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tsunami approaches the plant area
On who’s to blame, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said, “Needless to say, TEPCO is primarily responsible , but the state can’t escape blame because it promoted the use of nuclear power.” TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu said, "The accident was caused by the violence of nature — a tsunami caused by an unprecedented earthquake — and it is regrettable the crisis has escalated to such an extreme state of affairs."

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, There has also been widespread criticism in Japan that the regulators’ lack of independence contributed to clumsy response during the first days of the nuclear crisis. The government largely left the response up to the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, during a period the company now acknowledges that nuclear fuel was melting down in three of the plant’s reactors. Officials in the prime minister’s office have since complained that they were getting inadequate information from not only Tokyo Electric, but also from the government ministry in charge of nuclear power and regulators.

The Japanese government nuclear task force report acknowledged in June 2011 that bureaucratic red tape, and the division of responsibilities across several government agencies, had hampered the response to the accident. It said the government would separate the country's nuclear safety watchdog from the trade and industry ministry, a recommendation made earlier this month by a team of experts from the IAEA.

Panel Declares the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis “Man-Made”

In July 2012, Jiji Press reported: “An independent panel of the Diet concluded that the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011 was a "man-made" disaster rather than a natural one. Chaired by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a former president of the Science Council of Japan, the inquiry panel included the judgment in a 640-page report. "The direct causes of the crisis were all foreseeable prior to March 11, 2011," when a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region, the report said. The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, however, was "incapable of withstanding" the huge disaster, it said.

“Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., the country's two nuclear regulatory bodies and the industry ministry "all failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements," the report said. The Fukushima crisis "cannot be regarded as a natural disaster," Kurokawa said in the report's preface. "It was a profoundly man-made disaster.”

“The government, the regulators and TEPCO lacked a sense of responsibility for protecting people's lives and society, Kurokawa also said. "There were many opportunities" for the regulators--the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and the Nuclear Safety Commission--and TEPCO "to take measures that would have prevented the crisis," the report said. "But they did not do so." "They either intentionally postponed putting safety measures in place, or made decisions based on their organization's self-interest," the report emphasized.

Criticism of the Japanese Government’s Handling of the Fukushima Crisis

Ken Belson and Andrew Pollack wrote in the New York Times, “Detractors, including political opponents and industry experts here and abroad, have said that nuclear regulators and the power company did not act fast enough to prevent the explosions that damaged the reactor buildings, and that efforts to cool the reactors and spent fuel pools with helicopters and water cannons were ineffective. The government has also been assailed for its evacuation measures, which foreign governments said were insufficient, and its monitoring of radioactive materials in the food supply and ocean, which critics said has been inadequate. [Source: Ken Belson and Andrew Pollack, New York Times, April 10, 2011]

Ian Buruma wrote: “Few people had any understanding of who was responsible for what. Sometimes it looked very much as if the Japanese government itself was kept in the dark by officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Company ( TEPCO), owners of the nuclear power plants that are leaking radiation into land, sea, and sky. Prime Minister Naoto Kan had to ask TEPCO executives at one point, “What the hell is going on?” If Kan didn't know, how could anyone else? Indeed, Japan's powerful bureaucrats, normally assumed to know what they are doing, appeared to be as helpless as elected politicians.” [Source: Ian Buruma, Project Syndicate, April 2011]

Calls for Prime Minister Naoto Kan to step down grew louder over his alleged remark that evacuees from around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant "will not be able to return for 10 to 20 years." Kenichi Matsumoto, an advisor to the Kan administration, said the prime minister made the remark during talks the two had that day. Kan has strongly denied Matsumoto's claim. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 16, 2011]

In late April 2011, Kan’s handpicked advisor for the crisis at Fukushima nuclear power plant — Toshiso Kosako, a radiation specialist at Tokyo University — was resigned over the “impromptu” handling of the crisis. “The government has belittled laws and taken measures only foe the present moment, resulting in delays in bringing the situation under control,” he said.

A cable dated on March 18, 2008, released on Wikileaks, showed that then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer made a prophetic warning to Washington about Japan's disaster preparedness, citing "compartmentalization and risk aversion within the bureaucracy."

Naoto Kan and the Government Handling of the Fukushima Crisis

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Kan in the tsunami zone
Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “At the drama’s heart was an outsider prime minister who saw the need for quick action but whose well-founded mistrust of a system of alliances between powerful plant operators, compliant bureaucrats and sympathetic politicians deprived him of resources he could have used to make better-informed decisions.” [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, June 12, 2011]

“A onetime grass-roots activist, Mr. Kan struggled to manage the nuclear crisis because he felt he could not rely on the very mechanisms established by his predecessors to respond to such a crisis. Instead, he turned at the beginning only to a handful of close, overwhelmed advisers who knew little about nuclear plants and who barely exchanged information with the plant’s operator and nuclear regulators. Struggling to manage a humanitarian disaster caused by the tsunami, Mr. Kan improvised his government’s response to the worsening nuclear crisis, seeming to vacillate between personally intervening at the plant and leaving it to... TEPCO.” “There were delays. First of all, we weren’t getting accurate information from TEPCO,” said Kenichi Matsumoto, an adviser to Mr. Kan. But Mr. Matsumoto added that the prime minister’s distrust of TEPCO and bureaucrats “interfered” with the overall response.

“The early disarray alarmed the United States government enough that it increasingly urged the Japanese to take more decisive action, and to be more forthcoming in sharing information. Making matters worse was Mr. Kan’s initial reluctance to accept the help of the United States, which offered pump trucks, unmanned drones and the advice of American nuclear crisis experts.” “We found ourselves in a downward spiral, which hurt relations with the United States,” said Manabu Terada, a lawmaker who served as an aide to Mr. Kan at that time. “We lost credibility with America, and TEPCO lost credibility with us.”

