Review of Asian Studies institutional framing of the fukushima nuclear disaster

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Framing is an essential to any depiction of a complex, multidimensional event such as a disaster. The power and ability to frame a disaster event endows the framer with a degree of control over the event regardless of whether or not the framer possess the means to physically contain the event. The importance of framed, conceptual control is evident in the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan where two powerful institutions have meticulously worked to manage the crisis. Both the central government and TEPCO have constructed their own bounded conceptions of Fukushima in an effort to subjugate the chaos of the disaster under each institution’s arena of control.
The Japanese government, on the one hand, has used its authority to injected uncertainty into the disaster and elevate its own depiction of the nuclear meltdowns. TEPCO, on the other hand, has encased the disaster in economics and managed the widespread impacts of the crisis as a financial problem. In both cases, the framing of the disaster subsumes the crisis within a conceptualization that suites the management needs of each institution. Framing, therefore, is a tool wielded by the Japanese government and TEPCO which confines the overwhelming effects of the disaster within parameters that can be regulated and controlled.
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Uncertainty is not merely due to the absence of communication or information in modern societies. It is the anarchical profusion of information that is responsible for uncertainty, since it deeply affects the system of meaning that is tightly linked to the modes of organization of administration, political, and scientific fields. As a philosopher put it: disaster is less an accident of reality than a disaster is the representation of reality.

Gilbert 1998:17

The unprecedented events of March 11th, 2011 in Japan have created a climate of polarizing contestation that has left the Japanese society questioning the nature of safety and risk. In particular, the nuclear disaster in Fukushima has shattered preconceptions about disaster preparedness, emergency response, and the ability of human societies to maintain control over the environment. Debates continue to rage in Japan as people grapple with the issues of how the accident happened, why it happened, and who is ultimately responsible for the ongoing disaster. The prevailing explanations offered by the government have satisfied few citizens and many researchers scrutinizing the disaster have criticized the failures of prevention and response efforts. Viewed in terms of the magnitude of destruction and the inadequacy of existing safety mechanisms, the Fukushima crisis is nothing less than a complete failure of technology and governance. From another perspective, however, the responses to the nuclear meltdowns can be considered a success. While the physical aspects of the Fukushima disaster have been beyond the control of governing institutions, the conceptual aspects of the disaster are well under the control of those responsible for portraying the disaster and its impacts.
Two organizations have been instrumental in shaping how the Fukushima disaster is perceived by society. One is the Japanese central government. The other is the Fukushima Daiichi plant operator, Tokyo Electrical Power Company (TEPCO). Together, the government and TEPCO are responsible for not only managing the physical ramifications of the crisis, but also assuaging public anxieties about nuclear power, safety, and acceptable risks. Although the Fukushima disaster has raised considerable concern over the ability of the government and TEPCO to contain the nuclear crisis, both institutions are succeeding in controlling the disaster by actively enveloping the chaos of the event within a management framework. Capitalizing on the rampant uncertainty surrounding the Fukushima incident, each institution has framed the disaster in a way that caters to each one’s unique brand of control. Success is achieved by embedding elements of control within projected depictions of the disaster. The goal of this paper, therefore, is to explore the successful framing techniques employed by the government and TEPCO in their efforts to manage the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Theoretical Framework
Many disaster scholars examining the event have largely focused on the environmental hazards of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and have emphasized failures of poorly coordinated emergency responses, the inadequacy of nuclear facility safety designs, and the need for improved early warning systems (Dauer et al. 2011, Yatsaulo et al. 2011, Makhijani 2011). As an analysis of the successful reconceptualization of the Fukushima disaster, this analysis departs from the mainstream hazards perspective and approaches the disaster from the vantage point of disaster anthropology and political ecology. Taken together, these two fields help describe the conceptual bounding of the disaster and the subjugation of the event under government and nuclear industry control.
Within anthropology, disasters are viewed as events that reveal and magnify all physical and conceptual constructs regulating the functions of a society. Oliver-Smith seminally termed the revelatory power of disasters as “totalizing,” where multiple environmental, social, cultural, and political processes are intensely magnified and obviated by a disaster event (1999:20, 2002).

