Interview with Kunio Yanagida: Understanding a nuclear disaster

A comprehensive investigation and appropriate countermeasures, with the victims in mind, are vital

by Masami Nishimoto, Senior Staff Writer

Beginning with the A-bombed city of Hiroshima, nonfiction writer Kunio Yanagida has covered the scene of calamities and accidents for half a century, conveying his reports through the eyes of the sufferers. Mr. Yanagida served as the deputy chair of the Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Station of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), a body formed by the Japanese government. The Chugoku Shimbun interviewed Mr. Yanagida for his perspective on what should be understood and considered in the face of nuclear disaster, an issue that has arisen in the wake of the March 11, 2011 accident.

What are your personal thoughts on the final report, almost 450 pages in length, that was issued by the investigation committee this past July?
One aspect of the report, the structural analysis of the accident, could not be fully probed because the deadline for submitting the report was set by the secretariat in line with bureaucratic thinking and, in addition, our committee lacked adequate manpower. Why have the local residents been made to endure such cruel conditions? Why hasn’t the damage caused by the accident been prevented from spreading? To respond to these questions, we made use of a new concept termed “Deficiency analysis from the disaster victims’ standpoint” in the section “Recapitulation of Major Issues.” In writing the report, we wanted to emphasize that standing on the side of the victims is very important when it comes to ensuring suitable countermeasures and taking responsibility.

We have no idea what sort of accidents might occur. But in the case of nuclear power plants, the safety myth revolving around them had been consciously created and government officials and plant designers alike looked at nuclear power stations from the vantage point of developing the energy industry. Disaster prevention plans for accidents at the plants, referring to the evacuation of nearby residents, were mere formalities. As seen in the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, no one can predict the damage that will ensue. It’s vital to devise measures that will ensure the safety and health of the public.

Discussing safer measures seems to lead to the idea of maintaining and promoting nuclear energy.
This isn’t necessarily a condition for promoting its use. Whether or not Japan will reduce the number of its current fleet of 54 nuclear power plants in the future [including the power plant in Fukushima], facilities containing nuclear fuel exist now in Japan. At the very least, there must be safety measures in place to safeguard the surrounding areas. The report could also serve as a message to the world, with its growing number of nuclear power plants.

I find it unacceptable that the Oi nuclear power plant [located in Fukui Prefecture and operated by the Kansai Electric Power Company] was restarted without a system to ensure its safety put in place. The mindset involving nuclear energy hasn’t changed at all since the time prior to the March 11 accident. The Offsite Center [where the on-site task force following the accident was established] still lacks sufficient radiation protection equipment and many nuclear plants are not equipped with a system in which radiation levels can continue to be monitored even in the event of a power failure. This constitutes an extreme contradiction if nuclear power plants are being operated, and deemed safe, while neglecting such dangers. The idea that safety measures for the local residents and areas will be put in place in another three or five years is just appalling.

How would you suggest that the areas in proximity to nuclear plants make use of the committee’s report, which has been posted in full on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office?
The next accident could result in a different scenario from the events of Fukushima. We must use our imagination and simulate such scenarios based on the characteristics of each area. Firstly, I would encourage each municipality to take on this task. The Nuclear Power Regulatory Agency must guarantee the transparency of information by adopting the view of residents. What risks are involved? What would happen in a worst-case scenario? If residents review their disaster prevention plans, they will spot a variety of issues that have been neglected.

I would also like to propose that a comprehensive investigation of the damage from the Fukushima accident be conducted. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare only conducts investigations involving medical care and the Ministry of the Environment only conducts investigations involving radiation contamination. Their investigations are fragmented and only focus on countermeasures for the present. The number of deaths connected to the disaster in Fukushima Prefecture reached as many as 761 in the first year following the accident. Quite a few people died of the stress related to losing their homes and communities, which form the bedrock of our minds, as well as family members and jobs. Harmful rumors have prevented residents from continuing to breed livestock and cultivate crops. There are difficulties involving the education of their children, too. A comprehensive investigation of the damage would indeed demand painstaking effort, but revealing the damage in its entirety would persuade us how important it is to ensure the safety of the nation’s nuclear power plants.

