Lessons From Fukushima: Relocation and Recovery from Nuclear Catastrophe

Gerilee Wohlschlegel Bennett


Nana korobi ya oki—Fall seven times, stand up eight.

—Japanese proverb


Four years later, Japan is still struggling to recover from the triple disaster of

earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant meltdown that struck March 11, 2011. Any one of

these disasters would have challenged seasoned leaders with a well-designed disaster

management system. The disruption and uncertainty unleashed by the widespread

releases of significant radiological contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi plant has

added layers of complexity few leaders are prepared to navigate. Fukushima Prefecture

estimates nearly 46,000 residents are still living in other prefectures and at least 73,000

are in temporary accommodations elsewhere in Fukushima. The villages of Okuma,

Futuba, and Namie stand virtually empty and may remain off limits for a decade or more.

The United States is home to 100 licensed nuclear power plants and numerous

active fault lines. What if there were a major accident at one of those plants with

significant offsite impacts? What if there were a terrorist attack using an improvised

nuclear device or a radiological dispersal device that resulted in widespread

contamination? Are we prepared to manage the abrupt displacement of hundreds of

thousands of people who will not be able to return for years or decades?

U.S. plans and exercises for nuclear/radiological disasters are all based on

theoretical scenarios with very little recent practical experience to support them. The

potential lessons for the U.S. in examining Japan’s progress of ensuring the health and

livelihoods of its residents, cleaning up the contamination, reversing the blow to its

already dragging economy, rebuilding, and resettling are innumerable. Most scholarly

articles and books published thus far about Japan’s nuclear disaster focus primarily on

early decision making, noting the difficulties the government had reacting to the extreme

challenges of the situation, but not yet assessing decisions and outcomes beyond the first

year—the recovery.

This study examines the progress of recovery in the first four years and the

management practices and decisions related to the relocation and resettlement of the most

contaminated Fukushima communities.


The objective of this thesis is to address the following primary research question:

what lessons can the U.S. incorporate into its disaster management plans from Japan’s

experience managing the relocation of communities due to the widespread contamination

from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant? The Fukushima disaster offers an unusual

opportunity to examine and learn from the experience of Japan, Fukushima Prefecture,

and the affected municipalities. The Japan disaster is a useful comparative study since

Japan is similar to the U.S. in key ways: it is a modern, developed country; it has a

sophisticated building code and disaster management system; and its governmental

structure is democratic and includes executive and legislative branches (parliamentary)

with responsibilities divided between national, prefectural, and municipal levels.


This comparative analysis of the Fukushima case approaches the challenge of

planning for recovery after a nuclear/radiological disaster from the perspective of

managers with limited if any health physics or other radiation management expertise. It

synthesizes aspects of nuclear/radiological preparedness and disaster recovery planning

and management that are typically addressed separately.

To compile the case, the author collected and reviewed over 400 source

documents available from the Japanese central government, Fukushima Prefecture, the

affected municipalities, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), nongovernmental

organizations, and the media. In addition, the author reviewed numerous scholarly

articles and books published regarding the 2011 disaster as well as the Three Mile Island

and Chernobyl nuclear accidents. The author compared lessons derived from the case to

the disaster management policies, plans, and experience in the United States in order to

assess potential effectiveness and applicability and to make recommendations.


A surprising finding is that although an official recommendation to financially

assist property owners to permanently move out of “difficult to return” zones was made

in early 2012, it took over a year before implementation began and even longer for the

central government to fully and publicly embrace such a policy. It is clear that local and

state officials in the U.S. will also not be eager to assist taxpaying residents move

elsewhere and give up on the community’s future. This is a heart wrenching situation for

which there are no easy solutions.

The study concludes with a set of planning recommendations for U.S.

nuclear/radiological disaster recovery managers and five topics to highlight for future

research. Leaders and planners will be able to apply the recommendations in the final

chapter to enhance efforts to prepare for the intermediate and late phase recovery from

radiological disasters.

The primary recommendation is that guidance and tools for states and

communities to use both to prepare for and as post incident job aids for managing disaster

recovery after major radiological incidents is lacking and necessary. Managing public

information and stakeholder involvement is the most critical capability to develop

because it affects all other aspects of recovery and is the best tool for empowering

survivors. Guidance and job aids for the intermediate and late phase (recovery) are all the

more critical since community preparedness in advance is likely to be limited. Local and

state governments will be at the center of the maelstrom if a significant radiological

disaster happens here. They will be managing the recovery—and they will need help.

Additionally, the federal government and Congress should review the

mechanisms available to support communities, individuals, and businesses in such a

situation. Particularly for nuclear power plant accidents governed by the Price-Anderson

Act, the compensation system, which requires first court intervention and then

congressional intervention almost guarantees delayed assistance and aggravation for


Now is the moment for us to stand up the eighth time.

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