisis in 2011, there were a number of warnings in the form of minor incidents that should have been heeded. These included the farcical events associated with the launch of the Mutsu nuclear-powered ship in 1974 and a fire at the Monju prototype fast-breeder reactor in 1995.

Crisis Management Issues Exposed in 1995

At the end of the twentieth century there was much discussion of atomic, biological, and chemical (ABC) crises. Add natural disaster, or D, to the list, and you get ABCD crises. Japan suffered all of these crises in the twentieth century. Indeed, Japan experienced all four types in 1995 alone.

The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake (D), which hit the Kansai area of western Japan in January 1995, was followed by the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in March, an act of biochemical terrorism (B, C) perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyō cult. And although minor by comparison with the 1999 accident at Tōkaimura, which resulted in two deaths, and the 2011 crisis at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, there was also an atomic incident (A) in December when a sodium leak in the cooling system caused a fire at the Monju fast-breeder reactor in Fukui Prefecture.

As a result, the problems in Japan’s state-level crisis management became apparent in 1995. Unfortunately, however, no subsequent improvements were made based on the lessons of that year.

Fukushima Disaster Could Have Been Prevented

What exactly were the lessons of 1995? The first thing to note is that until then both the Japanese government and people had relied on the myth of absolute safety and had never considered coming face-to-face with a worst-case scenario. This became obvious in each and every one of the crises. Naturally, alarm bells were sounded in various quarters, but government offices in particular had established systems and proceeded generally based on the assumptions of the safety myth. It was taboo, at least internally, to call these assumptions into question.

Although the successive crises of 1995 flatly contradicted the safety myth, there were no later moves to construct a crisis management system allowing for the possibility of risk. A number of sectors continued to shelter under the umbrella of the safety myth, refusing to face up to reality.

The biggest offender was the nuclear industry. If it had learned from past accidents, freed itself from the myth of absolute safety, and taken reasonable countermeasures, the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, caused by the 2011 tsunami, might not have taken place. And that is not all. It was the nuclear industry’s continued stubborn insistence on the safety myth that triggered the extreme reaction in public opinion against nuclear power after the accident.

Establishment of the Safety Myth

As the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had created a strong aversion to anything nuclear among the Japanese people, the government’s basic nuclear policy was first to establish that use for peaceful purposes was acceptable through the Atomic Energy Basic Act of 1955 and then to defend this principle through the safety myth. Citizens were misled into believing that nuclear power was not at all dangerous, and any dissenting claims were denied. One might say that policymakers refused to consider safety measures to an almost extreme degree and put the question of nuclear crisis management entirely off-limits. This was their unscientific approach. As crisis management experts, we warned them several times, but they did not change their basic stance. For this reason, I think that successive Liberal Democratic Party administrations bear heavy responsibility.

The first time it became clear that the Japanese government and nuclear industry were not prepared to meet a crisis was in 1974 during the failed test voyage of the Mutsu nuclear ship. At the time I was security division chief at the National Police Agency, so I was able to observe all of the turmoil from behind the scenes.

Sticky Rice Farce

Locals mounted extraordinary opposition when the nuclear ship was to set out from its home port of Ōminato in Mutsu, Aomori Prefecture. They protested vigorously that pollution from the ship would harm rich scallop fishing grounds in the area, although there was no scientific evidence to back this claim. The lively demonstration developed a festive atmosphere, with the fishermen all drinking to the point where virtually all of the bottles of sake in the local liquor shops were sold out. Then, fortified by alcohol, the fishermen attached themselves to the Mutsu anchor with rope and lined up their boats in front of the bow of the vessel so that it could not leave port.

As a typhoon approached, the Mutsu took the opportunity to break through a gap in the blockade. Once in the open sea, testers began a controlled nuclear reaction. The Japan Nuclear Ship Development Agency, which was leading the experiment, and the Science and Technology Agency were brimming with self-confidence. However, a design flaw in the radiation shielding for the reactor resulted in a minor leak. Early failures are standard in the world of technological development, and if the testers had adopted some common-sense countermeasures, they could have dealt with the problem. In this case, all that was needed was to cover the radiation leak with lead plating. But the experimenters on the Mutsu had assumed there would be no technical problems, and they were not prepared for anything going wrong.

As the Mutsu wandered in the ocean, in want of other options, the experimenters tried to plug the leak using borates, to absorb the neutrons, mixed with sticky rice intended for the evening meal! At first they tried throwing it, as nobody wanted to approach the problem area. As might be expected, this did not work well, so low-ranking researchers were selected to block the leak by hand. It is said that they performed the ceremony of drinking farewell cups of water in case they did not survive. Considering that these were people involved in nuclear power development, it was a pathetic state of affairs.

