The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, The Earthquake and the Tsunami Revisited: What Have We Learnt?


Early on the 22nd of November, a magnitude 7.4 earthquake struck off the eastern coast of Japan, causing tsunami waves reaching 1.4 meters in places. It brought back memories of the terrible Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Disaster that happened five-and-a-half years ago.

Thankfully, the damage this time round was far less, although there was an accident at the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plant. At the no.3 reactor, the flow of the water cooling nearly 2,500 spent fuel rods was stopped for nearly 100 minutes. Although this incident was barely reported in the media, I do not think we can afford to take this incident lightly, because of several reasons I explain below.

First, we must keep in mind that Japan is a country prone to earthquakes. 20% of all M6+ earthquakes occur in Japan. ‘Earthquakes, lightening, fire and fathers,’ were the fearful things of Japan in old legend. Earthquakes are least predictable and yet they will unleash their wrath. After a large seismic event like the 3.11 earthquake, the crust becomes highly unstable, leading to even more heightened seismic and volcanic activity, which in turn calls for more awareness.

Apparently the government is preparing for imminent earthquakes along the Nankai Trough as part of this ‘preparedness’.

Another example is the designation of the 5th of November as World Tsunami Awareness Day, and on the 26th of November, Kuroshio town in Kochi hosted an event related to tsunami awareness, where 360 young people from 30 countries came together to learn about the dangers of tsunamis (in Japanese). Which makes it even more pitiful that the incident at Fukushima Daini happened followed by an earthquake and tsunami.

Second, Japan still has 50 nuclear reactors, most of which have the spent nuclear fuel rods stored in onsite pools filled with cooling water. Luckily for us, the fuel rods at Fukushima Daini were already being cooled for five years, meaning that the temperatures did not rise to a dangerous level. As you may recall, the U.S expressed urgent concern over the loss of cooling capability for the spent fuel rods stored at the no.4 reactor of Fukushima Daiichi.

Third, the ground movement on Nov 22 was reported as being below 100 Gal units. Japanese nuclear reactors are supposed to be built to withstand such shocks, and indeed ground movements of more than 400 to 600 Gal units, with backfitting to the main structure to ensure that the reactors are able to adhere to the higher requirements in light of new information. But what are these requirements, and are the changes adequate? Might they have forgotten to include spent fuel rods in new plans that meet these stringent requirements? Surely not, I hope. And yet… why do they, for example, persist in putting the spent fuel rods at the top of reactor buildings, a design that probably magnifies the movement in comparison to what it would have been at ground level? And what about the water coolant for these fuel rods?

Even when focusing just on the things that went wrong at Fukushima Daiichi, how have the lessons of thevhistorical disaster of Fukushima Daiichi been reflected in the current nuclear reactors of Japan? At the Sendai reactor? At the other reactors scheduled for re-start? The answers are not clear, leaving me very worried.

I have not heard an awful lot, and even if answers are attempted, they include jargon like ‘dry cask storage’ and are mentioned without conviction, without explanation, or any concrete examples. Discussion for discussion’s sake won’t take us very far, I’m afraid, yet it seems that it is exactly the case. Despite making ‘confident’ statements about resumption of operations at several nuclear power plants, it seems that the safety measures are sorely lacking. And this ‘small’ incident has laid bare the inadequacy of the Japanese response for all the world to see.

In my closing statement for the NAIIC report, I remark (in Japanese only).

” We are not without precedent with regards to disasters. The 2004 December Earthquake of magnitude 9.1, with massive tsunami, now known as the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, was followed by an earthquake in 2005 with magnitude 8.6, and even this year (this statement was published in July, 2012) an M8.6 quake has struck the vicinity. There is nothing that allows us to assume that this will not happen in the case of the 2011 earthquake off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has already been shown to be vulnerable, and as for the other nuclear power facilities in Japan, for which safety standards remain questionable, I am afraid we are in a race against time”.

A part of my comments have also appeared in an article on the recent earthquake in the New York Times. Japan is in quite a sorry state at the moment. I hear about the status of the safety of nuclear power plants and I am often asked for my views from outside world….

The Legacy of Dr. Bälz


This year was the 140th anniversary of the arrival of Dr. Bälz in Japan. He was a key medical doctor who helped usher in modern western medicine and laid the foundations for a medical education system in Japan, all those years ago.

And the 22nd of November, 1901, was the day a grand party was held to commemorate his 25th year in Japan.

Bälz makes reference to this special event in his diary (in Japanese), along with a poignant and important message (in Japanese) that is referenced even to this day.

Coincidentally, the Igakukai Shimbun, a weekly that is widely read by medical doctors and students in Japan, had an interesting article in its edition for the 21st of November (exactly 115th year of his speech). It was a conversation (in Japanesepdf version) between Dr Ryozo Nagai, President of Jichi Medical University and an expert on Dr. Bälz; Dr Moritz Bälz, the great-grandson of Bälz’s younger brother, and myself. I say coincidental, because the concept of this conversation had been thought of nearly a year ago, and things started falling in place around spring, making it difficult to gauge when we would actually be finished. This makes it all the more special that it just happened to be on this day.

I would really like people who are involved in medicine, whether it be clinical medicine, general practitioners, medical researchers, or people involved in the wider sense of the term like care-givers and of course, aspiring medical students, to read this article. I have put it up here so that people can read it and reach me with any comments. I await!

Life is truly filled with inexplicable coincidences, such as my meeting with Mr. Bälz, or the date of publication of this article.

Several Invitations, Talks and Discussions



These days, I have been lucky to be invited to attend several unique parties, receptions and dinners. Barring a few, most were public events, and some were organized by embassies.

Just to give you a general idea, I attended the following events:

Birdlife International’s annual fundraising gala, (the honorary president, Princess Takamado, was unable to attend owing to the mourning for Prince Mikasa’s passing), the commemoration of the creation of the Pasteur Japan Foundation through the collaboration of Institut Pasteur, Tokyo University and Kyoto University, The official unveiling ceremony of the Intilaq Tohoku Innovation Center (in Japanese) by the Qatar Friendship Fund, The Norwegian embassy’s reception for the visit of Norway’s foreign minister, and other events organized by the French embassy, the Swiss embassy, the Dutch embassy, and the British embassy.

At one embassy, I was invited to a small lunch that would be attended by ‘around 10 people’. Turned out that I was the only Japanese invitee, the rest being Minister and the entourage of 5, and the ambassador and his  staff. After some small talk, the conversation turned to the current situation in Fukushima after the nuclear disaster, as the Minister sought to learn more. Ever since I headed the NAIIC, I have found myself in similar situations more than few times.

Indeed, I recall that I was once specifically asked for by a visiting foreign dignitary, who was tired of receiving incomprehensible and non-committal replies when he had asked government officials and representatives of Japan about the kind of response Japan was planning in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster. Even taking into account the fact that there may be some errors arising due to translation, the policies of the Japanese government post-Fukushima requires some truly mind-bending and convoluted logic. It is really difficult to explain it in simple terms, probably because there is dissonance between the observations and conclusions. No wonder the hapless government officials were unable to provide reasonable answers. It is disturbing that, although the Fukushima Daiichi disaster ranks right up there as one of the worst nuclear disasters the world has seen, the response cannot be explained to a global audience.

I have written extensively about this worrying issue in the book ‘Regulatory Capture’ (in Japanese), released in March this year. It is not a trifling matter; for it deals with the trust that lies at the heart of national governance.