Viewpoint: Japan plant - who is in charge?

Prime Minister Naoto Kan arrives at parliament on 30 March 2011 PM Naoto Kan is wrestling with both humanitarian and nuclear crises

As Japan works to recover from its greatest natural disaster in modern times, attention remains focused on the evolving situation at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Despite efforts by Tokyo Electric Power Company's (Tepco) engineers, the Self-Defence Forces, police and firemen, conditions there appear to have grown steadily worse.

On 1 April, Prime Minister Naoto Kan admitted that the plant had not yet been "sufficiently stabilised", acknowledging it would be a "long-term battle".

Since the beginning, one of the unanswered questions has been: "Who is in charge?"

A Japanese law laying out measures to be taken by the government in case of a nuclear energy disaster dictates that when a nuclear accident happens, an atomic power disaster response headquarters headed by the prime minister is to be established.

This ad hoc headquarters is expected to take charge of setting out the government's response and facilitating necessary inter-agency co-ordination within the government.

As the head of the disaster response headquarters, the prime minister has the authority to direct relevant government agencies as well as private companies that are involved in responding to the disaster.

He has two entities from which to draw expert opinions to assist him in decision-making: the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (Nisa, an agency within the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade (Meti)) and the Nuclear Safety Commission, an advisory panel made up of non-government experts.

So, legally speaking, the prime minister of Japan is in charge. Or he is supposed to be.

Advisers

So what of Mr Kan's leadership to date? On the one hand, it has been clear that he wants to appear in charge: he wanted to "speak directly to the Japanese people" in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.

People in a temporary shelter in Fukushima prefecture watch Prime Minister Naoto Kan give an address on 15 March 2011 Mr Kan has made several addresses to the nation since the 11 March quake

He issued a press statement immediately after the disaster, and so far has made five televised addresses, most recently on 25 March. Four days after the quake, amid confusion over the situation at the plant, he was overheard by journalists asking Tepco executives: "What the hell is going on?"

Demonstrating his distrust in Tepco and Meti, he has appointed a number of non-government experts in addition to those who are already in advisory roles. As of 29 March, 5 out of 15 advisers were appointed specifically to advise on the situation at the plant.

Yet despite his efforts, as more time passes he appears less in charge. In terms of media questions, he has for the most part left the top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, and Tepco executives in the hot seat.

Too many advisers around Mr Kan have created confusion in the communication process within government, making it harder, not easier, for him to make decisions.

Instead, we have witnessed finger-pointing, primarily at Tepco and also at Nisa. In fact, the idea of separating Nisa from Meti and making it an independent agency has already been floated as one of the lessons learned from the situation.

This is because the Kan government feels that Meti has been in too cosy a relationship with Tepco - to the extent that it has not exercised proper supervisory authority over the power giant and its response to the plant situation.

'Too big to fail'

Certainly, Tepco deserves the criticism that it has been receiving. For one thing, Tepco does not have a good record of managing nuclear accidents. Its responses to previous incidents have been severely criticised as "tardy" and "not forthcoming with timely information".

Aerial view of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on 30 March 2011 Plant operator Tepco has come in for criticism over its handling of the situation

In 2002 it was also revealed that Tepco had been forging safety inspection records of some of its nuclear power plants. This time, Tepco has been severely criticised as it may have underestimated the gravity of the situation in the first several days.

In addition, it has been castigated by the government for not only not being forthcoming with critical radiation information, but also providing incorrect radiation readings from the plant.

As a power company with a monopoly in providing electricity to Tokyo and eight prefectures in eastern Japan, no one can deny that Tepco has been plagued with a "We are too big to fail" mentality, making it less proactive about emergency planning.

The decades-long tradition of close co-operation between big businesses and the government agencies that have regulatory and supervisory authority over them has certainly contributed to lapses in oversight.

It also, in part, has made the government dependent on these businesses for technical expertise.

Shut out

That said, Mr Kan's performance in responding to the accident at the plant is also illustrative of the fundamental problem in the governance style of his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

The DPJ-led government was elected in August 2009, ending more than five decades of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Even before this crisis hit, the DPJ's insistence on "leadership by politicians" - compared to the consensus, bottom-up style adopted by the LDP - had created problems.

The DPJ's deep mistrust in the bureaucracy has driven them to go outside existing government frameworks to look for solutions rather than attempting to effectively utilise the bureaucracy.

By alienating the bureaucracy in the decision-making process, the relationship between DPJ political leaders and the bureaucrats has been greatly soured. Its approach also prevented the DPJ from learning how to maximise bureaucrats' policy and technical expertise.

Given that the magnitude of the disaster that Mr Kan and his government face is unprecedented, there is no guarantee that an LDP government would have been able to respond to the crisis any better.

Even so, Mr Kan's instinct to look outside the government for counsel without tapping into the knowledge of the bureaucracy has created a situation in which he has essentially excluded the bureaucrats as a source of information.

This is critically disadvantageous, as the prime minister's chosen advisers - despite being experts in their field - will not have the same level of on-the-ground information.

Without better utilising the expertise that already exists in the bureaucracy, we will continue to see Mr Kan and his government fall behind the curve in its response.

Yuki Tatsumi is senior associate of the East Asia Programme at the Stimson Center, a Washington DC-based think-tank.

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