“Even some supporters say that Mr. Kan could have moved faster and more decisively if he had used Japan’s existing crisis management system. The system was created in 1986 and subsequently strengthened by Japanese leaders who had sought more power for the prime minister. Modeled on crisis management in the White House — even down to the Situation Room under the prime minister’s office — the system brought together bureaucrats from various ministries under the direct command of the prime minister, said Atsuyuki Sassa, the head of the Cabinet Security Affairs Office in the late 1980s.”

“Critics and supporters alike said Mr. Kan’s decision to bypass this system, choosing instead to rely on a small circle of trusted advisers with little experience in handling a crisis of this scale, blocked him from grasping the severity of the disaster sooner. Sometimes those advisers did not even know all the resources available to them. This includes the existence of a nationwide system of radiation detectors known as the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or Speedi.

An interim report released in October 2011 by a TEPCO panel said, "There is no evidence that [Kan's] visit delayed the start of venting." However, it did state: "Plant Manager [Masao] Yoshida briefed [Kan] on the emergency situation. A senior official stationed at the off-site [emergency response] center entered the nuclear plant to guide Kan around from the time of his arrival."

Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Confusion of the Early Government Response to the Fukushima Disaster

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Kan checking out tsunami damage
The government of Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was generally given poor marks by the Japanese public for its handling of the earthquake and tsunami crisis. In an April Yomiuri Shimbun poll, 70 percent of those who responded said that Kan was unable to exercise leadership during the crisis. Many respondents said they were unhappy about the government response to the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis and the failure of the government to release important information about the crisis. Support for the Kan cabinet was 31 percent, a seven percent increase from before the quake.

Hannah Beech wrote in Time magazine, “At a time when the country is craving leadership, Kan has not provided it. He labeled the March 11 disaster Japan's worst crisis since World War II — then abruptly receded from public view. As the recovery phase has gathered steam, he has largely left day-to-day management of the quake's aftermath to a snail-paced bureaucracy. One of his only public moves has been to call for a national-unity government, but the LDP — with grim predictability — snubbed his offer. Given the uninspired state of Japan's politics, it's no surprise that one-third of young Japanese are what are called election virgins — people who have never bothered to vote.” [Hannah Beech, Time, April 4, 2011]

Seventy-six pages of summaries of meetings held after the outbreak of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant expose the ineptitude of the government in dealing with the disaster. The summaries themselves are inadequate because of the poor records kept at important meetings. "We should've been prepared for an emergency by [setting up a system] to tape-record meetings that take place in confusing situations, so the recordings could be used to produce ex post facto minutes," former cabinet chief Yukio Edano told reporters when the summaries were released. The 76 pages of summaries were compiled based on notes left by the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and other involved parties. [Source: Toshiaki Sato and Koichi Yasuda , Yomiuri Shimbun, March 12, 2012]

Toshiaki Sato and Koichi Yasuda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: The first meeting of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters, which is headed by the prime minister, began after 7 p.m. on March 11, the day when the government declared a state of emergency at the Fukushima plant. Although the government was supposed to take the lead in swiftly resolving the crisis, the summaries suggest it was completely confused and decided on a mishmash of policies with little transparency.

Symbolic of this confusion was the government's assessment of the meltdown. Members of the headquarters were briefed that the plant had activated emergency cooling systems, run mainly on batteries, after losing its power, the summaries said. "After [the batteries go dead in about] eight hours, the reactors probably will undergo a meltdown," an unknown speaker was quoted as saying in the summaries.

According to an analysis by Tokyo Electric Power Co. in May, a meltdown is believed to have started at the No. 1 reactor on the night of March 11.However, members of the headquarters apparently were not aware of the imminent danger. "No radioactive materials have been detected to have leaked from the plant. There is no need to take special action," another unknown speaker was quoted as saying in the summaries.In line with this statement, the government issued an evacuation order only to people within a three-kilometer radius of the plant.

Later, the government received a report from TEPCO saying it would release steam from the plant's reactor into the atmosphere to reduce pressure inside. As a result, the government expanded the evacuation area to 10 kilometers early in the morning of March 12. But opinion was divided in the Cabinet on the size of the evacuation zone.In the third meeting of the headquarters, which started early in the afternoon of March 12, Koichiro Gemba, then state minister in charge of national policy, called on the headquarters to reconsider the evacuation zone. "There is the possibility of a meltdown. Shouldn't we review the 10-kilometer-radius zone [and expand it further]?" Gemba was quoted as saying. Three hours after this meeting, a hydrogen explosion ripped the No. 1 reactor building apart, an incident no one in the government had anticipated. As a result, the evacuation area was expanded to 20 kilometers in the evening.

The summaries also show confusion in the government's chain of command was compounded when hydrogen explosions occurred at the plant's Nos. 3 and 4 reactor buildings. At the eighth meeting held in the early afternoon of March 15, then Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yoshihiro Katayama made a complaint. "Who is leading this operation? We've received numerous requests, but many of them seem pointless," he was quoted as saying. "They are piecemeal and childish. There is a lack of command [in the government]." Katayama apparently was critical that the integrated command had been split up, so operations were being carried out on the basement floor of the Prime Minister Office's crisis management center and on the fifth floor, where Prime Minister Naoto Kan was working. However, Kan put all the blame on TEPCO, according to the summaries. "Ninety percent of the raw data comes from TEPCO," Kan said, “but communication is insufficient."

At the 10th meeting on March 17, Cabinet members expressed frustration over the situation as comprehensive policies still had not been worked out, even though six days had passed since the disaster. "We should order local residents [around the nuclear power plant] to evacuate based on the worst-case scenario," Gemba was quoted as saying. "I've already devised an evacuation plan." It is not known if that plan was approved.

