A Case Study on Crisis Management: Japan

I was living in Japan for more than 15 years, so I keep close bonds with the country. I had several chances to experiment National crises as well as localized situations. This summed up to my work there made me especially sensible to risk and crises situations.

When you start to learn about risk, one of the concepts that the first study is that “there is no 100% safe scenario”. The Fukushima Disaster triggered by the 2011 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku is a proof of that.

Last year It came to my sight a report about Power Generation and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant disaster.

Back to the sixties, Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant emerged as the answer to requests for revitalizing a declining industrial area. In the case of Fukushima, there was an optimal combination of possible environment variables: a perfect location to install a Power Generation Plant, low land prices, and support among local authorities and population.

To cope with risks perception by locals about nuclear power generation, Japanese government implemented several measures aiming to raise living standards in affected areas. The plant began operation on 1971, 40 years before the incident. Construction abide with Japanese anti-earthquake regulation in that time, one of the most advanced and strict in the world (even forty years ago)

Fukushima Daiichi is a complex with 6 nuclear reactors and a total power generation of 4,7GW, the 25th biggest Plant in the world. There is an additional Plant, Fukushima Daini, located just 11 km away from the first one.

The plant is located on the seaside to take advantage of seawater as the coolant. During design, it was estimated that the sea level would at most rise around 6.1 meters. So, a 6m high breakwater was built.

The Incident — Sequence of events.

  1. March 11, 2011, 14:30 p.m., a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Tohoku Region.
  2. Emergency systems on Fukushima Daiichi Plant took control and shut down four of the reactors. The other two were on technical shut down due to regular inspection.
  3. High-voltage power lines supplying the complex fell down, cutting off the power supply to the Plant.
  4. Emergency generators took over power supply; These generators consumed diesel fuel from tanks located on the Plant basement. Refrigeration of reactors under shutting down sequence continued without interruptions. Up to that moment, all risk response measures were executed as planned.
  5. 50 minutes after the quake, several Tsunami waves with a maximum height of 38m arrived, flooding Plant facilities and the whole area.
  1. Fuel tanks in the Basement rendered uselessly and emergency generators stopped.
  2. Engines pumping seawater to the pools for reactors refrigeration also were flooded and interrupted the Core cooling system.
  3. Since the emergency supply ceased to operate, pumps for the cooling water circulation systems also stopped, so temperature and pressure inside the reactors steadily rose.
  4. The Plant Central Command requested portable generators to the Power Supply Company, which were promptly dispatched on special trucks. But the vehicles were trapped on traffic jams caused by the earthquake.
  5. There was a second request of portable generators to a different Company, that arrived at the Plant 24 hours after the first quake.
  6. It was impossible to avoid the reactor-cores melt-down.
  7. Moreover, workers on duty were not aware of contention system operation. If they were, core meltdown could have been delayed for 7 additional hours.


  • №1 core-reactor was exposed at least during four hours.
  • As for used fuel, it was possible to continue cooling the fuel stored in pools by manually spraying water, but some radioactive substances were released.
  • The cooling system was finally fixed but continued unstable for 9 days after the accident.

To summarize, there were 3 explosions releasing substance and rising significantly radiation levels on the surroundings; at least one of the reactor-cores suffered a partial melt-down; and there was a leakage of contaminated radioactive water into the sea.


I consider three lessons to learn:

Continuous risks assessment and revision of Risk Response Plans (including simulation exercises).There was an early case of earthquake producing similar tsunami waves of 20 to 30m: I remind watching news reports on TV assuring that the Japanese Tsunami early alert system would mitigate similar impact in case of Japan.

Now came to my mind similar reports after 1989 Loma-Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, when TV News were describing the destruction of elevated highways and discarding that a similar situation would happen in Japan. On 1995, the Great Hansin earthquake, in Kobe produced destruction.

Every detail counts when you are running against time. — Traffic in Japan can be a nightmare in certain occasion. The vehicle fleet in quite big. There is a main network of highways crossing the country, but the rest of road are mainly twisty roads or passing through several populated areas full of crossings and traffic lights. In the case of a major earthquake are collapse more due to traffic than to destruction of facilities.

Crisis Management. — This issue seems still not fully addressed in Japan. The number and the quality of disaster simulations are impressive. Citizens are very supportive and you may find a proof of the collaboration during any catastrophe in Japan and during Fukushima Incident. Nevertheless, there is a dark spot around how authorities and major corporations manage crises outside these simulation scenarios.

Two of the main features associated with crises are a high degree of unpredictability and an exponentially increase impact over time. This goes against the Japanese mindset: everything must be analyzed and planned, so as not to leave space for a chance. The experience shows they seem not able to make quick choices, improvise or find solutions to new problems.

let´s explore this through time with three examples:

  • JAL Flight 123 accident on 1985.- It was the deadliest single-aircraft accident in history. Casualties of the crash included all 15 crew members and 505 of the 509 passengers; some passengers survived the initial crash but subsequently died of their injuries hours later, mostly due to delays in the rescue operation. Emergency teams were not coordinated so first rescue team reaches the location 12 hours after the crash.
  • 1995 Great Hansin earthquake. — Once again the Government was highly criticized for a lack of quick response and disorganization of volunteers and rejecting initially foreign emergency aid. It was surprising to watch TV scopes where the local gang, “yakuza”, organized the distribution of first aid and supplies. In this case, citizens started to organize aside official channels.
  • As for he said 2011 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku, still 76% of nationals disapprove the government Crisis management during this disaster.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You may have seen post last November about a mega-sinkhole in Fukuoka repaired in just a week. Although it was a situation with a localized impact, it shows a high degree of coordination and quick response to a crisis.