Tragedy of slow reaction

Fukushima

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Rose James Rose

By Mark Wil­lacy Macmil­lan, 338pp, $32.95

IN 1946, Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist John Hersey pub­lished a clas­sic piece of re­portage on the af­ter­math of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. His prize-win­ning book Hiroshima cap­tured de­tails of the ex­tra­or­di­nary hor­ror that de­scended on that city’s civil­ians and, per­haps most vi­tally and poignantly, told the sto­ries of those who lived it. It’s the sort of book that prompts read­ers to stop and stare for mo­ments, tak­ing in the aw­ful scenes and pierc­ing emo­tions of that time. Mark Wil­lacy’s ex­em­plary work cov­er­ing the March 2011 earth­quake and tsunami in Ja­pan for the ABC as its North Asia cor­re­spon­dent won him his sec­ond Walk­ley. His Fukushima man­ages to equal Hersey’s ad­mirable ef­fort.

When a force 9.0 earth­quake rum­bled into life about 70km off the east coast of Ja­pan and 30km be­neath the sur­face just be­fore 3pm on March 11, 2011, it was the big­gest in Ja­pan’s nat­u­ral-disas­ter-dot­ted his­tory and the fifth big­gest earth­quake in recorded his­tory. The tidal wave it tilted land­wards pushed 10 bil­lion tonnes of sea­wa­ter at a speed of 800km/h to­wards Ja­pan’s clut­tered coast­line. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple stood in the way of this wall of wa­ter. So did the mute cool­ing tow­ers and deadly contents of the Fukushima nu­clear re­ac­tor. This was never go­ing to end well.

With more than 15,000 con­firmed dead, more than 2000 still miss­ing and a dam­age bill of about $US345 bil­lion and ris­ing (mak­ing this the most fi­nan­cially costly nat­u­ral disas­ter ever), the worst fears were con­firmed.

But the hu­man er­ror, ig­no­rance, self­ish­ness and mal­ad­min­is­tra­tion emerg­ing from the deadly equa­tion of tsunami and nu­clear re­ac­tor made it worse. Like a trench-coated gumshoe, Wil­lacy kicks through the rub­ble, turns over the bod­ies and pur­sues those who lived to tell their tales, and finds plenty of ev­i­dence with which to pin­ion var­i­ous bu­reau­crats, politi­cians and ex­perts. If the earth­quake and tsunami were dis­as­ters wait­ing to hap­pen — given Ja­pan’s ge­og­ra­phy — then the Fukushima nu­clear re­ac­tor melt­down was a disas­ter that hap­pened be­cause of wait­ing. And the reper­cus­sions from that will rip­ple through Ja­pan’s fu­ture way be­yond 3/11’s af­ter­shocks.

The Tokyo Elec­tric Power Com­pany — TEPCO — was es­tab­lished in the early 1950s as one of 10 com­pa­nies set up to over­turn Ja­pan’s wartime eco­nomic model. How­ever, Ja­pan’s unique in­dus­trial pol­icy en­sured com­pa­nies like TEPCO were deeply em­bed­ded in the pa­tron­age and graft that has ac­com­pa­nied the na­tion’s spec­tac­u­lar rise and fall in the decades since. This would all rather come to a head as TEPCO’s Fukushima Dai’ichi nu­clear power plant be­gan to melt its way into the ground and send clouds of ra­dioac­tive dust waft­ing over the sur­round­ing pop­u­lace.

For Wil­lacy, TEPCO is the chief vil­lain. He un­earths ev­i­dence that the com­pany failed to act on its own warn­ing sys­tems, de­nied govern­ment of­fi­cials ac­cess to data and up­dates, lay­ered veils of mis­in­for­ma­tion and false­hoods over the Fukushima plant, with­held in­for­ma­tion and lied on its way to writ­ing a new chap­ter in cor­po­rate in­famy in an al­ready bulging tome.

