Fukushima's Unsung Heroes and Implications of the New Seminal Report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences for the Future of (Japan's) Nuclear Power Industry

[An abridged version of this article first appeared in print and online of The Japan Times on August 25, 2014]

First, a confession: I am born in Iran, 60 years old, and have been a professor of engineering in the U.S. for almost 30 years; nevertheless, I am also a staunch fan of Japan and a diehard admirer of Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō. I made sure to pay my homage to him in my very first trip to Japan on the way to Tsuruga, during the few hours I had in Tokyo on September 6, 1999, by visiting the Togo Shrine, in Harajuku. I have been fascinated by reading about Admiral Togo's exemplary leadership and tactics during the Russo-Japanese War and especially his victory in the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, when he fought a formidable enemy, in an unprecedented, unequal battle, and against all odds. His fleet was heavily outnumbered, but he skillfully managed the war theater and ingeniously choreographed his underdog forces by "crossing the enemy's T" and decimated the Russian Baltic fleet in just two days which shocked the world which is referred to by historian, as "the most devastating naval victory in modern history." It was Admiral Togo's genius leadership, flexible strategic thinking, situational awareness, and dynamic decision-making that enabled him and his dedicated sailors to win the uphill battle, stop the foe and saved their country. If he had lost the Battle and, according to a declassified undated U.S. Navy document, "Japan [had been] decisively beaten at sea, Russia would have a free hand on the continent and would even be in a position to invade the Japanese homeland."

I believe the same admirable level of leadership, fortitude, dedication and stratagem was employed by the Superintendent of the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Station, Mr. Naohiro Masuda, and his 200 dedicated colleagues who on March 11, 2011. After the earthquake and tsunami faced the formidable foe of the loss of offsite power and station blackout, Mr. Masuda also fought against all odds, improvised, made lots of impromptu, but prudent decisions and were eventually able to save the day and brought all their four reactors to cold shutdown by March 15th and making history. Their amazing heroic acts are too numerous to mention. Nevertheless, the most memorable noteworthy ones include, "flexibly applying Emergency Operation Procedures (EOPs)" and "Temporary cable of 9 km length was laid by about 200 personnel within a day. Usually this size of cable laying requires 20 personnel and more than 1 month period."

Daini staff's personal sacrifices and dedication of staying in the plant and continuing working in dire conditions, while not knowing whether their families survived the earthquake and tsunami, and working relentlessly to bring the four reactors to the cold shutdown state, are of epic proportion that not only stopped their foe, which was the propagation of the accident that could have led to multiple meltdowns, and saved their plant (which was 20 km closer to Tokyo than Daiichi), but also perhaps their whole region. I believe, Mr. Masuda and his Daini colleagues, who certainly are unsung heroes, deserve to also be considered as national heroes of Japan, just like my revered Admiral Tōgō.

It is an undeniable fact that unexpected and "beyond design basis" events will occur; since system designers cannot anticipate all possible scenarios of failure, and hence are not able to provide pre-planned safety measures for every contingency. As such, for the foreseeable future, despite advances in the so-called "computationally strong" and robust models, and elegant mathematical techniques, such as probabilistic risk analysis/assessment (PRA), incorporation of sophisticated technological fixes and reliance on more automation and so-called "intelligent" devices, human operators will have to remain in charge of the day-to-day controlling and monitoring of nuclear power plants. As the renowned Professor Jens Rasmussen of Denmark said in 1987, "operators are maintained in [complex technological] systems because they are flexible, can learn and do adapt to the peculiarities of the system, and thus they are expected to plug the holes in the designer's imagination."

Fukushima Daini and Daiichi operators, once more, verified the above-mentioned fact and exemplified the notion that at the time of a major accident at a hazardous complex, large-scale technological systems, such as a nuclear power plant, human operators always constitute the society's both the first and last layer of defense. This is one of the most important lessons of the Fukushima accidents.

Without respecting and understanding the vital role of human factors in technological systems and proactively addressing/cultivating/facilitating their performance during unexpected ("beyond design basis") events, nuclear safety will only be a distant mirage and recovery will be an unattainable dream. The recently released report of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety of U.S. Nuclear Plants, which of course for obvious reasons has focused more on Daiichi, affirmed this important fact:

"The Fukushima Daiichi accident reaffirms the important role that people play in responding to severe nuclear accidents and beyond-design-basis accidents more generally... Recovery ultimately depended on the ingenuity of the people on the scene to develop and implement alternative mitigation plans in real time...There is a growing evidence that people are a source of system resilience because of their ability to adapt creatively in response to unforeseen circumstances...The Fukushima Daiichi accident reaffirmed that people [human operators] are the last line of defense in a sever accident." (emphasis added, p. J. 1& 3)

The nuclear power industry in Japan and elsewhere should not only diligently read the lines but also between the lines of the NAS's consensus report, which was the agreed upon common denominator of the 20 experts' analyses.

