To Return to Japan or Not to Return: That is the Question

On March 15th I wrote about my decision to leave Tokyo. One of my main concerns at the time was that decision-making pertaining to the six overheating nuclear reactors at the Daiichi Fukushima nuclear facility would be too slow. Given that decision-making in Japan is nearly always done by consensus, the time that would be required to form a consensus among various decision-makers would undoubtedly be too long to control the problems resulting from the earthquake and tsunamiu quickly. Time is not a luxury in any crisis, let alone one with the potential for radiation release.

Officials at the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the various government and regulatory agencies did indeed lose valuable time creating and implementing a plan as the nuclear reactors overheated. On March 19th Bloomberg reported that TEPCO considered using seawater to cool one of its six reactors at least as early as the day after the quake struck (on March 12th), but did not do so until Prime Minister Kan ordered it. Valuable time was lost. Additionally, and as reported on March 21st by the Wall Street Journal, crucial efforts to tame the crippled plant were delayed by TEPCO's concerns over "damaging valuable power assets" and by initial passivity on the part of the government.

I knew that since many Japanese tend to respond reactively (not proactively) to unfolding events, any effort devoted to thinking ahead regarding "worst case" scenarios would likely be insufficient. Even armed with ample time, no one involved with tsunami projections factored in any earthquake larger than 7.5 magnitude. The New York Times reported on March 26th that Japanese earthquake specialists "...failed to make use of advances in seismology and risk assessment since the 1970s...," adding that, "...over the decades, preparedness against tsunamis never became a priority for Japan's power companies or nuclear regulators..." I would be surprised to learn that anyone even considered the possibility of failure of all six reactors, let alone what to do in such a case.

I also had great concern, as noted on March 15th, that TEPCO would control what information would be released regarding the state of the six reactors. It is now well known that TEPCO experienced safety violations and deliberately deceived the government and public over several decades. In 1978, control rods at one Fukushima reactor dislodged, but the accident was not reported because utilities were not required to notify the government of such accidents. In 2006, TEPCO reported that a negligible amount of radioactive steam seeped from the Fukushima plant -- and blew beyond the compound. As we have seen with this current incident, information fed to the government, the media, and ultimately to the public, was arguably selective and not in the public's best interests. The Wall Street Journal also reported on March 21st that Japanese military forces did not move in to assist at Fukushima until requested to do so by TEPCO. So it certainly seems TEPCO not only controlled information flow, but to some extent the actions of the government and military as well.

As I feared two weeks ago, when I left Japan, my concerns about what could unfold has thus far happened, and with dire consequences. On March 26th, the Japanese government revealed a series of missteps by TEPCO including sending workers into the reactors without protective footwear, in its faltering efforts to control the crisis. Government spokesman Yukio Edano said, "We strongly urge TEPCO to provide information to the government more promptly," That may seem like a mild admonishment, but in Japan speak that kind of statement is a real tongue-lashing.

On March 27th, workers inside reactor No.2 reportedly fled when readings showed radiation levels had reached 10 million times higher than normal in the reactor's cooling system. Officials said the readings were so high that the worker taking the measurements had withdrawn before taking a second reading. Hours later, TEPCO spokesman Takashi Kurita later disputed this and told reporters, "The number is not credible. We are very sorry." So, not only does TEPCO control information coming from inside the reactors, some of the information released is not credible.

Given all this, in considering whether or not to return to Tokyo, I plan to stay put in the USA. Once I have more confidence that the information flow from Japan was credible, I will perhaps reconsider. My guess is that the situation will not be under control for weeks to come. In all likelihood, Fukushima may turn out to be the worst nuclear crisis in history -- by a long shot. The end game is potentially entombing all the reactors, which may take weeks to achieve once a decision to do so is made. In the interim, we can expect more contradictory information to flow from Japan.

David Wagner is Director of Crisis Communications for Country Risk Solutions in Connecticut. He has lived and worked in Japan for 25 years.