“The day after the earthquake, I asked the prime minister, ‘Hasn’t a meltdown occurred?’ He answered, ‘It’s not a meltdown. It’s not a situation in which there has been radiation leakage. The cooling water level has been restored, the situation is under control, and everything’s OK.’ The hydrogen explosion at Reactor #1 occurred right after that. The series of false announcements that belittled the common sense of experts continued.”
– Watanabe Yoshimi, head of Your Party
MORE THAN ONCE, it’s seemed as if Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s ticket has been punched for the trip across the River Styx of Japanese politics, so it would be premature to say that the ferryman has flicked his cigarette butt into the water and is now waving him aboard. The revelations of the past week, however, have made it more likely the people on the pier will grab him by the seat of his pants and toss him over the side, not caring whether he lands on the bottom of the boat or the bottom of the river.
This time, it’s a controversy over the events at the Fukushima nuclear power plant on 11 and 12 March, the day of the earthquake/tsunami and the day of the hydrogen explosion at Reactor #1. The general outline, however, is familiar: Did Mr. Kan’s inept micro-management of the work from Tokyo and a misplaced confidence in his own abilities make matters worse? Are history being rewritten and reputations being smeared to allow the prime minister to employ one of his favorite political tactics of blaming his blunders on someone else?
Let’s start with the known knowns: Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) revealed at a news conference on 27 March that they had forecast the possibility of a fuel meltdown at Fukushima — what they called a “worst-case scenario” — within three hours after the earthquake and the tsunami struck the plant. They explained the problem to Prime Minister Kan at 10:30 p.m. that night. At 12:30 a.m. on the 12th they thought the meltdown had begun. Tokyo Electric officials and Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) Chairman Madarame Haruki decided this would require the venting of Reactors #1 and #2, and consulted with officials at NISA. At 5:00 a.m., high levels of iodine were detected near the entrance to the plant, indicating that a meltdown had begun. At 5:44 a.m., Mr. Kan ordered the evacuation of the area in a 10-kilometer radius from the site.
One of the most common criticisms of the prime minister is his taste for performance politics — a tendency to play a pushy Forrest Gump and insert himself into situations to demonstrate that he is The Man in Charge. In this case, he insisted on viewing the Fukushima site by helicopter on the morning of 12 March with Mr. Madarame. The venting process, however, involved the release of steam with radioactive elements, which would have exposed everyone on the helicopter to radiation. Tokyo Electric did not want to take that risk, and they were unable to discuss the matter with Mr. Kan until he returned at 8:30 a.m. The venting did not begin until 9:04 a.m.
Thus the helicopter tour that many charge was unnecessary to begin with delayed the venting, which in turn delayed the start of operations to cool the reactor with seawater — which were also delayed after they began. Some believe these delays exacerbated the severity of the situation, for which both Mr. Kan and Mr. Madarame are responsible.
At an NISA news conference at 2:00 p.m. on 12 March, Deputy Minister Nakamura Koichiro said it was possible the reactor core had begun melting. Late that same night, he was removed from his position for “creating unease among the people” — or is that a euphemism for telling the truth? The decision to relieve him of his duties has been attributed to Kan Naoto and Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio.
The hydrogen explosion at Reactor #1 occurred shortly thereafter at 3:36 p.m. on 12 March. At 7:04 p.m., Tokyo Electric began adding seawater to cool the reactor in a trial, i.e., without adding boric acid, but they stopped 20 minutes later.
They explained they had been told a debate was underway in the Prime Minister’s office whether adding seawater would create a situation of recriticality. Their man in the Kantei who passed that information along was Takekuro Ichiro, a former Tokyo Electric vice–president and current “fellow” (roughly equivalent to vice-president), as well as the president of the International Nuclear Energy Development of Japan Co. (They sell Japanese nuclear power plants abroad.) It’s unclear whether Tokyo Electric decided to wait until the people in Tokyo made up their minds or Mr. Kan got royally pissed off because they acted on their own and told them to stop. They resumed adding seawater, this time with boric acid 55 minutes later, at 8:20 p.m. on the prime minister’s instructions. TEPCO tried to soothe everyone’s concerns:
“It was thought a meltdown of the nuclear fuel had begun at Reactor #1 the night before, and the hydrogen explosion had already occurred, so the suspension of work had no effect in making the accident worse.”
Mr. Takekuro presented the reason for starting with a trial:
“It was necessary to insert seawater appropriately when the safety of the process was being evaluated, so trial insertion was done first.”