Naoto Kan and TEPCO's Handling of the Fukushima Crisis

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Kan at Fukushima
Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Kan’s critics and supporters alike say his suspicions of TEPCO were well-founded. In the early days after the March 11 disaster, TEPCO shared only limited information with the prime minister’s office, trying instead to play down the risks at the plant, they said.” [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, June 12, 2011]

“Yet the Kan government essentially left the handling of the nuclear crisis in the crucial first three days to TEPCO, focusing instead on relief efforts for the hundreds of thousands left homeless, Mr. Terada and other aides said. Then on March 14, the gravity of the plant’s situation was revealed by a second explosion, this time at Reactor No. 3, and a startling request that night from TEPCO’s president, Masataka Shimizu: that TEPCO be allowed to withdraw its employees from the plant because it had become too dangerous to remain.”

“When he heard this, Mr. Kan flew into a rage, said aides and advisers who were present. Abandoning the plant would mean losing control of the four stricken reactors; the next day, explosions occurred at the two remaining active reactors, No. 2 and No. 4. “This is not a joke,” the prime minister yelled, according to the aides. They said Mr. Kan convened an emergency meeting early on March 15, asking advisers what more could be done to save the reactors. Then he gave TEPCO barely two hours’ warning that he planned to visit the company.”

At 5:30 a.m., Mr. Kan marched into TEPCO headquarters and stationed one of his most trusted aides, Goshi Hosono, there to keep tabs on the company. Mr. Kan gave a five-minute impromptu pep talk, said his aide, Mr. Terada. “Withdrawing from the plant is out of the question,” Mr. Kan told them. Advisers said the placement of Mr. Hosono in TEPCO was a turning point, helping the prime minister to take direct control of damage-control efforts at the plant. “For the first time, we knew what TEPCO was debating, and what they knew,” said one adviser, who asked not to be identified.

However, even Mr. Kan’s supporters acknowledge that the move came too late. “We should have moved faster,” said Masanori Aritomi, a nuclear engineer at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and an adviser to Mr. Kan. Mr. Aritomi said that even with Mr. Hosono stationed inside TEPCO, the company still did not disclose crucial information until mid-May, including final confirmation that three of the plant’s four active reactors had melted down.

Kan Blows Up at TEPCO Headquarters

Video footage from March 15 shows Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who came from the Prime Minister's Office to TEPCO headquarters, being left by himself in a small room while TEPCO executives were busily gathering information. At about 5:30 a.m. on March 15, 2011, according to a TECO teleconference video, Prime Minister Naoto Kan walked into the head office of Tokyo Electric Power Co. in Tokyo's Uchisaiwaicho district. Eyeing TEPCO executives and employees, Kan launched into an about 14-minute speech voicing his discontent with the utility's handling of the nuclear accident. Although video images released by TEPCO do not contain audio, Kan is shown waving his arms while looking at TEPCO executives. Kan looked furious. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 16, 2012]

The video footage was taken from behind Kan. As a result, his facial expressions are not visible. TEPCO officials said that first, Kan said, "I think you understand what is happening at the Fukushima nuclear plant and what the situation means." Kan then instructed that a joint headquarters be established between the government and TEPCO to handle the accident, saying: "The head of the headquarters is me, Kan. The deputy heads are Minister Kaieda and [ TEPCO] President [Takamasa] Shimizu...The damage is extremely severe. If things remain unchanged, Japan as a nation will be ruined...Withdrawal [from the Fukushima plant] is unthinkable...Bet your lives on this work...Even if you try to run away, you won't be able to in the end.”

Kan also complained that reports about a hydrogen explosion at the No. 1 reactor building was delayed after it was reported on TV. Kan said: "I went to the site and exchanged information with Fukushima plant head [Masao Yoshida]. Reports are slow, incorrect and wrong...Don't think only about what's happening now, but take immediate action to anticipate what will happen next... TEPCO must create systems that can cope with this situation...It's no problem if executives who are around 60 go to the accident site and die. I'll go too...[ TEPCO] president and chairman, you must also be determined...If workers [at the plant] leave, it is 100 percent guaranteed that TEPCO will collapse...Why are there so many people? Important decisions should be made by five or six people! Stop kidding around! Prepare a small room!" Kan shouted at TEPCO executives.

The video was also shown inside the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, which was connected to TEPCO headquarters via a teleconference system. The final report of TEPCO's in-house investigation committee said TEPCO employees at the site at the time had said they were angered, embarrassed, demoralized and experienced an extreme sinking feeling.

Report: Prime Minister's Office Caused Greater Confusion by Making Important Decisions Without Sufficient Consultations

An interim report released in December 2011 by a government panel investigating the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant stated that the Prime Minister's Office caused greater confusion by making important decisions without sufficient consultations with concerned organizations. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: As an example, the interim report described how then Prime Minister Naoto Kan responded to the injection of seawater into the No. 1 reactor on the night of March 12, one day after the Great East Japan Earthquake. He was later criticized for trying to stop the operation out of concern that it would cause a recriticality at the reactor. [Source: Shin Watanabe, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 2011]

According to the interim report, the crisis management center in the basement of the Prime Minister's Office was already aware that the power plant had started the sea water injection when Kan and other top government officials--in the prime minister's working room on the fifth floor--were still discussing concerns about the possible recriticality without being informed of the fact.

The interim report suggested such confusion could have been prevented if the people in the prime minister's working room and the crisis management center had sufficient communication with each other. While continuing the discussions, Kan issued an instruction at 6:25 p.m. on March 12 that the evacuation zone should be expanded to a radius of 20 kilometers around the plant from the initially designated 10 kilometers. The interim report found the decision also was related to concerns about the possible recriticality, but the order was issued without consulting concerned ministries and agencies or local governments.

