Update via email received from a reporter friend-
This past week, I have sat through countless renditions of the question
‘what is the worst case scenario of the Fukushima crisis’? I’ve
also heard more or less identical answers from Japanese government
officials facing foreign reporters, diplomats and academics: we are
doing our best, the situation could still get worse, and even outright
evasion. But tonight, at a special briefing convened by METI’s Nuclear
and Safety Agency at the Foreign Press Centre (I sneaked in), I heard
something special: the deputy director general of the agency saying that
he did not envisage the situation getting worse. I turned around and
looked at the Wall Street Journal bureau chief sitting behind me, and we
both nodded: this was significant. It confirmed the lull that seemed to
descend on Friday. Friday was in contrast to the other days because
there were no dramatic incidents: no fires, explosions or spikes in
radiation. All the happened Friday was a continuation of the fire
fighting activity, with the emphasis switched from helicopters flying
overhead and dumping water, to water cannon.
The more cynical of the journalists believed that this Friday calm was
artificial – that it was the government putting a cap on the information
being disclosed. Thus, the NYT report this morning was as negative as
ever in its assessment of the situation. I cannot check the London
Times, as it’s behind a pay wall, but one of their extremely
intelligent and capable journalists who attended the briefing also
seemed reluctant to believe the situation had improved. He is a vehement
critic of TEPCO, and it’s possible he cannot bear to allow them any
credit for any improvement.
Another bright spot is that TEPCO now seems firmly out of the picture.
The TEPCO staff is now vastly outnumbered by the combined forces of the
SDF, Police and Tokyo Fire Brigade, with their special trucks and teams.
A headquarters has been set up close to the plant, with some US experts
in attendance, and all under the supervision of a senior official from
METI. TEPCO’s role is now limited to providing the detailed technical
information on the plant necessary for the rescue workers to do their
My sense is that the situation is still incredibly dangerous – it
would be madness to deny that, given that THREE sets of fuel rods in
three reactors are exposed – but I feel that we are moving into a new
phase. This involves an expensive, dirty and fiendishly difficult war to
turn three mountains of radio active waste into something that people
can live on, or at least around. It took months to fix Chernobyl
(indeed, Chernobyl has a permanent exclusion zone around it), and it
could take even longer to fix Fukushima. However, finally, we are seeing
a real array of overwhelming force arrayed against the reactors.
I heard some inside information on what turned the situation around.
According to an eccentric but very brilliant source of mine (who is
right about half the time!), the turning point in tackling the disaster
was the emperor’s speech earlier this week, when he highlighted the
gravity of the situation. According to this source, it was the Yukiya
Amano, the Japanese head of the international nuclear watchdog, the
IAEA, who played a key role in all of this. Indeed, Amano comes from an
extremely well connected and aristocratic background. He could see
immediately that TEPCO could not cope on its own, and had to be shifted
out of the picture. He therefore approached the powerful Imperial
Household agency, and advised them strongly to allow the emperor to make
a public appearance. It was this atavistic appeal, said my source, which
galvanized the SDF to put their lives on the lines, and fly their
helicopters through the Fukushima radiation. It was the emperor’s plea
which also cut through the bureaucratic red tape and energised Japan’s
warring bureaucrats and politicians to work together. Plus ca
Finally, where does it put all of us, regarding the decision of when to
return to our offices? It may take a few days for confidence to return.
I know that many Western firms have closed down for the coming week as
well. ‘One swallow does not make a spring’
is a proverb worth bearing in mind at this point.