Recherche FFJ Research Statement Kazunobu Oyama

Kazunobu Oyama

Japanese leadership in the case of the Fukushima nuclear accident



This article aims to reveal the actual state of damage, and the causes of the catastrophic Fukushima nuclear accident to examine why Japanese management and leadership failed to prevent it. The shortcomings of Japanese management and leadership become apparent through the investigation. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) received suggestions for improvement methods for the Mark1-nuclear reactor produced by General Electric (GE). Why did TEPCO’s leaders not heed these suggestions? Why did the Japanese government leaders go into panic mode after the accident? This study ultimately seeks to provide insight on the future of nuclear industry.

1. The panic following the Fukushima nuclear accident

Understandably, the Fukushima nuclear accident wreaked havoc on society, politics, economy, and litigation1 due to the issue of identifying the primary cause of radioactive contamination2.

The International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) classifies the severity of nuclear incidents from level one to seven. The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was categorized as a Level 7 accident, joined only by the Chernobyl disaster. The Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Naoto Kan, was concerned about raising the INES level to 7.3 However, a few nuclear experts criticized the decisions taken by Kan’s government. Mark Tran discusses a criticism by Murray Jennex, an associate professor at San Diego State University.4

Tran analyzed the differences between the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear accidents, comparing the individual nuclear crises using official data. For example, in the case of Chernobyl, the reactor itself exploded while it was still active. However, the cause of the Fukushima accident was not the reactor itself, the malfunctioning of the plant’s cooling system due to the tsunami.5

Tran further highlighted the level of radioactive material released in each accident. The radioactive material released by the Fukushima plant reactor was estimated by the Japanese nuclear safety commission to be more than 10 PBq (petabecquerel), whereas that of the Chernobyl incident was estimated at 5,200 PBq.5

Tran also noted that 50 emergency rescue workers in Chernobyl died from acute radiation syndrome and related illnesses. Furthermore, 4,000 children and adolescents contracted thyroid cancer.5

In Fukushima, however, no radiation-linked deaths have been reported and no more than 21 plant workers were showed symptoms of minor radiation sickness.5

James Mahaffey has been studying various atomic accidents since the 1950s.6 He also meticulously looked into the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents. He attributed the cause of the Fukushima accident to the 49-foot high tsunami that struck 50 minutes after a magnitude 7.2 earthquake (during the Great East Japan Earthquake), which inundated the entire plant; whereas the Chernobyl accident was caused by the nuclear reactor itself.

The government of Naoto Kan was reportedly alarmed when the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant accident occurred.7 They stated that the tsunami of this scale only happened roughly once every hundred years.5 Despite this rationale, they decided to cease nearly all nuclear plants in Japan as though another exceptionally large wave was imminent. Evidently, their account of the accident, and certainly their political decisions, lacked scientific foundation.5

2. The advice neglected by TEPCO

Leaders at TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) disregarded the critical recommendations of Bruno Pellaud, the then deputy Director-General in the secretariat of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Guidelines for the Mark-1 reactor (M-1), manufactured by GE in the United States of America, consisting of four suggestions were made in 1993, 18 years before the accident.8 The suggestions were as follows:

a) strengthening of vessels and buildings;
b) diversification of the power source;
c) construction of a device to combine hydrogen and oxygen to form water, thereby reducing the pressure of hydrogen gas;
d) construction of a device for the ventilation of hydrogen gas (i.e. to dispel radioactivity from the gas).

Had the leaders of TEPCO heeded these suggestions, a serious nuclear accident could have been averted. Merely following suggestion b) alone, could have prevented the accident.

Why did the leaders of TEPCO disregard Pellaud’s suggestions?

Pellaud claimed that TEPCO did not heed his advice because: ‘‘The leaders of TEPCO felt like they were gods.’’ Certainly, they did not respect his opinion out of arrogance. However, it is important to determine the cause of this arrogance, and this would require a brief examination of the history of Japanese nuclear development.

In 1955, the Atomic Energy Fundamental Act was enacted. A year later, the Atomic Energy Commission of Japan and the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute were established, and the Japan Nuclear Power Generating Corporation was founded in 1957. In 1963, Japan’s first commercial nuclear power plant was established in Tokai-mura village.

Japanese nuclear development progressed through cooperation with American companies. In particular, the cooperation among General Electric, Westinghouse Electric, Hitachi, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and Toshiba was instrumental in the development of Japan’s nuclear industry.

Furthermore, two oil crises (i.e. in 1973 and 1978), accelerated nuclear development despite the various challenges posed by nuclear plants. Following these two crises, oil prices skyrocketed from less than USD20 to USD110 per barrel. Given that more than 99% of Japan’s oil is imported, the urgent development of nuclear energy was necessary.

In the 1970s, the technology of nuclear plants in Japan was enhanced. Through these improvements, the average rate of operation of nuclear plants rose from 40%-60% in the 1970s to 70%-80% during the 1980s to the early 2000s. Tetsushi Nakase claimed that these successes were behind the arrogance of Japanese electric companies, including TEPCO; and that its successful performance, created an environment wherein no one could criticize the improved nuclear technology.9

Furthermore, escalating discussions on the battle against global warming prompted the development of nuclear technology in the 1990s. In particular, the Kyoto Protocol which extends the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, pushed for the development of nuclear technology, which could reduce CO2 emissions.  

