A year after suffering the worst nuclear accident in its history, Japan is still struggling to understand what happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant in the country's northeast.
Last week, an independent commission released a report arguing that Japan narrowly averted what could have been a far deadlier disaster and that the government withheld this information from the public.
Organized by a civic group called the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, the commission included journalists, lawyers and scholars. Its chairman, Koichi Kitazawa, is former president of the Japan Science and Technology Agency.
The radiation released from the Fukushima nuclear plant came from the meltdown of three reactors, Kitazawa says.
But spent nuclear fuel rods at a fourth reactor were also at risk of leaking radiation or even exploding, and that, he says, could have put Fukushima on a par with the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986.
"The level of leakage of radioactivity reached about one-seventh of the Chernobyl case," Kitazawa says. "But it could have been almost the same as Chernobyl if these spent fuel rods started leaking."
If that had happened, he says, and if the winds had been blowing south toward Tokyo, instead of east over the Pacific Ocean, the consequences could have been unthinkable.
The prime minister's office would have had to evacuate more than 30 million people in the capital area, Kitazawa says.
Rethinking Reliance On Nuclear Power
The commission obtained a secret report on this worst-case scenario prepared for then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan by the head of Japan's Atomic Energy Commission. While criticizing this lack of transparency, the commission praises Kan for personally intervening and ordering workers at Fukushima not to retreat or abandon the plant.
The commission drew the conclusion that the government, and not a nuclear power company, must bear the primary responsibility for the nation's nuclear safety.
But current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said recently that by law, the main responsibility lies with the Tokyo Electric Power Co., or TEPCO, which operates the Fukushima plant.
"I would say that the government, the plant operator and the academic world were all steeped in a myth of safety," Noda said at a briefing for foreign reporters. "Rather than saying whose responsibility this is, everyone should instead share the pain and responsibility."
Kitazawa, the commission head, says that over the past half-century, nuclear power companies and government regulators have created a myth that nuclear power is absolutely safe. And, he adds, you can't adequately prepare for a disaster that you don't admit can ever happen. That's why, for example, nobody thought it was necessary to install fire hydrants at the Fukushima plant, Kitazawa says.
Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee has launched its own investigation. The government says the reactors at Fukushima are now stable and safe, but without access to the actual reactor vessels, nobody can know what state they are in, says lawmaker Tomoyuki Taira.
"Nobody could see inside the vessel, so we don't know anything," he says. The government declared that the plant's affected reactors had reached the state of official "cold shutdown" at the end of last year, he adds. "But how could they say that? We don't have any data [from] inside the reactor vessel."
In a bid to get more information about the state of the reactors, the parliamentary committee asked TEPCO for copies of the Fukushima plant's plans.
And when the company handed over the manual?
"That manual was blacked out," Taira says. "Every line was blacked out, because this [document] is classified."
Taira says the only way to find out the truth about what happened at Fukushima is to nationalize the plant. He also calls for a rethinking of the country's reliance on nuclear power.
Accident Underscored Weaknesses
Some observers see in the Fukushima disaster a failure of governance. Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, say that inept crisis management is not unique to Japan.
But "the Japanese state is actually weak," he says. "It's weak in the sense that the ability of, in this case, the central government to impose its will on other actors, regional governments, cities, public utilities is limited."
The government's mishandling of the economy in the 1990s began to erode the Japanese public's trust in its civil servants, Dujarric says. The Fukushima crisis, he adds, is just another nail in that coffin.
On the other hand, Dujarric notes, over the past six years, no Japanese prime minister's approval ratings have lasted much more than six months before collapsing anyway.
While the politicians debate, Japan's energy policy remains in limbo. Jesper Koll, director of research at JPMorgan in Tokyo, notes that operations at all but two of Japan's 54 nuclear power plants have been suspended, but it's not yet clear what will replace them.
"Here we are a year later and we are still seeing absolutely no clarity on even the basics of a new forward-looking energy policy," he says. "Unfortunately, that's not the Japan that's going to be a global, leading economic powerhouse."
Kan, the former prime minister, had indicated that Japan would reconsider its dependence on nuclear energy, but his successor appears to have backed away from this pledge. The current leader, Noda, says that his government will propose a new mix of energy sources this summer.
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