Myth creation is common during a crisis. Some of them are deconstructed below.
The first major myth concerns Japanese technological prowess. As a nation the Japanese have a strong technological history, but they are not alone in having a long cultural history of avoiding (or outright denying) uncomfortable “truths”.
The first article below is an extensive cut and paste from the New York Times (follow the link for the complete story). I have edited out more from the start of the original piece and highlighted some of the more boring technical or “factual” statements that normally get relegated to the bottom of the journalists pyramid.
Norimitsu Onishi, NYTime, 24 June
SHIKA, Japan — Near a nuclear power plant facing the Sea of Japan, a series of exhibitions in a large public relations building here extols the virtues of the energy source with some help from “Alice in Wonderland.”
“It’s terrible, just terrible,” the White Rabbit says in the first exhibit. “We’re running out of energy, Alice.”
A Dodo robot figure, swiveling to address Alice and the visitors to the building, declares that there is an “ace” form of energy called nuclear power. It is clean, safe and renewable if you reprocess uranium and plutonium, the Dodo says.
“Wow, you can even do that!” Alice says of nuclear power.
See more images at Building Japan’s Nuclear ‘Safety Myth’ also from the NY Times
Over several decades, Japan’s nuclear establishment has devoted vast resources to persuade the Japanese public of the safety and necessity of nuclear power. Plant operators built lavish, fantasy-filled public relations buildings that became tourist attractions. Bureaucrats spun elaborate advertising campaigns through a multitude of organizations established solely to advertise the safety of nuclear plants. Politicians pushed through the adoption of government-mandated school textbooks with friendly views of nuclear power.
The result was the widespread adoption of the belief — called the “safety myth” — that Japan’s nuclear power plants were absolutely safe. Japan single-mindedly pursued nuclear power even as Western nations distanced themselves from it.
As the Japanese continue to search for answers to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, some are digging deep into the national psyche and examining a national propensity to embrace a belief now widely seen as irrational.
Because of this widespread belief in Japanese plants’ absolute safety, plant operators and nuclear regulators failed to adopt proper safety measures and advances in technology, like emergency robots, experts and government officials acknowledge.]
Banri Kaieda, who runs the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the nuclear industry, said at a news conference at an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting in Vienna on Monday. “It’s a fact that there was an unreasonable overconfidence in the technology of Japan’s nuclear power generation.”
With radiation levels too high for workers to approach the reactors, the Japanese authorities floundered. They sent police trucks mounted with water cannons — equipment designed to disperse rioters — to spray water into the reactor buildings. Military helicopters flew over the buildings, dropping water that was scattered off course by strong winds, in a “performance, a kind of circus” that was aimed more at reassuring an increasingly alarmed Japanese population and American government, said Kenichi Matsumoto, an aide to Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Japan lacked some of the basic hardware to respond to a nuclear crisis and, after initial resistance, had to look abroad for help. For a country proud of its technology, the low point occurred on March 31 when it had to use a 203-foot-long water pump — shipped from China…
But perhaps more than anything else, the absence of one particular technology was deeply puzzling: emergency robots.
Japan, after all, is the world’s leader in robotics. It has the world’s largest force of mechanized workers. Its humanoid robots can walk and run on two feet, sing and dance, and even play the violin. But where were the emergency robots at Fukushima?
The answer is that the operators and nuclear regulators, believing that accidents would never occur, steadfastly opposed the introduction of what they regarded as unnecessary technology.
“The plant operators said that robots, which would premise an accident, were not needed,” said Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, 77, an engineer and a former president of the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious academic institution. “Instead, introducing them would inspire fear, they said. That’s why they said that robots couldn’t be introduced.”
The rejection of robots, Mr. Yoshikawa said, was part of the industry’s overall reluctance to improve maintenance and invest in new technologies.
“That’s why the safety myth wasn’t just an empty slogan,” said Mr. Yoshikawa, now the director general of the Center for Research and Development Strategy at the Japan Science and Technology Agency. “It was a kind of mind-set that rejected progress through the introduction of new technology.”
After Chernobyl, the nuclear establishment made sure that Japanese kept believing in safety.
The plant operators built or renovated the public relations buildings — called “P.R. buildings” — attached to their plants. Before Chernobyl, the buildings were simple facilities intended to appeal to “adult men interested in technical matters,” said Noriya Sumihara, an anthropologist at Tenri University who has researched the facilities. Male guides wearing industrial uniforms took visitors around exhibits consisting mostly of wall panels.
But after Chernobyl, the facilities were transformed into elaborate theme parks geared toward young mothers, the group that research showed was most worried about nuclear plants and radiation, Mr. Sumihara said. Women of childbearing age, whose presence alone was meant to reassure the visitors, were hired as guides.
In Higashidori, a town in northern Japan, one of the country’s newest P.R. buildings is built on the theme of Tonttu, a forest with resident dwarfs. The buildings also holds events with anime characters to attract children and young parents…
Here in Shika, more than 100,000 guests last year visited the P.R. building where Alice discovers the wonders of nuclear power. The Caterpillar reassures Alice about radiation and the Cheshire Cat helps her learn about the energy source.
The nuclear establishment also made sure that government-mandated school textbooks underemphasized information that could cast doubt on the safety of nuclear power. In Parliament, the campaign was led by Tokio Kano, a Tepco vice president who became a lawmaker in 1998.
In 2004, under the influence of Mr. Kano and other proponents of nuclear power, education officials ordered revisions to textbooks before endorsing them. In one junior high school social studies textbook, a reference to the growing antinuclear movement in Europe was deleted. In another, a reference to Chernobyl was relegated to a footnote.
The nuclear establishment itself came to believe its own safety myth and “became entangled in its own net,” said Hitoshi Yoshioka, an author of a book on the history of Japan’s nuclear power and a member of a panel established by the prime minister to investigate the causes of the Fukushima disaster.