During Question Time in the Diet in April, more than one month after the incident, Watanabe Yoshimi asked Prime Minister Kan again whether there had been a meltdown at Fukushima. Mr. Kan again denied it.
Now it’s time for the backstabbing and who-struck-John arguments.
The records of one of the 20 new government councils for dealing with the nuclear power accident contain the following notation for 6:00 p.m. on 12 March:
“Prime Minister Kan said, ‘Stop the insertion of fresh water (into the reactor) and use seawater’”.
At the same time, Mr. Kan instructed Mr. Madarame to examine whether it was safe to use seawater. Mr. Madarame was asked whether seawater could cause recriticality, and the record states that he answered, “It is possible”. NISA officials explained to the prime minister at 7:40 p.m. there would be no problem.
The news media, however, is reporting they were informed by “multiple sources in government” that when Prime Minister Kan heard that TEPCO had begun using seawater instead of fresh water, he screamed “I hadn’t heard that!” The best functional equivalent in English would be, “No one told me!” Tokyo Electric then stopped the operation.
The prime minister is well known in Japan for outbursts of temper that verge on hysteria. When he was Minister of Health 15 years ago, the custodians removed the heavy ashtrays from his office because he would throw them in fits of rage.
A report in the 21 May edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun contains this sentence: “The insertion of seawater into Reactor #1 at Fukushima was stopped for 55 minutes due to the intent of Prime Minister Kan.”
The utility says it told NISA officials verbally about the start and the temporary suspension of operations, but NISA says there is no written record.
Democratic Party MP Hosono Goshi is serving as a special advisor to Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the management of the nuclear crisis. Here’s a description of the party’s former Deputy Secretary-General:
“One of the most outspoken and high-profile members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, Goshi Hosono has defended the government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan despite a huge setback in the July 11 (2010) House of Councillors election.”
At a news conference on 13 May, Mr. Hosono said that the meltdown was unanticipated:
“We thought the fuel was melting, but we didn’t envision that almost all the material would collect at the bottom.”
He claims the record stating the prime minister issued an order at 6:00 p.m. to begin adding seawater is inaccurate. Instead, he says that Kaieda Banri, the Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry, told Tokyo Electric officials at that time to start preparations to add seawater.
He noted there were problems getting in contact with the people on site at Fukushima. There was a debate in Tokyo over how difficult it would be to pump the seawater into the reactor, which lasted until 7:30 p.m. He insists they (and Mr. Kan) didn’t know the pumping had already started until days later.
Tokyo Electric President Shimizu Masataka was asked during Diet questioning on 16 May when he became aware of the meltdown at Reactor #1. He answered:
“Last month, when people entered the reactor housing, and they discovered the water level in the reactor.”
Madarame Haruki testified at the same hearing and answered the same question:
“I recognized the possibility several days after the accident on 11 March…That changed to a certainty on 28 March when I found out that water contaminated by a high degree of radioactivity was under Reactor #2.”
Shortly thereafter, Tokyo Electric, the prime minister’s office, and NISA released records stating the decision to stop pumping seawater was made after Mr. Madarame warned it was “possible” that recriticality could occur. At a 21 May news conference, a livid Mr. Madarame insisted he never said such a thing. Attending the news conference was Kato Shigeharu of the NSC, who is also a deputy minister in the Cabinet Office. He did not object to Mr. Madarame’s statement.
After the news conference, the NSC chairman told the Asahi Shimbun that “the text of that announcement was created by TEPCO, the Kantei, and NISA.” He described it as “an insult”.
He also told the Yomiuri Shimbun:
“I absolutely did not say there was a danger (of recriticality by inserting seawater). It is not possible for there to be concerns of recriticality just because of a switch from fresh water to seawater. Those are the ABCs of nuclear power.”
What he did say, he asserts, is “Either (fresh water or seawater) is fine, so put it in.”
Hosono Goshi spun a different story at his own news conference the same day. He explained the prime minister asked Mr. Madarame at 6:00 p.m. on 12 March if there was a danger of recriticality if seawater was added, and the NSC chairman told him there was. Mr. Hosono said that Tokyo Electric had told NISA verbally they had stopped adding water, but NISA did not inform the prime minister’s office. He added that the prime minister didn’t get angry, and that the report he lost his temper because he wasn’t told “is not based on fact.”
Mr. Hosono was interviewed the next day, 22 May, on the Fuji TV program Shinhodo 2001. Here is an excerpt of the exchange:
NSC Chairman Madarame Haruki objected that he did not say the insertion of seawater had the potential to cause recriticality.