The Telephone That Did Not Ring

Obviously the planners had shown a lack of foresight in failing to consider worst-case scenarios. But this was not the only problem. The overconfident belief that accidents were impossible also meant that the Mutsu was full of media representatives, who gave detailed accounts of the farcical events onboard, turning the affair into a completely unnecessary circus.

When the radiation leak occurred, I was in the office of Moriyama Kinji, then director general of the STA. The protests had been so fierce that the Maritime Safety Agency was unable to deal with them, and the ministers in charge had decided to dispatch Aomori Prefecture riot police and a Tōhoku chemical emergency team and to treat events as a police matter. That was why I was in Moriyama’s office representing the National Public Safety Commission.

There were around 10 telephones on his desk, including one that was red. He said to me, “Sassa, do you know what this phone is for?” “I don’t know,” I replied. “Is it to call the fire service or something like that?” “No,” he said. “This connects directly to the captain of the Mutsu. If there are any problems, the first report will come to me. And then we can think about how to handle whatever it is.” When I asked him later what happened with the direct line, he told me that it never rang. It was pathetic. The first reports of the accident came from the television news, before either the STA , the supervisory body, or the police knew anything about it.

Buying Silence

The Mutsu was refused reentry into Ōminato port, the site of the original demonstrations. As other ports understandably followed suit, the ship continued to drift in the sea, sparking unrest among dock workers and fishermen wherever it went. As security division chief, I remember being suddenly rushed off my feet because I had to dispatch a police unit each time this happened.

It was a disgraceful situation in which all the fishing cooperatives were demanding compensation. Kanemaru Shin, chair of the LDP’s General Council, dealt with it through blatant pork-barrel politics, throwing money at the fishing industry in an attempt to silence it. But there was no end to the demands from fishery representatives; they wanted the Mutsu to be scrapped and all related port facilities, including the designated quay, to be destroyed and returned to how they were before.

Despite this great commotion, however, the government’s nuclear power administrators made no attempts to step up crisis management, such as laying in specially equipped vehicles for emergencies or conducting general checks for defects at all nuclear facilities. The mist of the safety myth descended once again, obscuring any possibility of an accident. That was the outcome of the Mutsu episode.

People Not Responsible?

The STA continued to oversee the development of nuclear power, but it was incapable of handling serious incidents (jiken) and accidents (jiko) at nuclear facilities. For one thing, it had no designated teams to do so. And, given the nature of the agency, it had no concept of “incidents” or “accidents.”

This was vividly apparent after the December 1995 fire at the Monju fast-breeder reactor, caused by a leak of molten sodium. At a press conference, a councillor of the STA sparked an uproar when he talked about the jishō (“occurrence” or “phenomenon”) at Monju. “What do you mean, ‘occurrence’?” one reporter pressed. “You should call it an ‘incident’ or an ‘accident.’” But the councillor battled gamely on: “This is classed as an occurrence under the STA’s rules. An accident that causes injury or death is an incident, and if a machine had broken down or been destroyed by fire, that would have been an accident. But a sodium leak is considered to be an occurrence and not an incident or accident.”

While I was listening to that explanation, I just kept thinking how idiotic it was. Shortly after, I made the point in newspapers and on television that it was inappropriate to use the word jishō, which put a sodium fire in the same class as natural phenomena like storms and thunder. It was akin to saying that people were not responsible. If the STA’s internal rules treated a sodium fire at a nuclear plant in the same way as they did storms or thunder, the agency needed to change its rules.

Later I received a long handwritten letter from the councillor who had spoken at the press conference. It showed a strange persistence in trying to justify the description, asking if I had read the internal rules and stating that the word used was fine because it was written like that in the rules.

A Lone Questioning Voice

Tanaka Makiko was director general of the STA when the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake struck less than a year before the Monju accident. She provided a lone voice to question whether nuclear plants really were totally prepared to withstand earthquakes and suggested carrying out surveys. But fearing that such surveys might stir rumors that nuclear plants were indeed vulnerable, thus fueling the antinuclear movement, all local authorities chorused that “there was no chance of a threat from earthquakes.” This line was also supported by the cabinet.

There should have been thorough earthquake preparedness surveys at nuclear plants. If they had been properly implemented, there is a strong chance that the accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on March 11, 2011, might have been prevented.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *