JAPAN: When Disasters Strike Japan

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15 Mar 2012
Region: JAPAN
Few things test the relationship between the government and the people than when a disaster strikes. A year ago, Japan had the misfortunate to experience two natural disasters in rapid succession, a major earthquake followed by a devastating tsunami.
By any measure, the government’s emphasis on building codes and other systems to ensure that even an earthquake with the magnitude of 9.0 would not result in significant loss of life or destruction of homes was impressive. The stark contrast between the earthquake in Haiti with a magnitude of 7.0 and the devastating loss of life and the misery plaguing the survivors two years later and the impact in Japan demonstrate that respect for human rights can actually mitigate the damage from natural disasters.

However, a year after the catastrophe, one area reveals a significant fault line between the government and the people living in Japan. The too close relationship between the nuclear power industry and the government contributed to weak regulation of the industry and even weaker enforcement of the regulations that did exist. Those who spoke out about the lack of oversight and the risks inherent in this failure were marginalized. As long as nothing happened, both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) could hide behind empty assurances that all was safe. On 11 March 2011 everything changed.

When the relationship between the regulators and the industry is too close, it is the people who suffer. In the case of Japan, people living in the area of the Fukushima Daiichi plant complex had been assured that the plants were safe, that they could withstand any natural disaster. This was a patent example of disinformation.

Failing to regulate an industry that has the potential to create so much harm both in the immediate term and long term is unacceptable. To obsfucate, deny and delay in responding to a nuclear disaster and place people’s lives as risk is unconscionable.

In the case of the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors, the failure to disclose accurate information was not limited to the status of the plants’ safety prior to the earthquake - it continued after the government realized it had a serious problem on its hands.

The government hid information from the public, including acknowledging that three of the six nuclear reactors suffered meltdowns. The government delayed evacuating people from the affected areas. It gave conflicting advice on acceptable levels of radiations in areas housing schools. It failed to share information with experts who could have helped evaluate the gravity of the situation in a timely manner. In short, the government’s response failed to prioritize the safely and well being of the people in the area.

A key element of the freedom of expression is the right to seek information. Governments must ensure that accurate and timely information is available to the people they govern. For people struggling to survive in the aftermath of a natural disaster, access to credible and timely information is crucial for enabling them to make informed decisions about how best to proceed. Instead, people living in the area who were also suffering from the shock of the earthquake and the devastation of the tsunami were placed at more risk by the government’s failure to act swiftly based on the best information available to protect the health and well-being of the people.

The delay in settling claims for families who were displaced by the crisis has been slow adding insult to injury for the people who have been displaced. The government finally issued restitution standards in February 2012, 11 months after the catastrophe. TEPCO must be held accountable both for its failure to foresee the potential for a catastrophic accident; its failure to manage the crisis effectively and now its failure to provide timely compensation to those who suffered as a result of the nuclear accident.

It remains to be seen how the government will rebuilt its trust with people in Japan. But there are specific actions the government can take. First, it must ensure that oversight of private industry, including the nuclear power industry, is truly independent and effective. Second, it can commit to transparency in the evaluation of the current nuclear plans and commission studies by truly independent experts on the potential impact of the plants and any possible accidents on the people in the area and the environment. Based on these studies the government should take appropriate action to prevent negative impacts. Third the government can set up a system for sharing information in a crisis that facilitates timely communication from the state to the local government and to the people. Finally, the government can support vigorous debate in government and promote the freedom of expression in civil society, including for people who challenge the government and corporate actors.

Amnesty International
Secretary General
Salil Shetty

15 March 2012

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