The Japanese government's handling of the nuclear crisis could lead to a backlash that affects the SDF too

The Japanese government's handling of the nuclear crisis could lead to a backlash that affects the SDF too (Source: CPRO/Kyodo)

Day after day, more and more bad news is released from the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) regarding the current and prior status of the embattled Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. Kyodo‘s latest press release on the topic paints a bleak picture of events at the plant in the immediate aftermath of the disaster:

Meltdown occurred at Fukushima No. 1 reactor 16 hours after March 11 quake

A nuclear fuel meltdown at the No. 1 reactor of the crisis-hit Fukushima Daiichi power plant is believed to have occurred around 16 hours after the March 11 quake and tsunami crippled the complex in northeastern Japan, Tokyo Electric Power Co said Sunday.

The reactor, the fuel of which was found Thursday to have largely melted, was already in a critical state at 6:50 a.m. on March 12 with most of its fuel having melted and fallen to the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel, the plant operator said based on its provisional assessment.

The reactor automatically halted shortly after the 2:46 p.m. earthquake, but its water level dropped to the upper part of the fuel rods and the temperature began to rise around 6 p.m. The damage to the fuel had begun by 7:30 p.m. with most of it having melted by 6:50 a.m. the following day, the utility said.

While the utility is aiming to bring the worst nuclear accident in Japan under control in around six to nine months from mid-April, it has no choice but to abandon a plan to flood and cool the No. 1 reactor’s containment vessel as holes have been created in the pressure vessel by the melted fuel, an adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan indicated earlier Sunday.

[...] See full article at Japan Today

Regardless of the true events, the constant shifting of perspectives by TEPCO – and by extension the government,  given its watchdog role and close ties to the utility company through golden parachutes – are seriously eroding public confidence in corporate and governmental crisis management and the press’ coverage of it. This can be seen at the end of the above report:

In a related revelation concerning one of the major mix-ups after the natural disaster knocked out power at the six-reactor complex, TEPCO and other sources said the same day that the utility had assembled 69 power supply vehicles by March 12 at the plant but to no avail.

The inability to use the vehicles caused a delay in the damage control work at the plant, significantly worsening the emergency.

TEPCO earlier said it had tried to connect the vehicles to power-receiving equipment, a procedure necessary to operate pumps that would pour water into the reactors to cool them. But workers failed to carry out the task because the equipment was submerged in seawater from the tsunami, creating the risk of shorting out.

TEPCO’s account is at variance with the one given by the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which mentioned the first arrival of such a vehicle on the evening of March 11 but stopped mentioning it the following day as the focus of attention had shifted to how to let out radioactive steam to relieve pressure that had built up inside the containment vessel of the No. 1 reactor.

The different versions of the story given by TEPCO and the agency might come to a head as investigations progress to determine why efforts to immediately contain the crisis failed.

Much like the political fallout of the Hanshin Earthquake helped shape emergency deployment procedures for the SDF and enhanced building codes, we can at least be a little soothed that the lessons proven in the current crisis will lead to better protection in the future, particularly along Japan’s coastline which has been shown to be much more exposed following the tsunami which reached heights up to 30 meters. However, how much comfort we can take from this depends on the government’s ability to instill confidence within the public – it is currently failing to do so. With so many different variations of what happened, so many changes in the timeline (which we must consider normal for post-crisis accounting), the public can be forgiven for believing that TEPCO has been lying, the government too, and probably still is.

The problem is compounded by several systemic features: lackluster reporting blinkered by the complexities of the corporate and governmental press club system, ineffective leadership in the Prime Minister’s office, poor safety standards, and the general lack of public understanding of nuclear power and radiation, too name but four of the most immediate.

This comes less than half a year on from Sengoku38′s sensational release of a Coast Guard video showing a Chinese vessel ramming a Japanese Coast Guard boat in the disputed East China Sea. That video helped convince the public that the government is unnecessarily covering up events critical to understanding the threat faced by Japan’s uniformed services. With the Fukushima incident at several orders of magnitude worse than a fisherman with a grudge, it would be no surprise to see a change of course in public opinion, which will certainly bode ill for the DPJ in the next general election, but how long it would last is anyone’s guess.

If the government is found to lying to the public by design, not accident, it will certainly raise doubts about the social contract between the state and its citizens. It will color future crises, just as the handling of previous scandals and disasters inform press cynicism at the moment. The nexus of these two effects is a country in which the people do not believe they can trust the government to keep them safe in which the question of defense seems increasingly important. While the SDF’s disaster relief role and higher public profile are earning it brownie points, the public have shown a clear ability to distinguish between this humanitarian role and the martial requirements of sovereignty. It is possible that distrust of the government will thus lead to increased anti-military sentiment, especially if the government has been shown unable to effectively manage a crisis.

It’s too early to tell, but this possible side effect only adds to the incredible moral weight of the importance that the government be as transparent as possible in its handling of the current disaster. Whether we can trust TEPCO to do the same is a question most have already made up their minds about.

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch