The Fukushima nuclear disaster is so recent that it’s been difficult to have a nuanced and thorough perspective on this event. Mark Willacy’s history attempts to tell the story of Fukushima through the stories of not only the people who lived in the area, but also the senior government officials who dealt with the crisis. Willacy has a deep knowledge of Japan, and had visited the area hit by the tsunami a year before the disaster. One of the strengths of the work is the extensive interviews Willacy undertook to build a detailed image of complex events. By using the techniques of narrative non-fiction, his book conveys information largely by showing the reader through scenes, which helps to show why data matters. With his deep knowledge of contemporary Japan, and his detailed interviews, Willacy creates a beautifully written and detailed account of this disaster. At the same time, this was an emotionally challenging work to read, in part because of Willacy’s approach. The passages in which parents lost children, or suffered from guilt because of the choices that they had made in the midst of their crisis, made me put down the book at a few points. But the book is essential to understand how this disaster could happen, and Willacy carefully describes the manifold faults of the Japanese government. On the one hand, Willacy describes the Japanese Prime-Minister Naoto Kan as a sympathetic figure, who refused to surrender when the situation appeared impossible, and forced the bureaucracy to act. But on the other hand, his depiction of almost all other major players is scathing. For example, Willacy describes a critical moment when the director-general of Japan’s nuclear safety agency (NISA), Nobuaki Terasaka, informed Kan that all power systems were down at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. When the Prime Minister asked questions about what this meant, Terasaka told him “I am a graduate of the Faculty of Economics. . . but I understand the basics of technology.” Kan quickly learned that the nation’s faith in the nuclear bureaucracy was badly misplaced.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the workers at the plant were told that if anyone had a car on the site, they should go and get the battery to power the nuclear plant’s control panels. A back-up generator arrived by truck, but the power cable that came with it was too short to work. From the start, the power company (TEPCO) was slow to share information on what was taking place at the Fukushima plant. They had never planned for key events, such as how to vent a reactor manually, because they never thought that it would be necessary.
What this work makes clear is the enormous pressure that Japan’s senior political leadership faced during the crisis: “Later that day, Kan would contemplate the worst-case scenario: a doomsday release of radiation caused by multiple meltdowns, a chain reaction requiring the evacuation of the world’s most populous metropolis, Tokyo, and its 35 million people.” This situation was simply too overwhelming for many officials to respond to. For example, bureaucrats in Tokyo had computer forecasts that showed the path of fall-out, but had to be forced to release it because they did not want to accept responsibility, or to frighten the public. In the end, the data was not released for twelve days, so that for some people it came too late.
Two pieces of information stand out in the work: 1) TEPCO engineers had realized in 2008 that a tsunami could wash over the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, but the company kept this information from government regulators until four days before the actual tsunami struck and 2) there is some evidence that a nuclear meltdown may have taken place before the tsunami struck. In other words, it may have been the case that the earthquake alone was sufficient to cause a nuclear failure. Indeed, TEPCO seems to have concealed information to discourage any investigation of reactor number one, perhaps out of fear that this was the case. The disaster was marked by TEPCO’s efforts to conceal information not only before the quake, but also afterwords.
Willacy’s key goal with this work is to explain how this nuclear disaster could have happened, and how society responded to this crisis. By using multiple points of view to narrate disparate scenes as the tragedy unfolded, he creates a rich description of the sequence of events during the tsunami and following nuclear disaster. He proves equally skillful in detailing the governmental failures that led both the nuclear crisis, and the woefully insufficient response to the disaster. While this book is difficult to read, it serves as a cautionary tale of how a major developed nation -rich in expertise and with a high level of political capacity- could fail when facing a major test. When finishing the book, one can’t help but wonder if any other national government would have responded better to such a massive crisis. If there was a major nuclear meltdown in France tomorrow, would that nation be able to manage a response more skillfully? The United States already has the legacy of Hurricane Katrina to help us answer this question here. But Willacy does not place this disaster in a broader, international context. Instead, his work serves as a masterful depiction of Japan’s natural and man-made disaster, and the human costs that it entailed.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University