Will these events mark a transition to more questioning approach by the public to the otherwise supine acceptance of authoritarian opinion?
Asahi Shimbun (Asahi.com), 25 June.
Disappointment toward Tokyo Electric Power Co. for its failure to guard the safety of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and anger at the central government's inept handling of the accident.
Those are the two major themes that emerge from the results of an interview survey of 407 evacuees from the Fukushima nuclear accident.
About 90,000 Fukushima residents have evacuated because of the nuclear accident, with about a third of that number moving outside of the prefecture entirely.While TEPCO may have provided many Fukushima residents with jobs, the nuclear accident has turned many evacuees against nuclear energy.When asked their opinion on the use of nuclear energy, 70 percent of respondents said they were opposed while 26 percent said they were in favor of nuclear energy.While the survey methods and sample sizes are different, those results are much more anti-nuclear than a nationwide poll conducted by The Asahi Shimbun in June in which 37 percent favored the use of nuclear energy and 42 percent opposed it.
Having young children was an obvious reason for not wanting to return to Fukushima.
A 37-year-old woman left her home in Minami-Soma with her husband and one-year-old son even before the region was designated as a potential emergency evacuation zone.
Whenever her son has health problems because of the unaccustomed evacuation life, the woman blames herself for giving birth at such a difficult time."No matter how much they say it is safe, there is no way we can believe them ever again," the woman said.The deep disappointment felt by many of the respondents is due to the fact that many believed TEPCO and other experts who repeatedly said Japan's nuclear power plants were safe and that no accident would ever occur.
Anger at the central government was due in major part to the confusion over evacuation instructions in the immediate aftermath of the accident.
A number of evacuees said they were given conflicting or incomplete instructions that made it difficult to understand where they should flee to.
A 72-year-old woman said, "Information that radioactive materials had spewed from the plant was only transmitted later. If I had known about it earlier, I would have evacuated much farther away."
A woman in her 60s from Namie said, "Not being informed about radiation, I was told to go to a location that had dangerously high levels of radiation."
As a result of such experiences, a total of 80 percent of respondents said the government's response was either totally inappropriate or somewhat inappropriate.
With life in evacuation centers now exceeding three months, close to half of the respondents said their health had worsened as a result.
When workers are put at risk they must be hailed as heros, whether they had a choice or not or new the risks.
Reuters, 24 June.
A decade and a half before it blew apart in a hydrogen blast that punctuated the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima nuclear power plant was the scene of an earlier safety crisis.
Then, as now, a small army of transient workers was put to work to try to stem the damage at the oldest nuclear reactor run by Japan's largest utility.
At the time, workers were racing to finish an unprecedented repair to address a dangerous defect: cracks in the drum-like steel assembly known as the "shroud" surrounding the radioactive core of the reactor.
But in 1997, the effort to save the 21-year-old reactor from being scrapped at a large loss to its operator, Tokyo Electric, also included a quiet effort to skirt Japan's safety rules: foreign workers were brought in for the most dangerous jobs, a manager of the project said.
"It's not well known, but I know what happened," Kazunori Fujii, who managed part of the shroud replacement in 1997, told Reuters. "What we did would not have been allowed under Japanese safety standards."
The previously undisclosed hiring of welders from the United States and Southeast Asia underscores the way Tokyo Electric, a powerful monopoly with deep political connections in Japan, outsourced its riskiest work and developed a lax safety culture in the years leading to the Fukushima disaster, experts say.
The repeated failures that have dogged Tokyo Electric in the three months the Fukushima plant has been in crisis have undercut confidence in the response to the disaster and dismayed outside experts, given corporate Japan's reputation for relentless organization.
Hastily hired workers were sent into the plant without radiation meters. Two splashed into radioactive water wearing street shoes because rubber boots were not available. Even now, few have been given training on radiation risks that meets international standards, according to their accounts and the evaluation of experts.
The workers who stayed on to try to stabilize the plant in the darkest hours after March 11 were lauded as the "Fukushima 50" for their selflessness. But behind the heroism is a legacy of Japanese nuclear workers facing hazards with little oversight, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former nuclear workers, doctors and others.
Huffington Post, 23 June
Controlling information flow in a crisis is crucial to its outcome. So it should come as no surprise that much information received about how the crisis at Fukushima unfolded has been kept away from traditional and social media as long as possible. In the end, however, the truth does come out.
One of my favorite truths this week was the acknowledgment by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that 69 workers who worked at reactor #1 at the Daiichi Fukushima nuclear power plant in March "cannot be found." This means that these individuals, who may have been exposed to high doses of radiation, cannot be located for testing. Was this a case of "sloppy paperwork" or something else? Either way, one wonders how long and why this was kept from the public eye.
While many are no longer surprised to see this sort of thing occurring in Japan, it becomes even less palatable when it happens on the global stage. Take the case of International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) recent decision to hold talks about the Fukushima disaster behind closed doors.But the picture emerging after three months of radiation release is nothing to laugh about. The June 17th edition of Science magazine reports that radioactive cesium (both 134 and 137) has spread over 100 miles from the plant and now affects an area southwest of the reactors with a large pocket of contamination further south to the outskirts of Tokyo.Not telling the truth gives traditional and social media pundits much to write about and makes the pain last longer when it is revealed. Let us hope that more of those with inside knowledge prioritize the people more than they do their entrenched interests.
For an amusing expat view from Japan of the events try Spike Japan. Read the article about Pluto kun (Plutonium Child) and the bizarre world of TEPCO PR aimed specifically at children After the earthquake: So farewell then, Plutonium kun.
“I’m hardly absorbed by your stomach or intestines and I’m expelled by your body, so in fact I can’t kill people at all”.