I heard that some objected when you mentioned the damage caused by the atomic bombing in making the case for the importance of a comprehensive investigation into the nuclear disaster.
The committee’s reaction, saying that the accident at the nuclear power plant is different from the atomic bombing, surprised me. Committee members said that, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hundreds of thousands of people were killed and injured and many were exposed to radiation as well, but that this suffering occurred during war, so Fukushima is different. But I think the two cases are the same in terms of the damage sustained by nuclear power. Because of nuclear contamination around the Fukushima plant, as many as 160,000 people are unable to return to their homes.

To cite an example of a comprehensive investigation undertaken in the past, the report refers to the “Atomic Bombing War Damage Record” [published in 1971 and consisting of five volumes], though this title was included only in a footnote. In Tokyo, as well, a citizens’ group conducted a probe of the Tokyo air raids and compiled a book in five volumes. To accomplish this, they gathered a huge number of testimonies, by town and district, which related how people died in the fires or managed to survive. The Tokyo Metropolitan government provided them with financial assistance, too.

With regard to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the administration of Fukushima Prefecture must create a third-party body and support that body’s efforts to record the comprehensive “human damage” being observed by both local residents and experts.

In your book “Kuhaku-no-tenkizu” [“A Blank Weather Chart,” originally published in 1975 and republished in 2011], you delved into the damage brought about by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, as well as the Makurazaki Typhoon [which struck the city in the aftermath]. In the book, you point out that nuclear issues are not being viewed “realistically.” How do you think the people of Japan, including the younger generations, should perceive nuclear issues?
We must look squarely at the actual damage, including the sites, the scenes, and the sufferers. These three points, I think, are essential. We must visit the affected areas to impress the devastation in our mind’s eye. We must view the debris left in these places. And we must listen to the voices of the victims. Then we must discuss the issue, taking it on as a personal concern. The information we find on the Internet won’t leave a lasting impression. But when we stand on the actual sites, realistic ideas will emerge, leading to discussions that are more mature, instead of merely arguments that are shortsighted, black or white, or on the right or left.

The issues involving nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons have been debated from the viewpoints of politics, economics, and international strategy. But what happens once a weapon is used or a plant suffers an accident? Comparing the safety rate of nuclear power plants with that of transportation, and referring to economic costs, some stress the superiority of nuclear plants. But nuclear accidents have a singular characteristic: the radioactive contamination will last for decades. Contamination of this kind could affect the fate of an entire area, even an entire nation. The magnitude of damage is totally different.

In the Great East Japan Earthquake, nearly 20,000 people died or went missing. People lost their parents, their children, their husbands and wives, and are unable to return to their homes. The damage and the tragedy differ in each case. But when we view the disaster as a collective catastrophe in which 20,000 tragedies occurred at the same time, we come closer to the reality. When I worked in Hiroshima as a reporter, I came to realize that it’s vital to see each case in its own light, rather than taking a macro view.

Do you think that Japanese society has changed since March 11, 2011?
It’s true that some unprecedented actions have been taken, such as the anti-nuclear demonstrations ringing the Diet building, and a number of articles and papers have been written. But I wonder whether these constitute mature arguments. I see that by probing the accident in Fukushima from the ground of the disaster, while questioning the values of our modern civilization and people, my task from here is to seek out ideas which will hold up even after the passing of another half century.


Kunio Yanagida
Kunio Yanagida was born in Tochigi Prefecture in 1936. After graduating from the University of Tokyo in 1960, he joined NHK as a reporter and was sent to the NHK station in Hiroshima. After a transfer to Tokyo in 1963, Mr. Yanagida helped pave the way for a new type of journalism by publishing the book “Mahha-no-kyofu” (“The Horror of Mach,” an Oya Soichi Nonfiction Award winner) in 1971. After leaving NHK in 1974, he devoted himself to his writing. His works include “Gankairo-no-asa” (“Morning of Cancer Corridors,” which earned a Kodansha Nonfiction Award); “Gisei Wagamusuko Noshi-no-juuichinichi” (“Sacrifice My Son and his 11 Days of Brain Death,” honored with a Kikuchi Kan Award). His most recent book is “Soteigai-no-wana Daishinsai-to-genpatu” (“Trap of Unexpected Circumstances: Great Earthquakes and Nuclear Power Plants”). Mr. Yanagida is a resident of Suginami Ward, Tokyo.

(Originally published on September 30, 2012)