Areas outside the 10-kilometer zone had not been subject to emergency drills before the outbreak of the crisis. Therefore, authorities were not prepared at all to evacuate residents in the newly designated zones. Procedures for briefing concerned local governments and securing shelters were among the missing elements.

As a result, local governments near the crippled plant were forced to decide how to evacuate residents without sufficient information, according to the interim report. "Residents [near the plant] eventually became very distressed by the mixed messages they were getting," the report stated.

Defense of the Japanese Government’s Handling of the Fukushima Crisis

Don Lee and Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times,” Naoto Kan... and his government have faced sharp criticism from the public for the slow response to aid victims and their handling of the still-unresolved nuclear power station crisis in Fukushima. But many Japanese also see a more lively, if inexperienced, party at the helm that is trying to do things differently. In appointing a reconstruction committee, Kan purposefully excluded politicians, including members of Japan's parliament.”

Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, defended Japan’s response to the humanitarian and nuclear crises set off by the earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and damaged a nuclear power station far surpassed what experts had planned for. Responses to disasters are rarely perfect, Edano said. But given the enormousness of the catastrophe, which included the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan and a historic tsunami, the government has done all that it could.[Source: Ken Belson and Andrew Pollack, New York Times, April 10, 2011]

Edano, who has effectively become the face of the government’s response, thanks to his daily news briefings, said “We believe that under very severe circumstances, with enough pressure placed on the government of having to make decisions of what needs to be done next, I believe we have selected the best option every time.” He declined to speculate on what the government could have done differently in the wake of the disaster but said the tsunami was beyond anyone’s imagination. People “were fully prepared for emergency situations based on the natural disaster information for the last 100 years or so,” he said, adding that “after everything is brought under control, experts need to verify what has happened and do some soul searching.”

IAEA Report: Japan Underestimated Tsunami Danger

Martin Fackler wrote in New York Times that Japan underestimated the danger of tsunamis and failed to prepare adequate backup systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant according to a preliminary report on the nuclear crisis from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, which also called for stronger regulatory oversight. The report did offer some praise, particularly to Japanese plant workers for braving dangerous conditions to try to bring the stricken plant under control. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, June 1, 2011]

The report followed a weeklong inspection by the multinational team. Most of the problems that it cited had already been well documented. The team said it visited three nuclear plants damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, including Fukushima Daiichi. The report spoke highly of Japan’s handling of the crisis once it happened, calling the efforts of workers to regain control of the crippled reactors “exemplary.” The report also praised steps taken by Tokyo to protect the population from radiation, calling its evacuations of surrounding areas “impressive and extremely well organized.”

Its strongest criticism was aimed at the failure to build adequate protection against large waves for the plant, which sits on Japan’s tsunami-prone northeastern coastline. While the plant was designed to withstand waves of about 19 feet, the tsunami was as high as 46 feet, the report said. “The tsunami reached areas deep within the units, causing the loss of all power sources except one emergency diesel generator,” the report said, adding that a blackout of the commercial power grid left the plant with “little hope of outside assistance.”It also said the disaster exposed the lack of varied and redundant backup systems at the plant. The tsunami, which struck 46 minutes after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake, destroyed the emergency diesel generators at four of the plant’s six reactors. This left them with no other power source beyond batteries, which lasted only a few hours.

Once power was lost, critical functions like the cooling system shut down, as did the instruments that told workers what was happening inside the reactors. Three of the reactors quickly overheated, causing meltdowns that eventually led to explosions, which hurled large amounts of radioactive material into the air.The single surviving diesel generator allowed workers to maintain the cooling systems for the No. 5 and No. 6 reactors, which did not melt down. The No. 4 reactor had already been safely shut down when the earthquake hit, but its cooling pool was damaged by the tsunami. “The operators were faced with a catastrophic, unprecedented emergency scenario with no power, reactor control or instrumentation,” the report said. The tsunami also “severely affected communications systems both within and external to the site.” “They had to work in darkness with almost no instrumentation and control systems,” the report said of plant workers.

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tsunami strikes the plant area

Report: Fukushima Accident Shows Need to Prepare for the Unexpected

An interim report released in December 2011 by a government panel investigating the crisis at the Fukushima plant stated, Kyodo reported, that the accident shows the need to prepare for unexpected events if the consequences of them happening could be disastrous, referring to the poor emergency responses of the plant's operator and the government. The interim report said that many problems related to the crisis were linked to the absence of measures to deal with severe nuclear accidents caused by tsunami as well as the failure to assume that a nuclear crisis could occur in combination with a natural disaster. [Source: Kyodo, December 26, 2011]

"It cannot be denied that people who have been involved in nuclear disaster response and those in charge of managing and operating nuclear power plants have lacked the whole-picture viewpoint in nuclear disaster preparedness," the report said. "The nuclear disaster prevention program had serious shortfalls," and the fact that tsunami exceeding assumptions caused an extraordinary situation cannot be an excuse for inadequate management of a nuclear accident, it said. The remarks contrast with the outcome of an in-house investigation conducted by TEPCO, which blamed the larger-than-expected tsunami for the failure to prevent the nuclear accident.

The government's response during the early stage of the crisis was also problematic, with communications among officials at the prime minister's office insufficient and the emergency response center in the industry ministry not functioning well in performing its role of gathering information as stipulated in the nuclear disaster response manual.

Members of the industry ministry and the nuclear safety agency were "strongly frustrated by the lack of speed in information provision" by TEPCO, but even so they did not take action such as sending agency staff to the company's head office, the report said. The committee also said the government's evacuation order issued to residents around the plant was not specific so that it was tantamount to telling them to "just run." In some cases, residents were found to have taken an evacuation route where radioactive substances had spread.