Catastrophic events often magnify the interactions of physical and social realities and therefore reveal the underlying structures supporting a society. These events can either radically alter or reinforce existing structures. Additionally, the capacity of disasters to reveal the underlying links within and between a society and the environment provides an opportunity to further observe how such constructs are channeled back into interpretations of the disaster event itself. As Quarantelli points out, disasters are social laboratories for understanding how individuals and institutions interpret disasters (1998). Particularly, disasters reveal how relationships within and in between society and environment fluctuate, how risks are tolerated, and how meaning is assigned to disaster events. The Fukushima disaster is one such experiment where multiple agents affected by and responsible for addressing the disaster are broadcasting their own depictions and conceptualizations of the event.

Where an anthropological perspective describes what is revealed by disasters, political ecology expands on the mechanisms that perpetuate certain perceptions and constructs of a disaster. Much emphasis in political ecology has been placed on the conceptual bounding of events and processes by governing institutions. Political ecologists are especially attuned to techniques of framing employed by institutions in their efforts to leverage influence over the portrayal of an event or process. Blaikie (1985), for example, describes how the perpetual occurrence of soil erosion in third world countries is maintained by bounded conceptions of a soil erosion “problem.” Blaikie demonstrates that what constitutes problematic soil erosion is defined by institutions responsible for managing soil erosion and framing the problem. As a consequence, the solutions offered by such institutions reinforce a conceptualized system of control over the defined problem. Within the context of a disaster, the response to a disaster event becomes the problematic phenomena being subjected to control and management. Governing institutions exert control over disasters by encasing the chaos and multidimensionality of catastrophic events within bounded conceptions.

Fundamentally, the ability to frame a disaster marks a departure from a state of failure, where failure is embodied in the destruction caused by a disaster, to a state of success where the effects of a disaster are managed and controlled. Both individuals and institutions will go to great lengths to portray a disaster and its aftermath. Individuals may apply conceptual boundaries to a disaster in order to cope and make sense of the devastation suffered (Hoffmann 1999). Individuals within governing institutions, on the other hand, have greater incentives to frame a disaster as an opportunity. Political figures can use what Boin, Hart, and McConnell term “crisis exploitation,” to leverage public support during disasters (2009:83). Crisis exploitation essentially uses the failures manifested during a disaster as an opportunity to elevate the influence of individuals and institutions with successful solutions to post disaster recovery problems.

The framing of disasters as a success requires an ability to manipulate obvious failure and uncertainty. Here, Ferguson’s (1994) description of the antipolitics machine can help illustrate how unintended processes can be used to support an intelligible purpose. Ferguson’s analysis of development projects reveal how failed projects sustain and legitimate the existence of development institutions tasked with eradicating poverty and underdevelopment. The monopoly of development institutions over the ability to define the problem of underdevelopment and supply a solution, allow the institutions to operate even in the face of failure. In fact, failure necessitates more projects, which are available in no shortage from development institutions. Although the situational context in which development projects and disaster responses take place may be significantly different, the unintended and failed outcomes of both projects can be manipulated in similar ways to perpetuate each institution. Thus, responses to a disaster can end up serving the institutions addressing the disaster and render a tragic event into an opportunity.

Nuclear Origins
Nuclear power occupies a paradoxical space in Japanese consciousness as both a powerfully destructive and powerfully constructive force. The devastation caused by the two atomic bombs are thoroughly embedded in the nation’s collective memory. From enormous public murals depicting the ruins of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to subtle reminders in educational curriculums, painful memories associated with nuclear power pervades Japanese society. Concurrently, there exists a contradictory sentiment that embraces the opportunities created by nuclear energy. Aldrich and Dunsinberre describe how Japan overcame its “allergies” to nuclear power and nurtured an expanding nuclear industry (2011: 6). Shortly after World War II, the country began researching and developing the technology to harness nuclear power for the growth of the nation. In 1955 the Atomic Energy Basic Law was enacted to ensure the safe and peaceful development of nuclear power. The following year the Atomic Energy Commission was created to expedite the development of nuclear power facilities. Subsequent energy insecurities caused by the 1973 OPEC oil shocks led Japan to embark on an even more ambitious campaign to support nuclear power generation.

