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."

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."

The authors of the Rebuild Japan report also spoke with Kan, along with about 300 others. According to the Times, these interviews turned up evidence that the Tokyo Electric Power Company was looking to abandon the teetering power plant, a plan that would have significantly worsened the crisis.

But was this ever really going to happen? Kan told PBS that his Cabinet members had said Tepco "wanted to withdraw," but adds that the company's CEO "would not say clearly [to Kan] that they wanted to withdraw, or that they wouldn’t withdraw." The producer of the Frontline documentary, Dan Edge, said in an interview posted to the PBS website that the Fukushima workers he interviewed said they were told on the evening of March 14 that there would be a complete evacuation, but then told the next morning that there would not be.

All this suggests there was significant confusion and indecision, and there is no question that what happened at Fukushima demands critical investigation and accountability. Whether or not Tepco mismanaged Fukushima after the tsunami hit, there is evidence that company officials had delayed upgrading the plant ahead of time and ignored the risk of a tsunami large enough to breech the seawall.

The Rebuild Japan report seems, on its face, to have been produced by a highly credible team of "30 university professors, lawyers and journalists." But even a seemingly legitimate study deserves a skeptical eye. Yet Fackler and the Times chose not to quote a single independent expert on nuclear energy besides Rebuild Japan's Funabashi. It should have been a red flag that Rebuild Japan gave its report to journalists a full week before releasing it to the public, which prevented outside experts from evaluating its claims. Another hint that the report merited a contrary opinion was the fact that it excluded any account from Tepco executives, who refused to be interviewed by Rebuild Japan investigators.

There's no question that the findings from the Rebuild Japan study merited coverage, but the Times might have shown more awareness of the fallacy of the worst-case scenario. "In any field of endeavor," wrote physicist Bernard Cohen in his classic 1990 study, The Nuclear Energy Option, "it is easy to concoct a possible accident scenario that is worse than anything that has been previously proposed." Cohen goes on to spin a scenario of a gasoline spill resulting in out-of-control fires, a disease epidemic, and, eventually, nuclear war.

Cohen concludes his fantastical thought experiment by saying, "I have frequently been told that the probability doesn't matter—the very fact that such an accident is possible makes nuclear power unacceptable. According to that way of thinking, we have shown that the use of gasoline is not acceptable, and almost any human activity can similarly be shown to be unacceptable. If probability didn't matter, we would all die tomorrow from any one of thousands of dangers we live with constantly."

It was perfectly reasonable for the Japanese authorities to have imagined and considered the very worst possible course of events in the aftermath of Fukushima meltdown. But it's a mistake to oversell the risks of such a scenario in hindsight. Yes, things could have turned out much worse—just as they could have turned out much better. As the Times and the rest of the news media cover the anniversary of the tsunami, they would do well to keep Cohen's warning in mind.

Ted Nordhaus is a co-author of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and co-founder of Breakthrough Institute.

Michael Shellenberger is a co-author of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and co-founder of Breakthrough Institute.