The investigative committee that issued the report was led by Yotaro Hatamura, a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. The report was issued after about 900 hours of hearings and interviews involving 456 people.

Report: Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency “Powerless to Handle Severe Accident'

An interim report released in December 2011 by a government panel investigating the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant stated that the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and other governmental organizations failed to deal with the crisis effectively in their respective capacities and also failed to cooperate with each other. [Source: Shin Watanabe, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 2011]

According to to the Yomiuri Shimbun the interim report by the government's investigation committee said the agency could hardly fulfill its function as the supervisory body in the wake of the accident, referring to its lack of self-awareness in dealing with the issue and actively collecting relevant information.

After the crisis began, the agency played the role of secretariat of the Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters set up at the Prime Minister's Office. It should have become the core organization for gathering information from various organizations, such as the power plant and its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. However, immediately after the accident, NISA relied on information obtained by staff dispatched by TEPCO's head office to the agency. The staff members got the information from TEPCO's head office by cell phone.

At that time, TEPCO's head office shared information with the local headquarters in Fukushima Prefecture in real time through a videoconference system. But the agency did not dispatch its officials to TEPCO's head office, which is only about 600 meters away from the agency's office. As the agency could not obtain sufficient information about the ongoing situation, the Prime Minister's Office apparently initiated its own direct contacts with TEPCO executives and the nuclear power plant staff. This situation led to a muddying of the command channels.

NISA's nuclear safety inspectors, who should have played the role of nuclear watchdog, apparently lacked a strong will to deal with the crisis. During the accident, four inspectors were at the nuclear power plant. But they temporarily evacuated around 5 a.m. on March 12. They returned to the plant the next morning, but left again on the evening of March 14 because of a hydrogen explosion at the No. 3 reactor before noon that day.

SPEEDI, an Example of Poor Communication and Transparency During the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

The System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or SPEEDI, is a nationwide system of radiation detectors used to make forecasts of radiation diffusion patterns. Kan and his and his advisors did not learn of the system’s existence until March 16, five days into the crisis.” [Source: Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, New York Times, June 12, 2011]

“If they had known earlier, they would have seen Speedi’s early projections that radiation from the Fukushima plant would be blown northwest. Many of the residents around the plant who evacuated went north, on the assumption that winds blew south during winter in that area. That took them directly into the radioactive plume — exposing them to the very radiation that they were fleeing.” When officials at the Ministry of Education, which administers Speedi, were asked why they did not make the information available to the prime minister in those first crucial days, they replied that the prime minister’s office had not asked them for it.

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Prime Minister Kan at a disaster shelter

SPEEDI had been pumping out estimates of radiation doses once every hour since 4 p.m. on March 11. It had been showing that the Tsushima district was being hit with high radiation doses. This crucial information, however, was not passed on to town authorities. Mayor Tamotsu Baba said later, "We weren't told anything important." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 11, 2011]

According to the government's basic nuclear disaster plan, SPEEDI should be used to help make evacuation recommendations. The system cost more than 11 billion yen in taxpayer money to install. When Prime Minister Naoto Kan directed a disaster response drill at Chubu Electric Power Co.'s Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture last year, SPEEDI simulations were used to set evacuation areas. However, the March 11 calamity severed power at the Fukushima plant, meaning SPEEDI data could not be transmitted. The government said it did not make forecasts from the system public because "accurate predictions could not be made."

Despite the information blackout on radiation levels, SPEEDI continued to churn out useful data about radiation emissions immediately after the earthquake and tsunami by inputting provisional readings. On May 2, Goshi Hosono, special adviser to the prime minister on the Fukushima crisis, made public about 5,000 SPEEDI radiation-prediction images. Explaining why the disclosure had been so late, Hosono said the government had been "afraid of triggering a panic."

Commenting on the matter, Hirotada Hirose, professor emeritus of Tokyo Women's Christian University and specialist in risk psychology, tolf the Yomiuri Shimbun, "In a fast-changing crisis situation, delays in releasing information to try to ensure accuracy often aggravates people's suspicions and unease. Even if information is only about possible developments, data obtained through scientific methods should be disclosed. In the initial phase of the Fukushima crisis, scientifically valid forecasts should have been made public, with the understanding that the information would be modified immediately if the situation changed."

No. 2 Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant N-plant 'Responded Better to Crisis'

The Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant — also operated by TEPCO — responded better to the crisis according to a draft report by a government panel. After being struck by tsunami waves as high as nine meters the No. 2 plant--about 10 kilometers south of the No. 1 plant--found its sea water pumps and other equipment were damaged. "The No. 2 plant almost suffered the same fate as No. 1," plant chief Naohiro Masuda has recalled. Nonetheless, the plant was able to continue cooling its reactors. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 16, 2012]

“The panel's investigation found that workers at the No. 2 plant confirmed they would be able to take subsequent steps before they changed how they injected water into the reactors. They also kept an eye on the pressure and temperatures of the pressure suppression pools. One TEPCO employee working there at the time of the disaster told the panel it was "natural" for the plant to take those measures.

“By contrast workers at the No. 1 plant manually shut down the No. 3 reactor's emergency cooling system in the early hours of March 13. Cooling of the reactor remained suspended for more than six hours because they failed to secure an alternative way to inject water. At the No. 2 reactor, workers did not measure the pressure and temperatures in its pressure suppression pool--which is the lower portion of the reactor's containment vessel--until the early hours of March 14. This failure eventually caused the plant to be unable to lower the pressure in the reactor--a necessary step to inject water.

“The No. 1 plant's initial responses were less adequate than those by the No. 2 plant, regardless of the fact they faced different situations--such as whether external power supply was available," the final report is set to conclude. It will also call for these lessons to be reflected in reviewing measures to prevent the recurrence of a nuclear crisis.

