The Tohoku Disaster: Crisis “Windows,” Complexity, and Social Capital

Photos by Rob Schmitz (2009 SSRC-Abe Journalist Fellow)

At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 8.9 earthquake, known as the Higashi Nihon Daishinsai (Eastern Japan Great Earthquake Disaster), struck roughly fifty miles off the coast of Japan’s mainland. While the Tohoku quake itself caused few fatalities, it set off a tsunami measuring up to forty-five-feet high, which not only devastated coastal and inland villages but also swamped the backup systems of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-reactor complex. With the plant’s batteries and diesel generators offline, at least three of the six reactors in the complex experienced complete fuel meltdowns in the early hours of the crisis, meaning that the uranium fuel rods heated to exceedingly high temperatures beyond what their zirconium cladding (outer covering) could handle (beyond 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and collapsed at the bottom of their containment units, where they may have burned through the thick steel shielding of the reactor units. The buildings housing the reactor units exploded due to a buildup of the hydrogen gas created when hot zirconium cladding reacts with water, and nuclear engineers from TEPCO (the Tokyo Electric Power Company—operator of the plant) deliberately vented the units into the atmosphere to reduce the internal pressure. To keep the fuel rods at safe temperatures, seawater was pumped into the reactors, leaving hundreds of thousands of gallons of contaminated water inside the units that will eventually have to be disposed of, either pumped into the ocean or held temporarily in barrels for dispersal. The radiological consequences of these decisions are under study now by ecologists and biologists but will not fully be understood for some time. Only recently have radiation levels dropped to a point where engineers have been able to enter the area.

Located in the villages of Ohkuma and Futaba, the Fukushima plant was one of the fieldwork sites for my dissertation, and I have followed the ongoing crisis with dread. Roughly 16,000 people are confirmed dead, while another 9,000 remain unaccounted for, presumed swept out to sea by the tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese residents have evacuated the area due to both the radioactivity and the destruction of homes; many are now being housed in temporary shelters or with friends or family. The fear of radioactive contamination, in particular, has had far-reaching effects, with Japan suspending the export of vegetables, dairy products, fish, and other products from the region and China and Korea now scanning incoming Japanese goods and passengers for radioactivity. More broadly, the Tohoku disaster has pushed several nations, including Switzerland and Germany, to reconsider their commitment to nuclear power; Switzerland’s cabinet has voted to phase out atomic energy by 2034, and Germany will shut all their nuclear power plants by 2022. North American planners are thinking through the efficacy of existing disaster-response plans, the effectiveness of manual and automatic venting structures in their own, very similar, nuclear-reactor designs, and the common practice of onsite fuel storage.

In this essay, I want to briefly touch on three issues that the ongoing crisis has raised for social scientists: the ways in which crises work as “windows,” the complexity of disasters and their effects, and the importance of social capital and civil society in both disaster and recovery.

Crises as Dual “Windows”

Social scientists have long understood that decisionmaking in government circles is rarely a rational, predictable process that moves at a steady rate. Instead, researchers such as John Kingdon posit that problems, politics, and policies often flow separately until “windows of opportunity” bring them together in a situation in which change can occur. Policy entrepreneurs who work hard to propose new norms and solutions can create these windows, as can focusing events, such as large-scale disasters.1 Thomas Birkland has underscored how, for a short period of time after a major disaster, entrepreneurs and policymakers have the chance to knit together problems and policies, although it may take several disasters—such as the repeated loss of airplanes and lives to terrorism—before policymakers enact change.2 In this way, mega-catastrophes can serve as catalysts for transformation, just as the Fukushima nuclear crisis may push more nations to end their use of nuclear power or force alterations in the ways in which the field is regulated.

  1. 1. John Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies. (New York: Longman Press, 2002). []
  2. 2. Thomas Birkland, “Learning and Policy Improvement After Disaster: The Case of Aviation Security,” American Behavioral Scientist 48, no. 3 (November 2004): 341–64. []

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