Hosono: At a meeting at 6:00 p.m. (on 12 March) a Tokyo Electric official said the hydrogen explosion had caused a great deal of confusion on the site, and they couldn’t insert seawater for an hour and a half. During that period Prime Minister Kan Naoto instructed that the effect of inserting boric acid and seawater be studied….We met again at 7:40, and the work to insert the boric acid had proceeded. From 7:04 to 7:25, there was no information that Tokyo Electric had begun the trial insertion.
Did the prime minister ask, ‘Isn’t there any danger of recriticality’?
Hosono: It is true the prime minister was worried about recriticality.
That’s because he had received the opinion of Mr. Madarame?
Hosono: That’s what I remember.
Mr. Madarame says that wasn’t possible.
Hosono: It’s my recollection that Mr. Madarame said that, but I’ll have to confirm it.
Later that day, Mr. Madarame asked that the official documents recording that he said “it is possible” the addition of seawater could cause recriticality be amended to, “It isn’t the case that the possibility is zero.” He explained:
“If I were to say such a thing, my life as a nuclear power expert would be over. It is defamation of character, and it is not a joke…changing from fresh water to seawater would even lower the potential of criticality because of the impurities in the water.”
Also that day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio denied the government ordered Tokyo Electric to stop filling the reactor with seawater.
Yesterday, it was revealed that Kato Shigeharu represented the NSC at the news conference during which the government/TEPCO/NISA attributed their decision to Mr. Madarame’s advice. After Hosono Goshi handed him a text of the record about 15 minutes before the news conference, Mr. Kato objected to the wording of the Madarame statement. Replied Mr. Hosono:
“It’s not a literal, word-for-word transcription, but everyone who was there (Kantei) said that. You weren’t there, were you?”
Mr. Kato asked him not to distribute the text, but Mr. Hosono told him it had already been released.
Mr. Madarame told the media yesterday he had a long talk with Mr. Hosono on the 22nd and is willing to let bygones be bygones, but wants a full investigation to discover who wrote the text and the circumstances surrounding the incident.
At an 11 May news conference, however, Edano Yukio said that records of the conferences at disaster headquarters chaired by the prime minister were not written down. If there is to be an investigation, he said:
“Perhaps we will have to seek testimony based on memory… There are a certain number of memos that exist, but it is a fact that there were few places for keeping records of the crisis management response.”
An aide and chief blogger for LDP MP Nakagawa Hidenao remarks that the idea no memos of the conferences exist is far-fetched. He maintains they certainly exist, if only held in confidence by aides and bureaucrats. In a back-handed reference to the DPJ’s search for documents related to a secret U.S.-Japan agreement about bringing nuclear weapons to Japanese territory, he said, “They’ll turn up on a shelf somewhere after the DPJ is out of power.”
Back to Mr. Edano’s news conference:
“One important point is whether there were systemic problems that prevented the accident from being resolved before it occurred.”
In other words, he wants to blame it on previous LDP governments.
Mr. Kan, however, tried to shift it somewhere else. When he was asked in the Diet on the 20th why he didn’t tell people about the meltdown until two months after it occurred, he said:
“What I told the people was fundamentally in error. I am deeply sorry in the sense that the government was unable to respond because of the mistaken assumptions of Tokyo Electric.”
What about the meltdown?
“Until the announcement (of the meltdown earlier this month), I hadn’t heard anything about it. It wasn’t that I knew about it and didn’t say anything.”
Kakiwaza Mito of Your Party reminded Mr. Kan that on 12 May, just three days before the government announcement, he told a meeting of party leaders in the Diet that there was no meltdown. “Didn’t you lie?” he asked. Said Mr. Kan:
“I merely expressed the official government view.”
But the prime minister is backing away from some of his previous attitudes. It’s been widely reported that after the Fukushima problems began, he bragged to aides that he was extremely knowledgeable about atomic power. During testimony in the Diet yesterday, he said:
“I am not a specialist in atomic energy, so I don’t know everything.”
The prime minister held a discussion on 15 March about whether the Self-Defense Forces should drop water from the air on the Fukushima reactors. Here’s how part of the conversation went, according to sources present:
Kan: By the way, should we insert boric acid in a powdered state or a liquid state?
The other official did not answer.
Kan: So you can’t answer? Go discuss it with a Tokyo Institute of Technology professor whom I know and get back to us. (Mr. Kan is a T.I.T. graduate)
What a charmer!
