Naoto Kan Government’s Handling of the Nuclear Crisis
Dr Vikash Ranjan

Much has been written about Kan government’s handling of the nuclear crisis which hit Japan in the wake of the earthquake and the resultant tsunami in early March this year. Two opinion polls conducted by Kyodo News agency in late March and late April show declining faith in PM’s leadership in handling of the crises. The opinion polls reflect increasing disapproval of Kan’s cabinet. In the late April poll when asked from respondents about their evaluation of Kan as the country's leader, 45.7 percent replied he is not exercising much leadership and 30.3 percent said he does not exercise leadership at all; only 1.3 percent said he does so sufficiently, and 21.0 percent said he wields leadership to some extent. This reflects a total of 76.0 percent think Prime Minister Naoto Kan is not exercising sufficient leadership in handling the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and responding to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, up from 63.7 percent in the previous survey in late March. The support rating for Kan's Cabinet dropped 1.5 points to 26.8 percent, and the disapproval rating rose 3.1 points to 58.7 percent. As for the handling of the nuclear crisis, 43.6 percent said they do not value the government's response to the nuclear crisis much and 27.0 percent said they do not approve of it at all; 25.9 percent said they approve of it to some extent and 1.8 percent said they do so very much. On the government's response to the handling of quake and tsunami, 12.4 percent respondents said that they do not value the relief measures taken by the government for people affected by the disasters and support for disaster-hit areas at all, while 39.9 percent said they do not value them much. The survey showed 41.1 percent said they approve of such efforts to some extent and 5.0 percent said they do so very much. This shows that 52.3% people do not value much about the government’s measures. The higher percentage of people responding in negative reflects poorly on Kan government’s handling of the crises. Among other criticisms, PM Kan has been accused of surrounding himself with newly appointed aides and advisers, sidelining experienced bureaucrats and causing confusion in a government already overwhelmed in the aftermath of the multiple disasters. Critics have also questioned prime minister’s increasingly top-down leadership style, as in the morning after the quake Mr. Kan flew by helicopter to the Fukushima complex, insisting that he need to directly assess the developing accident. The news media accused him of interfering with recovery efforts there, with some even suggesting that his arrival delayed crucial venting work at the plant.

Toshiso Kosako, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school, an expert on radiation exposure, resigned as government’s adviser over unsafe, slipshod measures taken by the government in the wake of the nuclear crisis. He criticized the government as lacking in transparency in disclosing radiation levels around the plant, and improperly raising the limit for radiation exposure for workers at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. In one of his most damaging charges, he criticized the government’s decision to allow children living near the crippled nuclear plant to receive 20 millisieverts doses of radiation a year, equal to the international standard for nuclear power plant workers. This level is far higher than international standards set for the public. In normal circumstances, the radiation limit for TEPCO plant workers are 100 millisieverts, over a period of five years, with no year exceeding the 50 millisieverts mark. This limit was raised to 250 millisieverts after the crisis.

The move of the government for increasing limits for children was also criticized by various NGOs, environmental groups, and parents, pointing out that children are more vulnerable to radiation than adults, and they called for lowering the limits. Physicians for Social Responsibility, a U.S. nonprofit organization of medical experts, have condemned the Japanese government's safety standards on radiation levels at elementary and junior high schools in nuclear disaster-stricken Fukushima Prefecture. They challenged Japanese government’s stance that it is safe for schoolchildren to use school playgrounds in the prefecture as long as the dose they are exposed to does not exceed 20 millisieverts over a year. According to the PSR any exposure, including exposure to naturally occurring background radiation, creates an increased risk of cancer. But, children are much more vulnerable than adults to the effects of radiation, and fetuses are even more vulnerable. Twenty millisieverts for children exposes them to a 1 in 200 risk of getting cancer, and if they are exposed to this dose for two years, the risk is 1 in 100. In their opinion this level of exposure in no way can be considered safe for children. The medical experts group is part of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

However, the science and education ministry and the Chief Cabinet Secretary have repeatedly defended the 20-millisievert limit for radiation exposure as safe. According to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, the government has just set the exposure limit at 3.8 microsieverts per hour for children using a school playground. This means that if a child stays outside on the playground for 8 hours a day for an entire year, the child's exposure could theoretically exceed 20 millisieverts, a scenario that is unlikely. But this argument of government falls in light of the fact that ‘if the schools have high levels of contamination, the rest of the towns and cities they are living are also likely to show high readings’. When criticized on these accounts the government claimed that it would not accept such levels indefinitely and would do everything in its power to bring down the levels to 1 millisievert. The Education and Science Ministry said the exposure level is too low to cause immediate health effects, but may raise the probability of developing cancer.

