Did Japan Come Close to Widespread Nuclear Disaster?

News and commentary about environmental issues.
March 1 2012 4:55 PM

The Fukushima Question

How close did Japan really get to a widespread nuclear disaster?

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The crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima prefecture as of February 2012.

Issei Kato/Getty Images.

With an eye to the first anniversary of the tsunami that killed 20,000 people and caused a partial meltdown at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, a recently formed nongovernmental organization called Rebuild Japan released a report earlier this week on the nuclear incident to alarming media coverage.

"Japan Weighed Evacuating Tokyo in Nuclear Crisis," screamed the New York Times headline, above an article by Martin Fackler that claimed, "Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis than the one that engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant."

The larger crisis was a worst-case scenario imagined by Japanese government officials dealing with the situation. If workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were evacuated, Fackler writes, some worried "[t]his would have allowed the plant to spiral out of control, releasing even larger amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere that would in turn force the evacuation of other nearby nuclear plants, causing further meltdowns."

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Fackler quotes former newspaper editor and founder of Rebuild Japan Yoichi Funabashi as saying, "We barely avoided the worst-case scenario, though the public didn’t know it at the time."

To say that Japan "barely avoided" what another top official called a "demonic chain reaction" of plant meltdowns and the evacuation of Tokyo is to make an extraordinary claim. One shudders at the thought of the hardship, suffering, and accidents that would almost certainly have resulted from any attempt to evacuate a metropolitan area of 30 million people. The Rebuild Japan report has not yet been released to the public, but there is reason to doubt that Japan was anywhere close to executing this nightmare contingency plan.

The same day the New York Times published its story, PBS broadcast a Frontline documentary about the Fukushima meltdown that invites a somewhat different interpretation. In an interview conducted for that program, then-Prime  Minister Naoto Kan suggests that the fear of cascading plant failures was nothing more than panicked speculation among some of his advisers. "I asked many associates to make forecasts," Kan explained to PBS, "and one such forecast was a worst-case scenario. But that scenario was just something that was possible, it didn’t mean that it seemed likely to happen."

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