Not only is Mr. Kan criticized in Japan for his top-down decision making, he’s also disparaged for his information-gathering methods. One source in the Kantei told reporters, “He doesn’t ask those around him for opinions”.
During his Diet testimony yesterday, the prime minister said:
“Since the earthquake, I’ve been receiving advice from TEPCO and the Nuclear Safety Commission (of which Mr. Madarame is the chairman).”
The print media reported that laughter erupted from the opposition benches after they heard this statement.
An article at Diamond Online likens the Kan government’s announcements to those of Imperial Headquarters during the Second World War. By the end of the war, the Japanese public realized that if Headquarters announced the Imperial Army had chosen to “advance in a different direction”, it meant that the army had lost a battle and was retreating. Headquarters in those days was staffed by ex-Army officers, so in other words, it was that era’s version of amakudari.
As Diamond Online put it, the policy of the Kan Cabinet is to “hide the information when circumstances are unfavorable, and when the information is made public, offer the excuse that ‘it was an unforeseen event’”.
The Japanese public voted for reform in 2009, but what they got instead is even worse than what the LDP offered: Wartime information management.
UPDATE: Two stories have surfaced that are somewhat related in spirit. The first: Despite the prime minister’s denials, the “multiple sources” continue to insist that Mr. Kan said “No one told me about it”, when he found out that TEPCO had switched to seawater. One of the sources, however, said that Mr. Kan didn’t issue any specific orders, but continued to discuss the problem. The source thinks the Tokyo Electric officials got jumpy when they heard the story. Reading between the lines, it’s possible they stopped the insertion because they were leery of being subject to the Wrath of Kan.
The second: Scientists think that if Mr. Madarame did say “the possibility is not zero” in regard to recriticality, he was right in that it was technically possible but very unlikely. The government officials who heard a distinctive turn of phrase by another scientist giving a scientifically honest opinion might have overreacted in a way similar to that of the Tokyo Electric officials and jumped to conclusions.
Shinhodo conducted a poll on 19 May, before this controversy had come to a head, and reported the results over the weekend. Here’s one question:
What is your opinion of the government’s information disclosure about the nuclear accident?
Can’t be trusted: 82.4%
Which party will you vote for in the next lower house election?
Your Party: 7.0%
Notice that the LDP rating in percentage points is more than double that of the DPJ, the gap between the DPJ and the LDP is greater than the DPJ’s overall total, and the gap between the DPJ and third-place Your Party, a small reform-minded group just three years old, is not far from the usual margin of error for polls.
Speaking of information disclosure, the damage to the building housing Reactor #4 at Fukushima has rendered it structurally unsound. (One person compared it to the Tower of Pisa.) If it collapses, so does the fuel pool underneath. Construction work to shore it up is now underway. Have you heard anything about that from the government or Tokyo Electric?
Yokokume Katsuhito, a first-term proporational representative in the lower house from the Southern Kanto region, was a member of the DPJ until last week, but he’s now an independent. He submitted his resignation from the party on the 20th. Secretary-General Okada Katsuya said he would stick it in a desk drawer rather than accept it, but Mr. Yokokume told him not to bother.
He told the news media:
“With their response to the Tohoku earthquake and other matters, the DPJ is now hopeless.”
Writing on his blog about the possibility the prime minister would delay a second secondary budget to prolong his term in office, he said, “If that’s the truth, I’d be speechless.”
Mr. Okada told the rest of the party that Mr. Yokokume had potential and that he would continue to talk to him to convince him to return. Meanwhile, Mr. Yokokume told the media that depending on the circumstances and the timing, he could vote for a motion of no confidence in Kan Naoto. At a news conference today making it official, he said that Prime Minister Kan’s administration of government “is incapable of protecting the citizens’ lives and livelihoods, which is the basis of politics.”
American comedian David Letterman hosts a late night television program five days a week. One of the program’s most popular recurring segments is the Top Ten list, which originated as a way to mock similar lists by People magazine. List subjects range from the comically absurd to those lampooning current events, and the items are always presented in reverse order.
After this twisted skein of fatuous lies and juvenile cover-up attempts, some comic absurdity sounds good right about now. Therefore, for your delectation, here’s another Top Ten list. It consists entirely of quoted passages from an article written by Thomas Berger, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University, and published by The Diplomat website. I call it the Top Ten Reasons Why Kan Naoto and His Cabinet Are Japan’s Salvation!