According to radiation specialists cumulative doses of 500 millisieverts raises the risk of cancer. Evidence is less clear on smaller amounts, but in theory, any increased radiation exposure raises the risk of cancer. Workers in the U.S. nuclear industry are allowed an upper limit of 50 millisieverts of radiation per year. A typical individual might absorb 6 millisieverts a year from natural and man-made sources such as X-rays.

Whatsoever may be the government’s response, the city of Koriyama, 35 miles away from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, has decided to remove topsoil at 15 elementary schools where radiation levels had been detected in excess of 3.8 microsieverts per hour. But, any decision about the levels of permissible exposure on the part of the government could force expensive soil cleanups, inflating the already staggering estimates of the money it will take to rebuild from the natural disasters, a figure already set at $310 billion. But it could also help determine how much land in this densely populated country is ruled uninhabitable. The calculus is complicated by the fears of farmers and fishermen in the region, who worry that continued talk of high radiation, will destroy consumers’ faith in their goods, and their livelihoods.

Though the radiation leak from the Fukushima power plant has all the makings of a man-made disaster, and the series of events that followed the quake has shed light on the weak emergency management capabilities of the government and private-sector firms. But, a close look at the nation's approach to nuclear plant safety shows how closely intertwined relationships between government regulators and industry have allowed a culture of complacency to prevail. This kind of willful ignorance was not unique within a sympathetic bureaucracy at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, as the agency performs multiple functions having conflicting goals. The ministry's promoter-regulator conflict makes Japan unusual among nuclear power-producing countries.

Japan has long supported major industries and the power utilities that run nuclear plants, who have direct access to regulators. Both regulator and regulated share an interest in promoting nuclear as a greenhouse gas-free energy source that reduces Japan's heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels. Regulator and regulated also share people. In the practice known as "amakudari" (descent from heaven), top government officials nearing the end of their careers land plum jobs within the industries they regulated, giving companies intimate familiarity with their overseers. Meanwhile, top industry officials are appointed to positions on policy-shaping government advisory panels. The United States split those two functions nearly four decades ago with the closure of its Atomic Energy Commission. Now the U.S. Department of Energy promotes nuclear power while the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission handles safety. France separated the two functions several years ago. American law restricts which jobs departing regulators can hold in the private sector. A high-level manager at the U.S. NRC would have to wait a year after leaving before representing a private-sector entity it regulates; ex-NRC employees can never appear before the federal government and represent the public sector on a specific issue, such as a contract or license application, they handled while at the agency. In Japan, the ‘revolving door’ spins freely.

Under the nuclear regulatory system, Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) carries out nuclear plant safety inspections once every 13 months and checks on safety measures every quarter. There are no surprise inspections, though inspectors visit plants routinely. Utilities have been ordered to shut plants temporarily after safety problems and cover up scandals, and they have paid damages. But, the regulator did not thoroughly analyze Tepco's one-page voluntarily tsunami memo, which it submitted to NISA in December 2001. NISA neither demanded the information nor scrutinized the guidelines Tepco used in its calculations. According to Masaru Kobayashi, head of the agency's nuclear power plant safety section, Tepco in the memo claimed that in case of earthquake and tsunami, waves would not exceed 5.7 meters. But, it didn't include anything about its data or assumptions of earthquake size and location, vital details to determine whether the calculations made sense. On March 11, the water reached 14 meters at the plant, knocking out backup power generators to the reactors, causing a cascade of problems that led to the ongoing release of radiation into the environment. If regulators had looked, they would have found that 22 of the 35 people on the committee that wrote the guidelines had strong ties to the nuclear power industry.

Nuclear Safety Commission is another regulator, housed in the prime minister's Cabinet Office, which is smaller and more academic than NISA. It has defended itself by saying that day-to-day crisis management must come from Tepco, and that it is up to NISA to guide Tepco.

Tokyo University has been a key source for ministry bureaucrats and professors on government advisory panels that shaped tsunami and quake safety policies. And Tepco was a top donor to the University of Tokyo. Research by academics and regulatory panel veterans tended to underestimate the fault line lengths thus helping reduce projected quake risks for nuclear plants.