The leaders of Japanese nuclear electric companies had to acknowledge both the anti-nuclear movement and the necessity for the development of nuclear energy to reduce CO2 emissions. They had to guarantee the absolute safety of nuclear plants to convince anti-nuclear leaders to support with the construction of nuclear plants in each prefecture. Needless to say, no technology is 100% safe. However, without such declaration, they would not be able to build nuclear plants in any prefecture because of the widespread anti-nuclear sentiments in Japan.

In their efforts to prevent public outcry, the nuclear energy leaders disregarded scientific and logical explanations. They avoided a challenging negotiation through a scientific approach. Once the absolute safety of the nuclear plants was declared, they must have been in a dilemma before upgrading the plants, because, doing so would have meant that the nuclear plants were not entirely safe.

Their hubris caused them to ignore Pellaud’s advice. In fact, a third or even half of the leaders may have actually believed in the absolute safety of their nuclear plants.

3. The characteristics of Japanese leadership and the decision-making process

There was an observable lack of reason and an atmosphere of emotional avoidance with respect to nuclear technology in Japan after the Fukushima accident. Given Japanese cultural norms, these sentiments were echoed by majority of the public.

Japanese leaders seldom debate on matters that go against the prevailing opinion. For instance, before the Fukushima accident, the leaders of Japanese electric companies rarely discussed the security of nuclear technology with anti-nuclear advocates. They thoughtlessly declared the absolute safety of the plants to the public to evade intense scientific debate. They ultimately managed to let the counterforce go past without controversy. This is a characteristic of Japanese leadership.

To this day, Japanese leaders - including statesmen, the government, and corporate executives - avoid combative debates on the future policies on nuclear energy in Japan, just as they were before the Fukushima accident. Therefore, we must recognize the serious limitations of this traditional Japanese leadership style of conflict avoidance.

 Furthermore, another fundamental problem is that some Japanese leaders are inclined to truckle to certain dominant public opinions. However, many of these dominant opinions are simply fabricated by mass media.

The importance of a science-based standard

Traditionally, Japanese leadership maintains the characteristic of coordinating the diversity of opinions. However, this style of leadership is mainly concerned with the emotional condition of its members. Certainly, it has the merit of upholding emotional harmony within an organization.

Nevertheless, it poses the problem of avoiding disputes with others to gain perspective or to realize crucial objectives. It hinders constructive conflict (i.e., conflict that works toward mutual understanding and creating the best possible solution). Furthermore, Japanese leaders are inclined to be submissive to or flatter dominant opinions to avoid difficult discussions. This is a serious flaw in Japanese leadership.

Moving forward, Japanese leaders must show fortitude and assertiveness in the pursuit of the truth, which is in the best interest of public interest. In any discussion or dispute, scientific bases or facts are important; accordingly, Japanese leaders must utilize science-based data or information to persuade others in an objective manner.

4. The future of the nuclear industry

Today, France generates approximately 75% of its energy through nuclear plants. Japan, as with England, cannot buy energy from foreign countries. Nuclear energy continues to be a practical alternative for any country, along with thermal and hydroelectric energy. Renewable energy source such as solar, biomass, wind, geothermal, and kinetic wave energy comprise only a small percentage of total generated energy.

Moreover, thermal power generation is major source of CO2 emissions. In addition, dams used for hydroelectric power generation bring about the problem of sea encroachment. Japanese leaders must develop a nuclear development strategy with a concrete roadmap based on scientific theory.

Because of the presence of important companies in Japan (e.g., Hitachi, Toshiba, and Mitsubishi), Japanese leaders in politics, government, and energy industries have a responsibility to create a scientific nuclear development strategy against the emotional and radical anti-nuclear movement, for the sake of future generations.

Undoubtedly, engaging in debate with anti-nuclear advocates that is based on scientific logic is far more important than that with emotional opinion to realize the safety of nuclear technology.


1. Jobin, P. May 1, 2020 ‘‘The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster and Civil Actions as a Social Movement’’ The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol.18 Issue 9 Number1

2. Houdart, S. 20 mai, 2020 « En déroute. Enquêter non loin de la centrale de Fukushima Daiichi, Japon » Sociologie S En ligne

3. Jennex, M. 2013 Using Social and Information Technologies for Disaster and Crisis Management IGI Global.

4. Tran, M. April 12, 2011 ‘‘Nuclear Crises: How Do Fukushima and Chernobyl Compare?’’ The Guardian.

5. Ibid

6. Mahaffey, J. 2014. Atomic Accidents Pegasus Books New York

7. The Independent Investigation Fukushima Nuclear Accident The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Disaster: Investigating the Myth and Reality 2014 Routledge

8. Pellaud, B. June 12, 2011 Journal of Sankei p.3

9. Nakase, T. 2005『日本電気事業経営史』第9章 Business History of Japanese Electrical Industry Chap 9 Nihon Hyouronsha