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1995 Paper Anticipated the Fukushima Nuclear Crisis

A four-age paper penned in 1995 by Jinzaburo Takagi, an anti-nuclear scientist and former director of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, warned about the dangers posed by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and other old atomic plants in the face of powerful earthquakes and tsunamis and cautioned the government and utilities about their stance of not assessing safety risks for nuclear power stations beyond assumed scenarios. [Source: Kyodo]

Written in Japanese, the paper — entitled "Nuclear Facilities and Emergencies — with Focus on Measures against Earthquakes" — appeared in the October 1995 issue of the Physical Society of Japan, the journal of a physicists' group, after the 1995 Kobe Earthquake. Based on data from the Kobe quake and other sources, Takagi, a former associate professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, addressed in the paper issues related to anti-quake designs and the obsolescence of nuclear power plants as well as quake fault lines.

In the paper, Kyodo reported, Takagi blasted the government and power companies for "refusing to consider emergency measures in the event of an earthquake because they assume nuclear power plants will not break down in an earthquake and have stopped taking further steps at all." He also argued the Kobe Earthquake raised an alert about the lack of preparedness for emergency situations at nuclear power facilities, such as being "attacked by a tsunami along with a quake." “Discussions on the safety of nuclear power plants or disaster preparedness measures on the assumption of those situations occurring have been shunned, on the grounds that it is 'inappropriate' to make such assumptions or such discussions have some ulterior motive," he said.

The paper cited Fukushima Prefecture's Hamadori coastal region as one of the areas with a concentration of nuclear facilities that could face a situation "beyond what has been imagined" if a major earthquake strikes. The region hosts the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini nuclear power stations of Tokyo Electric Power Co. Fukushima Daiichi is also referred to in the paper as an "obsolete nuclear power plant that raises the greatest concerns" and requires holding concrete discussions on its decommissioning.

Takagi (1938-2000) was the director of the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center in Tokyo, which networks scientists, activists and citizens in seeking a nuclear-free world, from 1987 until 1998. He was known as a "citizen scientist" critical of "big" science and technology and nuclear power. Takagi received the Right Livelihood award, said to be an "alternative Nobel Prize." His books have gone through reprints since the March 11 disaster.

Warnings Based on Previous Earthquakes and Tsunamis

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Before March 11, scholars had repeatedly warned at academic conferences and other occasions that a massive tsunami could hit the Tohoku region in the future. However, the government's Central Disaster Management Council and TEPCO never factored such studies into their estimates of the damage that earthquakes and tsunami could cause to nuclear power plants. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 12, 2011]

“Different experts had warned TEPCO on several occasions about the possibility of a massive tsunami striking the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Yukinobu Okamura, director of the Active Fault and Earthquake Research Center, harshly criticized TEPCO's plan to revise its seismic-resistant designs at the Fukushima No. 1 plant at a meeting of an expert panel under the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry in June 2009. "This plan doesn't even mention the major tsunami that have happened in the past. I'm not convinced at all," he said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 12, 2011]

“About 1,100 years ago, a gigantic earthquake caused tsunami that hit a wide swath of the coast of what is now Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, according to the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, which oversees the Active Fault and Earthquake Research Center. Called the Jogan Tsunami, the waves reached about three kilometers or four kilometers inland in the Sendai Plain and other areas, according to the institute, but TEPCO's new plan made no mention of this historic natural disaster. The expert panel compiled a report the next month, but this also failed to refer to the Jogan Tsunami and concluded it was acceptable to put off making nuclear plants more able to withstand tsunami.”

TEPCO said there was not much evidence of the damage caused by the Jogan Earthquake. It was more appropriate, the utility said, to reference the Shioyazaki-oki Earthquake--a magnitude-7.9 temblor that hit Fukushima Prefecture in 1938 and caused much smaller tsunami than the March 11 earthquake--when estimating the damage earthquakes and tsunami could cause at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 12, 2011]

Robert Geller, a professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert in seismology, said that if TEPCO and the government had referred to the study of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, they might have increased the size of tsunami they thought the Fukushima plant might encounter. The government and TEPCO should have taken the risk of tsunami more seriously, he added.

"This crisis at the power plant is not a natural disaster. It is a man-made disaster," Geller told the Yomiuri Shimbun. According to Geller, four earthquakes measuring magnitude-9 or stronger occurred in the 60 years to 2009. "In 2004, there was the Indian Ocean earthquake. [The government and TEPCO] should have been aware that similar earthquakes could occur anywhere," Geller said.

According to sources, people who tried to raise the alarm about the risks of tsunami were in the minority at TEPCO. Many thought it was enough to arm against earthquakes equivalent to the size of the Shioyazaki-oki Earthquake, they said. A former TEPCO executive once said: "Tsunami are a threat to ria coasts, such as the Sanriku coast. However, they're not a threat to straight coasts, such as the one where the Fukushima No. 1 power plant is located."

Warnings About Large Tsunamis

There are other examples of risks regarding earthquakes and tsunami being ignored. In its annual reports, which have been made public since 2008, the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES) has predicted possible damage tsunami could cause to Mark-1 nuclear reactors that are about the same size as the Nos. 2 and 3 reactors at the Fukushima plant. One report said if a breakwater that extended up to 13 meters above sea level was hit by a 15-meter-high tsunami, all power sources would be knocked out--including outside electricity and emergency power generators. In such a situation, the report said, cooling functions would be lost and the reactor's core would be 100 percent damaged--a meltdown, in other words. The breakwater at the Fukushima No. 1 plant was about 5.5 meters high, less than half the assumed height in the JNES report. TEPCO assumed the tsunami hitting the plant would be 5.4 meters to 5.7 meters high. But the wave that struck on March 11 was 14 meters to 15 meters high.