This cozy relationship between regulator and regulated was not confined to bureaucrats, academics, and corporate only. Media is as much part of the nexus as others. Tepco and major Japanese media organizations, members of the exclusive ‘kisha’ (press) club prevented any ominous sign to come out in the public. Kisha clubs are mainly attached to government ministries and industries, and their members generally belong to major newspapers, broadcasters and wire services. Their membership is limited to major domestic news organizations, while screening out foreign press, magazine reporters and freelance journalists. As a result it prevented reporters from asking tough questions about the nuclear accident from the utility. Similar complicity has long been assumed at other press clubs attached to the nation's various bureaucratic bodies.

Democratic Party of Japan, promised to open up news conferences to non members of kisha clubs, as press clubs were reluctant to allow nonmembers to attend news conferences. To keep the promise the DPJ-led government started to open up news conferences to non press club members as well. If authorities host press conferences, there is always a risk that those in power will try to manipulate information, including ending news conferences whenever they wish. Still, critics agree the DPJ's push to pressure the press clubs to open up the news conference was a big first step.

Therefore, Japanese are increasingly raising the possibility that a culture of complicity made the plant especially vulnerable to the natural disaster that struck the country on March 11. Already, many Japanese and Western experts argue that inconsistent, nonexistent or unenforced regulations played a role in the accident.

In the wake of the crisis, PM Kan has sought the temporarily shut down of Hamaoka nuclear plant near Tokyo, as it sits atop a major fault line, which according to government seismologists has 90 percent chance of a major earthquake in the next 30 years. PM has asked the plant be closed until a tsunami-resistant wall could be built and backup systems could be installed to strengthen the plant against earthquakes. This is a positive development as it would curtail future crises of such magnitude from happening.

PM Kan can be criticized on the ground that there is no clear plan of how he would fund and take reconstruction efforts. After the crises, more than 100,000 people are forced to stay at evacuation centers in various parts of the country. But, government’s response on the question of temporary housing seems to be dwindling from time to time. PM Kan in an announcement after the crisis has said that roughly 30,000 temporary housing units would be built by the end of May for all evacuees. Later in a diet session he told that all evacuees would ‘definitely’ be provided with temporary housing by the Bon holidays in mid-August. But during the same session, when land minister Akihiro Ohata reiterated that the government is yet to secure enough land for the housing, explaining that there were a number of obstacles to be overcome before it could be built; PM Naoto Kan went back on his promise of temporary housing for all evacuees by mid-August, saying that it was his personal view, and not one coordinated with all the ministries.

Moreover, Kan government failed to explain radiation issue well to both domestic and international audience. As a result not only export of goods from Japan affected its already battered economy, but, many foreigners living in Japan emigrated permanently from Japan, losing crucial social infrastructure. However, in the recent fourth trilateral summit meeting of Japan, China and South Korea, held in Japan on 21-22 May 2011, the three countries reached an agreement to establish an emergency notification system, enhance cooperation among experts, and share information in the event of emergencies. This is a step in the right direction. As taking international community on board by disclosing the relevant real time information on the radiation leak will provide a learning experience for others.

The Diet enacted a ¥4.15 trillion ($50 billion) supplementary budget in May aimed at funding the immediate efforts in rebuilding from the March 11 disasters. A separate bill was also passed to allow the government to divert ¥2.5 trillion ($30 billion) from funds initially secured to maintain its basic pension contributions at 50 percent for the fiscal year. The extra budget will be used to finance measures including debris disposal, infrastructure restoration and construction of temporary housing. The government is also likely to bring out its second supplementary budget, which is expected to address full-scale reconstruction including the redesign and rebuilding of entire cities and towns and funding for the initiative. The government needs to prepare a credible economic reform program which offers deregulation and investment in innovation with a view to raising the long-term growth rate so that investors can be given confidence that the government can service the debts.

On the insurance front, government has devised plans to hike the state's portion of payouts of earthquake insurance money, so that private insurers shoulder less of the burden. This policy of the government has been drawn up with the expectation that resources for the quake insurance payments may decline due to massive payouts claims. Under the quake insurance system, the state and private sector share the burden in making payments, with the upper limit for overall payouts per quake disaster set at ¥5.5 trillion (US $ 68bn). Out of which ¥4.3 trillion (US$ 53bn) was to be state’s share and the remaining ¥1.2 trillion (US$ 15bn) was to come from private insurers. But, the government is further considering to raise its portion by around ¥500 billion (US$ 6.2bn) to ¥4.8 trillion (US $ 60bn), while keeping the upper limit unchanged, so as to prevent future arrears in quake insurance payments and a drastic rise in premiums.

