On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan earthquake and subsequent tsunami waves triggered a severe nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant affecting hundreds of thousands of residents. According to the official report of the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC), the nuclear disaster was manmade – it could and should have been foreseen and prevented.


Regulatory Capture

Leading into the disaster, the relationship between nuclear operators and regulators lacked independence and transparency. In many cases rather than setting high standards and enforcing compliance, regulators consulted with local operators and avoided comparisons to global leading practices. In effect, regulatory rationale was retrofitted to local intentions, and interests of local organizations and the desire to advance Japan’s nuclear vision were prioritized over public safety.


Organizational Problems

Had there been a higher level of knowledge, training and equipment inspection related to severe accidents within the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), and had there been specific instructions given to on-site workers concerning the state of emergency within the necessary time frame, a more effective accident response would have been possible. After the disaster, more than half of TEPCO workers and more than 95% of contractors stated there was no explanation from TEPCO about hazardous conditions in the reactors or the possibility of such a situation. Before the accident, one-third of TEPCO workers and approximately 90% of contractors were not given an explanation of possible response tasks in the event of an accident.


Faulty Rationale

TEPCO had determined the probability of a tsunami was so low, it could be considered impossible in reality. No countermeasures had been prepared against low-probability, high-impact events. Arbitrary interpretation and selection of probability theory continued after the disaster as well – the conditions assumed explicitly in revised safety guidelines were narrowly defined as an accident with an event sequence identical to that of the Fukushima disaster.


While the natural environment cannot be controlled, the flawed regulatory environment, organizational shortcomings and faulty rationale set the stage for the disaster. Similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster some of the most basic operational elements were not in place – training, communication, roles and responsibilities. Limited protection against the perceived worse-case scenario proves insufficient in a dynamic and random world.


All Fukushima images from Google Maps