international analysis and commentary

The inevitable confusion – despite Japan’s resilience

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Thank goodness it happened in Japan. It’s not nice to say out loud, but many of us secretly let this thought cross our minds as a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and a 30-foot tsunami crushed coastal cities killing thousands. It was faith and admiration in Japan’s organized, well-equipped and efficient approach to things that made some of us reflect: better in Japan, than in a country like Haiti, where one year after a 7.0 quake hit near Port-au-Prince only 5% of rubble had been cleared and one million people were still displaced – despite the reassuring presence of international relief workers and millions of dollars in aid.

That kind of positive consideration of Japan took place on March 11 when the Japanese government calmly and quickly launched a massive rescue mission mobilizing 40 ships and 300 planes. Television images showed thousands of workers immediately showering over crushed neighborhoods looking for the injured. The Japanese people obediently lined up waiting for transportation and supplies. There were no riots, no looters and despite the massive disaster, everything was under control as best it could be. The world went to bed that Friday night, knowing that the Japanese would save the day.

Then on March 12, Fukushima happened. There was the first explosion, the first fears of widespread contamination and the news that radiation levels were eight times that of normal levels outside Unit 1’s control room – and 1,000 times that of normal levels inside the control room.

Again, the Japanese eased fears by launching another super mission. They called for assistance, declared a 6.2-mile exclusion zone around the facility and calmly and openly explained that the cooling system was down and the reactor was at risk. By Sunday, the cooling system of a third reactor had failed, 160 people were hospitalized after being exposed to radiation and soon the domino effect began.

When the Americans arrived, things got confusing. Japan had upped the exclusion zone to 12 miles, but the Americans, showing much more alarm than their Japanese counterparts, immediately began telling their compatriots within 50 miles of the facility to evacuate. Nuclear experts began hinting that Unit 3 contained plutonium – reportedly the most dangerous ingredient of all – and images of helicopters desperately dumping seawater over Fukushima flashed across television sets around the world. The seawater, which was intended to cool the reactors, seemed to lightly blow away in the wind rather than pour down into the cooling pools. Viewers began wondering, where do those tons of seawater run-off to? How much radiation has really escaped into the air? What are the health and environmental effects of plutonium? Is the situation really under control?

Almost a week after the disaster, on March 17, the Japanese tried to calm these fears and spread hope by saying they were very close to bringing in electricity to revive the now infamous cooling pumps needed to prevent meltdown. I certainly believed them, as did many others who had faith in Japanese ingenuity and who were searching for a ray of light in all of the recent confusion.

However, the next day, March 18, a Reuters headline read, “Japan weighs need to bury nuclear plant”. And Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edanot reportedly admitted that the government was overwhelmed by the scale of the disasters and that its response to the nuclear crisis was slow, “The unprecedented scale of the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, frankly speaking, were among many things that happened that had not been anticipated under our disaster management contingency plans.”

Two days later electricity was restored to two of the reactors, two others were hooked up to generators, and news spread that the facility would indeed be shut down.

What become clear in all of this confusion was that the situation was not completely under control and that our faith in the Japanese, while not unfounded, was exaggerated. No management contingency plan in the world could have quickly resolved a double disaster of this caliber. It’s true that the Japanese tried to downplay the actual situation on the ground at Fukushima, but they also asked for more international assistance in stabilizing the situation and they reclassified the rating of the nuclear accident from a Level 4 to a Level 5 on the 7-level International Nuclear Event Scale. The Level 5 rating puts the Fukushima disaster on par with the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. The Chernobyl incident in 1986 was a Level 9. Edano even reportedly confessed to reporters on March 21 that “at the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough.”

Quick and efficient countries can drop the ball, they can downplay and they can even be downright wrong in their handlings of major disasters – Japan will not be the first to make mistakes. It happened under the Bush administration when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico. Then it happened again to the Obama administration during the BP oil spill disaster. 

Though many things aren’t clear in the Fukushima nuclear accident, like how much radiation has been released, it clear that the earthquake was one of the largest on world record. Add that the Fukushima plant is among Japan’s oldest. And some things are simply bigger than governments – Mother nature and nuclear power being among the first. When joined hand in hand, as happened at Fukushima, there will always be a chance that not even the Japanese can quickly save the day.