[Courtesy of Peter J. Brown, originally published at Japanese in Space.]

J-Alert nationwide emergency alert system.


The Government of Japan’s Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters has released its findings entitled, “Report of Japanese Government to the  IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety – The Accident at TEPCO’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations” dated June 2011.  While the report is geared for a specific technical audience, it has revealed that the Japanese government may have stumbled into a satellite black hole. This admission that the Japanese government and disaster response personnel in particular soon found themselves overwhelmed and cut off – a situation that applied to upper level incident managers in Tokyo as well as personnel in the field - represents an important step as the Japanese government assesses the, strengths and weaknesses of its emergency communications grid.

The report states -

“Additionally, the NERHQs (Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters)directly called those municipalities. However, since communication services including telephone lines were heavily damaged by the massive earthquake, not all the direct calls reached the affected municipalities. Prior notification to local governments was not satisfactorily delivered because some municipalities did not receive evacuation instruction either directly or indirectly.” (p. IX-7)

And later in a chapter which focused on the lessons learned, the report also states that -

“Effective training to respond to accident restoration at nuclear power plants and adequately work and communicate with relevant organizations in the wake of severe accidents was not sufficiently implemented up to now. For example, it took time to establish communication between the emergency office inside the power station, the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters and the Local Headquarters and also to build a collaborative structure with the Self Defense Forces, the Police, Fire Authorities and other organizations which played important roles in responding to the accident. Adequate training could have prevented these problems.” (pp. XII 7-8)

By pointing to a much larger communications gap then was previously disclosed – due to an infrastructure meltdown layered on top of a possible lack of interoperability – the report does not mask nor sidestep the issue of the inability of Japanese officials to communicate quickly and effectively. In doing so, it raises questions about the overall performance, reliability and robustness of Japan’s ”Local Authorities Satellite Communications Network” as well as the dedicated satellite networks known as “J-ALERT” and “SafetyBird.” SafetyBird in particular includes a dedicated nuclear power plant early warning component, for example.

Did the severity of the earthquake simply knock out satellite dishes in multiple locations by shaking them and therefore terminating the connection between ground equipment and their respective satellites? Or did power supply disruptions knock out satellite transmit and receive devices?

No explicit language in the report points a finger at the satellite ground segment, but the suggestion is too strong to ignore, and the results are too obvious to overlook.

This report to the IAEA leaves many unanswered questions about the status of satellite communications in this instance. By the way, this writer examined this topic several weeks ago in a post which appeared on Japan Security Watch which was entitled, “Japan’s Earthquake Revealed Key Satellite Gaps

A more objective and more detailed analysis of what went wrong and why so many key personnel were affected in the process needs to emerge.

In many respects, the lessons learned by Japanese disaster response planners parallel those that the U.S. learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina which devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005.

The bottom line is that satellite phones and fixed, two-way satellite dishes, along with the right number of trained and qualified personnel on scene – whether at a facility or a population center – need to be in place and ready to respond. Operating both the satellite phones in question, and taking charge of larger satellite uplinks to support phone banks as well as multiple video feeds etc requires skill and plenty of practice. Absent these key ingredients, the result can be an unpleasant, unwanted and prolonged silence.

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Peter J. Brown is a Maine-based freelance writer who specializes in satellite technology. He wrote extensively about the role of satellites in major disasters as a former senior multimedia and homeland security editor at “Via Satellite” magazine. His work on this topic has appeared in “Asia Times Online” as well as “Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness”, a journal of the American Medical Association, among other publications. He has worked on a variety of projects where improvements in emergency communications have been an important goal including the Hospital Incident Command System (HICS) which has been widely implemented throughout the U.S.
Peter J Brown has 6 post(s) on Japan Security Watch