However, government is in for some tough times ahead. As in the latest warning about the country’s fiscal health, Standard & Poor’s lowered its outlook on Japan to negative, saying that the costs of rebuilding the devastated areas, which it estimated to be as high as ¥50 trillion, or $609 billion could lead to a lower credit rating unless the government stepped up its efforts to keep high government debt levels from rising much further. Considering Japan’s export-oriented economy, a yen that is paradoxically surged ahead to 15-year highs despite weaknesses in the country’s economy, coupled with the damaging phenomenon of falling prices known as deflation, continues to hinder hopes of a strong recovery. Though the government is yet to decide on how it will finance the budget for reconstruction, the reconstruction process in Japan may hurt its already severe public debt, which is presently about 200% of its GDP, the biggest among the industrialized nations. Any additional supply of government’s bonds could push up Japan’s borrowing costs.

The crisis in Japan has come at the worst time as it was struggling to lower its budget deficit close to 10% of its GDP and trying to cope with an aging population. But in the near future industrial and material firms are bound to regain lost ground, as the rebuilding efforts in Japan gains momentum. The fiscal stimulus to reconstruct Japan out of these disasters has provided an opportunity to Japan to rebound economically; as the fresh investment for the rebuilding effort would generate fresh employment and accelerate economic growth. However, the major challenge for the Kan government would be to balance the rising public debt with the need to provide for reconstruction and rehabilitation of the crisis affected region besides providing a fiscal stimulus for the overall economic growth.

Whatsoever may be the government’s problem it goes to the credit of the common people of Japan, whose cool and collected manner, and right thinking in the midst of the crisis, saved the crisis from worsening, in contrast to the various crises which have occurred in various countries before. Had the same situation arisen in any other country because of panic, or greed, crimes like robbery, plunder would have occurred on a large scale. But, none of these things occurred in Japan. Moreover, family members of those who died in the tragedies tried to restrain themselves from crying openly during burials. A number of Chinese journalists traveling to the Tohoku region to cover the aftermath of the March 11 disaster saw their long-held negative views about Japan and its people completely change. Impressed by the orderly and patient behavior of disaster survivors and the relatively high transparency of information released, they said they developed a feeling of respect toward the Japanese. Their reports were full of positive aspects about Japan. A journalist reported that people patiently lined up in front of shops amid shortages caused by the disruption in the distribution channels. But, shop owners didn't exploit the situation by indulging in price-gouging. He was given priority treatment at a gas station, as he had an emergency press pass, though a large number of people were waiting for their turn to fill up.

Taking a cue from the above discussions it can be inferred that though PM Kan at the helm of affairs needs to shoulder responsibility for the mismanagement of the crises to some extent, he cannot be entirely blamed for the mishappenings. The unprecedented nature of the disasters, as well as the traditional cozy bureaucratic-corporate- academic-media nexus is equally, or may be more blameworthy for the crises as the Prime Minister. Given the economic conditions and the systemic limitations it would have been difficult for any government to respond effectively to the crises. Common people’s lack of understanding of the undercurrents and taking the things at face value may be the causes for high negative opinion on Kan government’s performance in the opinion polls. To be fair to the Kan government, it must be given the due credits in mitigating the fallout of the crises. But besides the government, common people also must be given their due credits whose stoic and rational behavior at the time of the crises helped in limiting the effects of the crises.

India can learn a number of lessons from Japanese government’s handling of the nuclear crisis.

  1. PM Kan has been criticized on the ground that his arrival on the site of accident to assess the situation first hand led to delay in crucial venting at the nuclear plant, which in turn worsened the situation. Therefore in case of emergencies direct involvement of top leadership should be avoided to some extent, if it hinders the recovery efforts.
  2. Availability of information to the affected parties needs to be ensured, as it would prevent panicky reactions.
  3. Development of nexus between bureaucrats, academicians, corporate, and media organizations should be discouraged. Because some of the mistakes made by nuclear industries operators in Japan could have been easily avoided, had there been no collusion of interests.
  4. Adequate oversight mechanisms should be instituted, so that guidelines given to the operators are strictly followed.
  5. Under no circumstances regulating authorities and plant operators should be allowed to share personnel, as happened in Japan.
  6. A comprehensive disaster management policy should be framed to respond to any unforeseen situation.

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Published Date : 9th June, 2011

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