It’s telling that in a coun­try where or­di­nary peo­ple would rather suck air through their teeth and shake their head than ac­cuse any au­thor­ity fig­ure of wrong­do­ing, Wil­lacy elic­its pointed barbs of crit­i­cisms and anger to­wards TEPCO from the top to the bot­tom of Ja­panese so­ci­ety. One TEPCO em­ployee spits, ‘‘ TEPCO is to be blamed.’’

Such words are tan­ta­mount to trea­son in Ja­pan. But more and more peo­ple are will­ing to say them. That same TEPCO em­ployee adds, ‘‘ But also the govern­ment. Then again, it was us who elected them. So I sup­pose we are also re­spon­si­ble.’’

That seems a harsh judg­ment, es­pe­cially as Wil­lacy weaves in sto­ries of those caught in the triple whammy of earth­quake, tsunami and nu­clear melt­down. Crush­ing tales of vic­tims trapped in cars, bob­bing down the tsunami’s mega-tide, never to be seen again; of school­child­ren trapped on lower ground due to their teach­ers’ dither­ing; of fam­i­lies van­ished; of small cities dis­ap­peared; of re­gions made un­liv­able and of a gen­er­a­tion ripped apart are ex­pertly con­tex­tu­alised and act as a per­fect hu­man foil for the high-end pol­i­tics and PR spin Wil­lacy high­lights in the ex­ec­u­tive suites and halls of power.

And there are heroes. They in­clude the TEPCO em­ploy­ees who risked their lives to try to save the plant and, thereby, the peo­ple around it; those who tried to warn of the dangers both be­fore and dur­ing the disas­ter; and the jour­nal­ists who at­tempted to point out the de­fi­cien­cies in Ja­pan’s nu­clear ‘‘ deal with the devil’’. Most of them were trag­i­cally ig­nored.

While in­di­vid­u­als count, in this case it seems clear it was a sys­temic fail­ure across the board. In­ces­tu­ous re­la­tion­ships be­tween big busi­ness, govern­ment, bu­reau­crats, the me­dia and academia in Ja­pan have cre­ated a sick, dys­func­tional off­spring. Fukushima is es­sen­tially a med­i­cal test on the fal­ter­ing body politic of Ja­pan, and the di­ag­no­sis de­liv­ered by Wil­lacy seems fa­tal.

The movie char­ac­ter Godzilla was cre­ated in Ja­pan in the mid-1950s as a kind of fic­tional em­bod­i­ment of the nu­clear de­struc­tion that had rained down on that coun­try only a few years be­fore. The clunky di­nosaur crea­ture wreaked havoc as it stum­bled among the rick­ety stu­dio sets meant to de­pict Tokyo, just as Lit­tle Boy and Fat Man did in Hiroshima and Na­gasaki. Its many fans clearly saw in it a fo­cal point for the power in­her­ent in the nu­clear age and Godzilla re­mains pop­u­lar in Ja­pan and else­where. Clearly, the world is still try­ing to de­cide upon the pros and cons of nu­clear power and Godzilla, a fear­ful mis­take of nat­u­ral and hu­man mak­ing, is one way of re­flect­ing that.

It’s a strug­gle, per­haps, that the peo­ple of Ja­pan have been forced to get used to.

Wil­lacy, per­haps more so than Hersey be­fore him, paints a pic­ture of a tragedy against the back­drop of its source, lay­er­ing the many small dis­as­ters within. It’s pos­si­ble to con­clude that while the sub­servience and syco­phancy built into Ja­panese so­ci­ety may be prob­lem­atic — and Fukushima of­fers pages of proof — then their close al­lies of sac­ri­fice, com­pas­sion and mu­tu­al­ity are surely Ja­pan’s fu­ture. In such a world, Fukushima and what it stands for would be rel­e­gated to be­ing the ex­ple­tive it sounds like: a def­i­ni­tion of folly. Mark Wil­lacy’s book should help make it so.

Sur­vivors of the disas­ter pray be­fore a makeshift me­mo­rial

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