Moreover, nuclear power plants in Japan and elsewhere should not only concentrate on the lessons of Fukushima Daiichi and Daini plants, which were owned and operated by TEPCO, but also should try to learn further about all the safety culture-related root-causes of why is that the Onagawa nuclear power station, which was owned and operated by Tohoku utility, was located 60 km closer to the epicenter of the earthquake and the tsunami height was reportedly higher there, had a totally different fate. According to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission that visited Onagawa and evaluated its performance, "the plant experienced very high levels of ground motion -- the strongest shaking that any nuclear plant has ever experienced from an earthquake," but it "shut down safely" and was "remarkably undamaged."

While the Fukushima and Onagawa power plants shared similar disaster conditions, nuclear reactor types (Boiling Water Reactor BWR, Mark I), dates of operation and an identical regulatory regime, it was only Tohoku Electric's Onagawa power plant that went unscathed. My remarkable former engineering student, Miss Airi Ryu from Japan, has addressed this issue in her research report, which its summary, entitled "Culture of Safety Can Make or Break Nuclear Power Plants," has been published last March in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and The Japan Times. Nevertheless, an important question that should further be investigated deals with the fact that what Tohoku's decision-makers and organization did differently from/than their TEPCO counterparts concerning safety precautions starting well before, during and after the construction phase, since the commissioning of the Onagawa's three reactors in 1988, all the way during its operation till 2011?

The July 2012 report of the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) described the Fukushima accident as "a man-made disaster" and "made in Japan," because Japan's nuclear industry failed to absorb the lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In the words of NAIIC chairman Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, "It was this mindset that led to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster."

The nuclear power industry in Japan (and for that matter, also elsewhere) in cooperation of their responsible regulatory agencies, such as the newly created and Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), should develop a systematic plan with definitive actionable timetable for addressing all aforementioned NAS report's recommendations. Most importantly, while trying to address esoteric, nevertheless vital, concepts such as "severe accident management," they should conduct a soul-searching about this industry's "mind-set," past safety premises and practices. They should ask themselves the inconvenient and tough question: At the end of the day, was it the collage of analytical models, sophisticated technologies, and automated safety devices that averted (up to possibly four) multiple assured reactor meltdowns at and saved Daini? Or was it primarily because of Mr. Masuda and his tiny staff who were only armed with their creative minds and bare hands, and relied only upon their total system comprehension and experiential knowledge?

After armed with an honest apolitical answer to the foregoing question, Japan's nuclear power industry and the NRA before this fall, when the two nuclear reactors at Sendai and Takahama are expected to restart, should come up with a definitive actionable timetable for addressing all recommendations of the aforementioned NAIIC and NAS studies. They should develop a long-term safety strategic plan and decide on recourse allocation to commensurate with their priorities, potential roles and impact on unexpected or unforeseeable events, accident prevention and consequence mitigation. Taking these steps are of paramount importance, as Japan is embarking on its newly announced Basic Energy Plan, which could revive and expand the country's nuclear power sector.

There could be a debate that whether the Fukushima nuclear accidents were preventable, "man-made in Japan" or else, but there is no doubt that the heroic efforts of the group of selfless human operators who stayed in their plants could also be attributed to the unique combination of Japanese collectivist society and cultural traits of patriotism, loyalty, work ethics, and tradition of sacrifice for a higher national goal than just one's self-survival.

What went on inside the Fukushima stricken plants, right after the tsunami, is the new epic story of "man-saved (in) Japan." Japan's nuclear power industry and the NRA owe their being and present status to the epic efforts of Japan's past national heroes. They should not only cherish their legends but also imitate their paths to victory; Admiral Tōgō's at the beginning of the 20th century or the new version, Mr. Masuda and his colleagues at the Fukushima stricken plants in the 21st century.

Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering and international relations at the University of Southern California (USC), conducts research on technological systems safety and has visited many nuclear power stations around the world, including Chernobyl (1997), Mihama (1999), and Fukushima Daiichi and Daini (2012). He severed as a Member (2012-2013) and Technical Advisor (2013-2014) on the U.S. National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Committee on Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants. This commentary, however, should not necessarily be construed as the entire Committee's representative position.