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Learning from a near-death experience?

Tokyo (photo: Sprengben)

Here is the most startling couple of paragraphs that I have seen in the news this week:

Former Prime Minister [of Japan] Naoto Kan said in an interview with Kyodo News that he learned shortly after the nuclear crisis erupted at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant that around 30 million people in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures may have to be evacuated in a worst-case scenario.

Kan told Kyodo that he contemplated the chaos that would have ensued if such a measure had been taken. ”It was a crucial moment when I wasn’t sure whether Japan could continue to function as a state.”

The man who was Prime Minister of Japan just a few weeks ago, and (crucially) during the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima accident, is telling us that the Fukushima accident was an event of the order of the Cuban missile crisis for the nation of Japan. Moreover, his fear was not confined to a single moment in time.

After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant, Kan instructed several entities to simulate what would happen in a worst-case scenario and received assessments that people living in areas located 200 to 250 kilometers from the power plant, encompassing a large swath of Tokyo, would have to be evacuated.

”I felt that the risk was at its highest during the first 10 days (after the disaster struck),” said Kan, who resigned last month as prime minister…

The anxiety extended for more than a week, no doubt involving a large fraction of the political, business and scientific elite of the country. How did they respond? What has been learned? I do not have answers to these questions. Here are some facts from the first six months after the accident which may offer hints.

o  The prime minister resigned under pressure. The new prime minister is the seventh in only six years. Is the government itself in charge, or are these rotating villains? How strong can the national government really be with this much rapid turnover?

o  TEPCO continues to exist as a weakly regulated monopoly utility, though it is trading at around one-fourth of the price pre-accident.  (See chart here, and go back one year.) Early calls to nationalize the company have faded. As far as I can tell, no one from the company has been charged with negligence, mismanagement, nonfeasance, or anything else.

o  The TEPCO CEO resigned a couple of months after the accident began, but his replacement is a TEPCO insider who has spent his entire career with the company. Rotating villain or reformer? Too soon to say.

o  TEPCO will sell about $2.5 billion worth of real estate in October to put toward compensation for the accident.

o  Most nuclear plants in the country are off-line. The new prime minister is worried about hysteresis in Japan (similar to Krugman’s fears of hysteresis in the US).

There will be more repercussions as time goes on, and we will learn more about what actually happened, too. As I said up top, the biggest news seemed to be that the government clearly recognized an existential threat to the country at the time.  That is worth remembering as the narrative continues to unfold.

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