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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Discussing Nuclear Disaster

Apr. 28, 2015

High school students in Fukushima started a discussion group with a twist. They are exploring the nuclear disaster that poisoned their prefecture in 2011, as well as how accidents can be prevented in the future.

They are learning by walking in the shoes of others, taking on specific roles in exercises dealing with Japan’s nuclear crisis.

One student assigned the role of an official from the utility that manages the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant said “as a utility company, we give top priority to employment and aim to restart power plants, while considering the views of local residents.” Another teenager, playing a concerned citizen, said “what we have lost in the accident is the resource-rich sea we were proud of, which was our treasure, as well as the fishing industry and our jobs.”

The students studied what happened by reading the report issued by the independent investigation panel assigned by the Diet. Their discussions don’t really look at the pros and cons of atomic energy. The aim is to put the accident into perspective.

Students from Tokyo found out about the project, and traveled to Fukushima to join in. When the two groups met, differences of awareness divided them, but they soon found goals to share.

“Living in Tokyo does not mean the accident is not our problem,” said student Yoko Kitami. “If we go overseas, we will be asked to explain. So it’s important for all Japanese to think about the problem and take action.”

The two groups did a role play discussion. A student playing a nuclear plant worker asked, “How are you prepared to deal with an accident involving a worker engaged in the decommissioning of reactor?” Another, playing an official with the plant operators replied, “we are waiting for instructions from the government.”

This answer prompted shock. “Instructions from the government? What section of the government, exactly?” The “plant operator” came back with “I was saying we will make a decision based on the regulatory offices’ manual.” The worker replied with “So the regulator is going to make the manual for handling accidents that may happen during the decommissioning work. You said the regulator will do it. Then what will you do?”

After the session, the students talked about what they learned. One of the students remarked, “if you have a view that’s inconvenient to your organization, you can’t say it because you will be ignored. You can’t speak up for fear of being ostracized.” Another said, “I thought that it may be easier to give up your view and follow others by taking on their opinions.”

The students concluded that organizational flaws contributed to the accident. For example, utility workers felt they couldn’t say what they thought was right.

After the discussion the groups worked on a joint statement. They outlined how they could use the lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi crisis to ensure similar accidents never happen again. Their statement read, in part, “we wish to live in a future in which we won’t compromise until diverse opinions are discussed thoroughly and everyone is satisfied. We don’t want to be like a fish that just goes with the flow. We, the young, will continue to try to solve problems one by one, mindful of reality. For the problems won’t be solved within our lifetime.”

The students from Fukushima and Tokyo hope to convey that message to as many people as possible, regardless of generation or nationality.

The students based their discussions on reports by the Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Committee. The reports were the product of a panel of independent experts appointed by lawmakers in Japan’s Diet to investigate the accident at Fukushima Daiichi.

The panel spent 900 hours questioning more than 1000 witnesses. They ranged from the prime minister who was in office at the time of the accident and senior TEPCO officials to workers who dealt with the crisis.

The report says some of those officials knew before the accident that a large tsunami could have had a severe impact on the plant.

It says they put the utility’s business interests ahead of safety, even though they’d had chances to avert a disaster. The report concluded the accident was “clearly manmade.”

The report also reveals what it called the “regulatory capture” of the Japanese nuclear industry. The term refers to regulators who were, in effect, complying with the expectations of the power companies.

In the conclusion, the report recommended creating a permanent parliamentary committee to oversee the regulatory authorities of nuclear plants.

Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, who headed the Diet investigation, joined us in the studio.

Shibuya: What is your impression of the high school students’ discussions about the Fukushima accident?

Kurokawa: This is wonderful, to see these youngsters express their different positions, to think for themselves, from different views. This is a wonderful thing. This kind of role-play is not part of Japanese education or corporate culture, so this is a wonderful thing to wake them up. I see a great future.

Beppu: Dr. Kurokawa, in your report, you and your panel used the term “regulatory capture.” Students also talked about organizational flaws that led to the nuclear accident. Now, given the Japanese government is in favor of restarting reactors that conform to regulations, how concerned are you?

Kurokawa: It’s not necessarily concern, but in this hyper-connected world, I think that transparency, openness and sharing the lessons with the rest of the world form a very important process. That is true with anything, such as restarting reactors. Transparency and welcoming world expertise and sharing lessons with the world are very important.

Beppu: How much do you think the mindset you describe in the report is still present?

Kurokawa: I think there is a lot of vested interest in Japanese institutions. This investigation commission, in the Diet, was the first one in 70 years. When I tell this to people, they say “the first one? Unbelievable.” The three branches of government have to be independent.

Beppu: Your report came out nearly 3 years ago. It included several suggestions, such as establishing a permanent committee within the Diet to oversee regulators. But that committee has yet to be set up?

Kurokawa: Actually it has been set up, but the functionality has yet to come. Many bureaucrats may not understand the meaning of this commission.

Beppu: Among the recommendations, which do you think is the most urgent?

Kurokawa: I think there are about 440 nuclear plants in operation in the world, and there are about 70 under construction. I think the world community is curious, and wants to know what is happening in Fukushima. There are lessons that we can share and learn, about how they can help Japan. And that attitude is still lacking, more openness and sharing. This is a grave disaster, so why not share with the rest of the world? That is what they are waiting for.

Shibuya: The world is watching how Japan handles this accident at Fukushima Daiichi. What do you think is Japan’s mission?

Kurokawa: I think that is another kind of mindset built in to a majority of Japanese. That is what these young students said about this kind of “groupthink” type of thing, and how to say a different opinion in an institution.

Beppu: What do you think we should do more of?

Kurokawa: I think that NHK World is unique, because in Japan we have a lot of blogs and tweeting, but the majority is in Japanese. Why not translate some into English and share it with the world?