“The Diet had also been made aware of the threat. In 2006, the House of Representatives member Hidekatsu Yoshii submitted a written question to the lower house asking whether the government fully grasped the possibility that the nation's nuclear power plants could lose all power due to an earthquake or tsunami. Yoshii belongs to the Japanese Communist Party. The response from the government was bureaucratic: "The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry has inspected the safety of nuclear reactors, and the adequacy of its judgment has been confirmed by the Nuclear Safety Commission."

Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency Secretly Calculated Worst-case Scenario of 'China Syndrome'

In October 2011, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency secretly calculated the possibility of a worst-case meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The agency was working on the calculations just as TEPCO was saying the nuclear fuel in three reactors at the plant was "slightly damaged." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 16, 2011]

The trial calculations were made under the premise that the nuclear fuel at the plant's No. 1 to No. 3 reactors would melt down entirely, developing into a so-called China syndrome, the worst-possible scenario. Coined in the United States, China syndrome refers to an imagined worst-case meltdown of nuclear fuel that burns through the bottom of a containment vessel and eventually through the Earth's crust until finally reaching China.

The trial calculations were carried out first on March 25, two weeks after the March 11 accident, followed by further calculations on April 6, 7 and 13. The fact that the calculations were carried out secretly was revealed Friday by the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization (JNES), an independent administrative institution, which had been commissioned by the agency to undertake the trial estimations.

The calculations indicated that if cooling water could not be injected, erosion could continue for more than 10 days, badly damaging the three-meter thick concrete walls of the Nos. 2 and 3 reactors' containment vessels, the JNES said. The erosion of the bottom of the No. 1 reactor's containment vessel bottom would possibly stop after the vessel wall was eroded to a depth of 1.8 meters in eight days, according to the calculations.

Problems with Japan’s Nuclear Watchdog

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IAEA inspectors
Many blame Japan’s nuclear watchdog Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency for not doing its job by being too cozy with Japan’s utilities and nuclear establishment and playing an adversarial rile. Eisaku Sato, the governor of Fukushima Prefecture from 1988 to 2006 and an opponent of nuclear power told the New York Times: ''An organization that is inherently untrustworthy is charged with ensuring the safety of Japan's nuclear plants,'' said Mr. Sato, governor from 1988 to 2006. ''So the problem is not limited to Tokyo Electric, which has a long history of cover-ups, but it's the whole system that is flawed. That's frightening.'' [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson; Kantaro Suzuki and Noriko Takata, New York Times, March 22, 2011]

“Like many critics of Japan's nuclear industry, Mr. Sato attributed weak oversight to a conflict of interest that he said essentially stripped the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of its effectiveness,” the New York Times reported. “The agency, which is supposed to act as a watchdog, is under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which has a general policy of encouraging the development of Japan's nuclear industry.

“The ministry and the agency, in turn, share cozy ties with Tokyo Electric and other operators — some of which offer lucrative jobs to former ministry officials in a practice known as ''amakudari,'' or descent from heaven.” ''They're all birds of a feather,'' Mr. Sato, 71, said in an interview at his home in Koriyama, in Fukushima Prefecture.

Among the things the agency is criticized of doing is easily approving the extended life of old nuclear plants beyond the time they were supposed to be decommissioned. But critics say the approval process for extending the lifespan of reactors is fraught with problems. Limited amounts of information are disclosed before approval is granted. The government reviews only reports submitted by utilities, and does not conduct its own tests to determine whether those reports are true, according to Chihiro Kamisawa, a nuclear safety researcher at the Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, Japan's most vocal nuclear watchdog.

The Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, which is supposed to provide a second layer of scrutiny, is understaffed and largely an advisory group. Masatoshi Toyoda, a former vice president at Tokyo Electric who, among other jobs, ran the company's nuclear safety division, said the organization should be strengthened. The United States had a similar setup until the 1970s, when Congress broke up the old Atomic Energy Commission into the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

''Like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States, they should have full-time engineers who should check the safety of power plants,'' Mr. Toyoda said. ''I've been telling the government that the system should be changed, but any changes to Japan's nuclear policy take a long time.''

Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director general of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said that ''there are no problems with the current safety setup.'' He added that the extension of the life of Reactor No. 1 ''was approved on the understanding that any problems found would be fixed by Tokyo Electric.''

“After the March 11 disaster, the government's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency waited about a month before taking any action regarding tsunami. Only on April 9, two days after a magnitude-7.1 aftershock hit the Tohoku region, did the agency instruct power companies to ensure each nuclear plant have at least two emergency generators that would remain functional after a natural disaster. “[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 17, 2011]

Overconfidence About the Safety of Japanese Nuclear Power Plants

A "safety myth" existed that the superior technology of Japan nuclear plants made them impervious to accidents and this overconfidence was behind this failure to fully implement preparations for severe accidents. Safety inspection guidelines the NSC revised in 1990 said, "We do not need to take into account the danger of a long-term power severance, as we could anticipate recovery of power transmission lines and emergency generators in a short period of time."[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 15, 2011]

The first sentence of a TEPCO report from March 1994 on action to be taken in the event of a serious accident said, "Our country's nuclear power plants have attained a high degree of safety from a global point of view." The report emphasized, "It is inconceivable that a severe accident could actually occur." The report seemed to imply that efforts to prevent an "inconceivable" accident would be a waste of time and energy. "The NSC's guidelines for coping with a severe accident were left unchanged since they were set in 1992, and no additional steps were taken," said a preliminary government report on the Fukushima crisis submitted June 7 to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Japan was a leader in spreading a culture of safety at nuclear power plants around the world. From 1992 to 2001 the Japanese government accepted about 1,000 trainees from nations of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. "We believed Japan's nuclear plants were top class. But there was probably a bit of overconfidence there," said a former top TEPCO official told the Yomiuri Shimbun.