10. “Naoto Kan has shown during the ongoing crisis his determination for a more open style of government in Japan.”
9. “The first difference is the considerable lengths that the Kan government has taken to keep the Japanese people informed about the crisis and its efforts to deal with it.”
8. “(T)he government of Prime Minister Naoto Kan is struggling to respond to the crisis in a new way, and to redefine Japanese politics and the country’s relationship with the outside world.”
7. “The Prime Minister and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano have been offering regular press briefings as the crisis has unfolded, in sharp contrast with the hapless Murayama government, whose initial response in 1995 was marked by indecision and apparent confusion.”
6. “Kan’s policies are part of a general trend away from the ‘Japan Inc.’ style of policymaking in which decisions were made behind closed doors by a coalition of business, bureaucratic and conservative political elites.”
5. “Kan, who as a health minister in the 1980s played a key role in exposing bureaucratic efforts to conceal the contamination of Japanese blood supplies with the HIV aids virus, is unusually well-suited to the role of a populist prime minister.”
4. “This reflects a new openness in the Japanese government, not only with its own people, but also with the outside world.”
3. “These three trends all point in the direction of a more open, more democratic and more normal Japan.”
2. “(I)nevitably the issue will become politicized. When it does, a new cycle of recrimination may emerge that will undermine the political process and dash public hopes for a new, more open and more democratic Japan.”
And #1 on the list:
1. “(T)here is a sharp clash between the operating culture of TEPCO, which continues to be characterized by the more closed ‘Japan Inc.’ way of doing things, and the new style of openness and accountability that the Kan government is trying to promote.”
Comic absurdity aside, the Berger article was published on 2 April this year, and it was flummery the day it was written. Where was this new style of openness and accountability last year when everyone in the Kan government insisted the decision to release the Chinese fishing boat captain who rammed Japanese Coast Guard vessels in the Senkakus was a political judgment by public prosecutors in Okinawa? Is demonstrating an openness “not only with its own people, but also the world” and “keeping the Japanese people informed about the crisis” to be defined as withholding a video showing the Chinese boat ramming the Japanese ships so as not to anger either the Japanese public or the Chinese government, and then disciplining the man who put it up on YouTube?
This is yet another flannel-cortexed academic wishing on a star and pushing an agenda, and yet another website either doing the same or so desperate for daily content it would justify the publication by claiming it’s just offering a wide range of opinion.
One wonders what the author and the website would have done had they read this Kyodo report of 14 April, fewer than two weeks later:
“Kenichi Matsumoto, a renowned writer who serves as a special adviser to the Cabinet, sparked the controversy during a conversation with reporters Wednesday after his meeting with Prime Minister Naoto Kan, quoting the premier as having said people evacuated from homes near the plant would be unable to return to their hometowns ”for 10 or 20 years.” Matsumoto later retracted his remark, while Kan himself told reporters that day, ‘I did not say that.’”
I’d bet on form: They’d have written and published the same article had the date been 22 April instead of 2 April
Takekuro Ichiro, the man who supposedly passed along the word to Tokyo Electric officials about the debate in the Kantei, was once the site manager of the TEPCO-owned Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata. It was the first power plant to have released radiation due to an earthquake, though the amount was slight. The plant was shut down for 21 months, and Mr. Takekuro had to visit the prefectural governor to apologize for problems that included nine fires at the plant after the earthquake and the spilling of radioactive material from storage containers because of loose lids. The utility’s story changed several times in the space of a few days after the earthquake.
Speaking of publicizing videos, it wasn’t so long ago that Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro immediately released videos of the firefight between the Japanese Coast Guard and North Korean smugglers that ended with the Koreans scuttling their ship. Though the conjecture falls under the category of a known unknown, is there really any doubt that Mr. Koizumi would have handled the events at Fukushima with greater maturity and expertise — and yes, more openness? The reason some people have short memories is that Mr. Koizumi is not a man of the left, and therefore not a person to be praised until he’s been dead a decade.
Thomas Berger thinks trends point in the direction of a “more normal” Japan. Japan is less normal compared to what? The governments of any other G8 countries? The rest of the EU?
Gag me with a spatula.
As for Berger’s insinuation that Japan is insufficiently democratic (again, compared to whom?), we’ve wasted enough time on him as it is.
Away with the bogus and on to the bona fide, namely ukulele whiz Jake Shimabukuro. With every mistake, we must surely be learning.
If you liked this, look for his version of Sakura, Sakura.