This week two more steps were taken to assess the cause of the cascade of consequences in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake-and-tsunami. Both signal some interesting strategic assessments.
Tuesday the Japanese cabinet put in place an expert panel to review the Fukushima nuclear emergency. It will be chaired by Yotaro Hatamura an expert in failure. In an interview with Reuters, Kenji Iino a colleague of Hatamura offered,
“While final conclusions must wait for the probe, it appeared the utility’s first fatal error was its failure to take steps to prevent an accident whose risk of occurring was low but whose consequences were huge.”
The utility, known as Tepco, has said that the deadly combination of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and resulting massive tsunami was “soteigai” — beyond expectations.
But a review of company and regulatory records by Reuters showed Japan’s government and the utility repeatedly played down the danger and ignored warnings.
“The probability was small and I think they didn’t properly calculate how big the damage would be if it happened,” Iino said.
Hatamura’s investigation will look not only at the causes of the accident but the response by Tokyo Electric and the government, both of which have been accused of bungling their handling of a disaster which nearly three months on poses a continued threat to the environment and health.
An inability to think outside the box when the unexpected strikes can make things worse, Iino said.
“If there is someone on the ground who can make the right judgment, that’s fine. The problem is when there is no one who can make that call,” he said.
“People’s jobs have become narrower and more fragmented and there are fewer who understand the big picture.”
An entirely separate United Nations study has apparently drawn some similar conclusions. According to the Kyodo news agency, drawing heavily on a United Nations report released this week:
The March 11 killer tsunami that hit the Tohoku coast following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdowns revealed the fragility of Japan’s infrastructure, according to a recent U.N. report on natural disasters.
The report describes Japan as a country whose infrastructure collapsed in a way more closely associated with less-developed countries and from which lessons can be drawn.
“The earthquake, its aftershocks, the tsunami and the nuclear emergency illustrate what a synchronous failure looks like: a multisectoral system’s collapse,” says the 2011 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction.
It also describes how the disaster disrupted “critical sections” of Japan’s power grid, including the power supply needed to cool the spent fuel at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, and how backup systems were disabled, thereby resulting in the worst atomic disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
“The full consequence of the trauma and costs will not be known for years to come,” the report says. “However, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, it became evident that even in this highly sophisticated and well-prepared society, the impact of physical hazards on infrastructure can quickly lead to outcomes normally associated with poorer countries: large-scale food and water shortages, shelter crises and logistical collapse.”
The 2011 floods in Australia, the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this year and Japan’s latest disaster serve as a “reminder that developed countries are also very exposed,” the report says.
The March 11 disaster additionally highlighted that there are “emerging risks and new vulnerabilities associated with the complexity and interdependency of the technological systems on which modern societies depend,” it says. MORE
About two weeks ago I was talking to a long-time professional with an extensive network of emergency management contacts across the United States. “Japan is already old news, nearly forgotten,” he said shaking his head. “We will not learn from their failures. Unless we experience the pain ourselves, we never pay attention.”