▪"You can take all kinds of possible situations into consideration, but something 'beyond imagination' is bound to take place, like the March 11 tsunami," said the former plant operator. "The possibility of a worst-case scenario should have been assumed, and there should have been a reliable system in place with proper training to keep damage to a minimum."

Japan’s Cozy Nuclear Power Village

"The 'nuclear power village'--the promoters of atomic energy--was behind both the cause and expansion of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant," Tetsunari Iida, head of the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, told the Yomiuri Shimbun. "They lack sufficient knowledge and technology, and the safety inspections they conduct are totally inadequate." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 16, 2011]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The nuclear power village is the nickname for a tight circle of government entities, utilities, manufacturers and others involved in the promotion of nuclear power who believe nuclear plants are safe and reject out of hand any opposing views. Iida used the term "genshiryoku mura" (nuclear power village) in a magazine opinion piece in 1997, and it has now entered the vernacular. Mura means village, but also refers to a small, closed community.”

“The 52-year-old executive director said he realized the nature of the cozy ties among the members of the nuclear power village more than two decades ago. At the time, he worked in the private sector as an engineer in charge of radiation safety evaluations at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. had commissioned Toshiba Corp. to do the job, and Toshiba subcontracted it to Iida's firm. His company's safety analyses were submitted to Toshiba, then to TEPCO and finally to the then International Trade and Industry Ministry.Iida recalled being shocked when he once saw a safety assessment released by the ministry. The report's cover had been changed, but the contents were almost identical to one prepared by Iida and his fellow engineers. "They didn't do their own checks of our analyses or confirm whether things were really safe. No wonder accidents happen," Iida said.”

“The nuclear village has thrived under the government's treatment of nuclear energy as "national policy run by the private sector." The central government promotes nuclear power with subsidies and other support, and private utilities handle the building and operating of nuclear facilities. The nuclear-related portion of the national budget amounts to about 430 billion yen a year, and utilities invest 2 trillion yen every year in nuclear power.”

History of Japan’s Nuclear Power Village

“The nuclear village really started to grow after the 1973 oil crisis,” the Yomiuri Shimbun reported. “Since then, the planning and construction of nuclear plants across the nation was promoted under the banner of "energy security." After the 1974 accident in which radiation leaked from the nuclear-powered ship Mutsu, the government established the Nuclear Safety Commission in 1978 to oversee the then Science and Technology Agency, which conducted basic research and development on nuclear power and the nation's nuclear policy. The science agency also contained a bureau that was in charge of nuclear safety regulations at the time.”

“However, the 2001 restructuring of government ministries and agencies scaled back such regulatory bodies. The Natural Resources and Energy Agency that promotes nuclear power and industry regulator Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency were both placed under the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, the successor of MITI. This only encouraged a tighter relationship between two bodies with conflicting tasks. The parts of the science agency that had led nuclear power development were divided and merged into the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, the revamped Nuclear Safety Commission and other entities. "The Science and Technology Agency was small and powerless, so it wasn't very dependable," a senior official of a heavy industries company said.”

“This system of having promoters and regulators under the same roof has been criticized for years, but prior to the Fukushima crisis, no administration had been keen to separate them. At a October 2007 House of Councillors Budget Committee session, then industry minister Akira Amari of the Liberal Democratic Party, rebuffed calls for splitting the bodies up. "We'll promote nuclear power while stepping on the brakes at the same time. Double checks can be done by the Nuclear Safety Commission," he said.”

Breaking Up Japan’s Nuclear Power Village

“But destroying the nuclear village is no easy task,” according to the Yomiuri Shimbun. “The community involves heavy back-scratching and complex personnel relationships. NISA was formed in the streamlining of the government. Although the agency was once headed by a former Science and Technology Agency official, its top posts are usually filled by former MITI bureaucrats--nuclear power promoters--including current agency head Nobuaki Terasaka. Also, NISA has accepted 80 on-loan employees of power utilities and other nuclear-related firms. One former Toshiba Corp. employee even served as a safety inspector at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, which uses Toshiba-made reactors. Former NSC Chairman Atsuyuki Suzuki, who worked as a regulator at the troubled prototype fast-breeder reactor Monju in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, last year became head of the Japan Atomic Energy Agency, the operator of Monju.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 16, 2011]

“Electric power firms have deepened relations with the bureaucracy by temporarily dispatching employees to government bodies and giving cushy jobs to retired bureaucrats in the so-called amakudari (descending from heaven) practice. Since 2000, power companies have sent at least 100 employees to central government bodies for on-loan postings, according to the government. These government bodies include the NSC and other offices involved in safety at nuclear plants. TEPCO, which has sent 32 workers to the government, had de facto reserved seats at several posts, sources said.”

“Meanwhile, 68 former industry ministry officials have parachuted into postretirement jobs as executive board members or advisers at 12 of the nation's power companies over the past five decades, according to the industry ministry. Toru Ishida, former director general of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, an industry ministry-related body, became an adviser at TEPCO in January. He left his post at the utility at the end of April after his amakudari move was heavily criticized in the wake of the Fukushima crisis. He was seen as likely to become a TEPCO vice president.”

“As of May 2, there were still 13 former industry ministry officials working at TEPCO and 10 other power companies. To cut these cozy ties, former NSC Chairman Shojiro Matsuura said the members of the nuclear power village "must reflect on their actions as academics in terms of ethics and safety consciousness." "They need to stop being a closed clique and turn themselves into a group of trusted professionals," Matsuura said.”

Image Sources: Kantei, Office of the Japanese Prime Minister

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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