As the influence of the nuclear industry began growing, any remaining social and political unease over the use of nuclear power was simply blanketed by generous corporate contributions and government funds (Aldrich 2011). Rural communities, in particular, were the target of industry members and connected bureaucrats who offered sizable compensation packages for the construction of new nuclear power plants. Throughout the country, nuclear power was being extolled as a safe and clean method for supporting the country’s growing energy demands. Simultaneously, anxieties caused by the painful events of the past were gradually cast aside as the government ushered the rising prominence of nuclear power in Japanese society.

Currently, a network of industry and governmental institutions support Japan’s nuclear power generation. Aoki and Rothwell present an extremely helpful organizational chart (Figure 1) of the various components of what they term the “nuclear industrial complex” of Japan (2011:4). Each of the regional power companies operating nuclear plants are regulated and overseen by three government entities: the Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), and the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). The two commissions are part of the Cabinet Office and are primarily responsible for advising the Prime Minister on matters of nuclear safety and development. NISA is the only governmental nuclear agency that directly inspects and audits the safety measures implemented by the power companies. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which houses NISA, is also responsible for promoting the development of nuclear power through its Natural Resource and Energy Agency (ANRE). The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) also functions to promote the research and development of nuclear power (Aoki and Rothwell 2011). Thus, there exists a network of institutions governing nuclear power and it is this nuclear industrial complex that is responsible for managing and framing the Fukushima disaster.

Figure 1: The governing institutions in Japan’s nuclear industrial complex. Source: Aoki, Rothwell 2011
An Unraveling Crisis
At 3:36pm on March 11th, 2011, a 15m tsunami submerged much of the Fukushima Daiichi compound triggering a state of emergency at the plant. All but one of the backup generators had been destroyed by the tsunami forcing TEPCO to rely on a backup AC power source to maintain reactor core temperatures. Two hours later, however, TEPCO officials notified the government that the AC systems had also failed and that the plant was running on emergency batteries that would provide power for eight more hours. The company apprised Prime Minister Naoto Kan of the situation and assured him that the plant operators would be able to cool the reactors within the timeframe and prevent significant releases of radiation (Yomiuri 4 April 2011).
Concerns of the government mounted as the time limit for restoring power approached and no word had returned from TEPCO. Unable to wait any longer, at 9:23pm the government issued an evacuation order for residents living within 3km of the plant. Those 3 to 10km were encouraged to remain indoors. Shortly thereafter the company revealed that water levels were low in reactors 1 and 2 and that the pressure in reactor 1 was reaching critical levels (TEPCO 12 March 2011). Frustrated by the way the situation was being handled, Prime Minster Kan demanded TEPCO to be more forthcoming with its information and ordered the immediate venting of each reactor core. After some hesitation and difficulty connecting power to the venting systems, TEPCO finally began venting reactor 1 at 11:00am on March 12th; however, the measure proved insufficient when a hydrogen explosion blew away the building housing reactor 1 (Asahi 12 March 2011).
The crisis continued to worsen the following day when a second explosion rocked the compound destroying the ceiling of the building housing reactor 3. On March 15th, a third explosion occurred in reactor 2’s suppression pool and a fire erupted around reactor 4 damaging the building containing the reactor. White smoke was observed emanating from the containment vessels of reactor 3 and 4 that same day. The catastrophic damages to the Fukushim Daiichi’s reactors eventually generated a full-scale response from firefighters and the Japanese self-defense force. Desperate attempts, including areal seawater spraying, were made in an effort to cool down the reactors (Yomiuri 4 April 2011).

While stable reactor temperatures were eventually achieved, adequate containment of the radioactive material has been a major concern even a year after the disaster. The persistent nature of the technological disaster has ignited debates over responsibility for the ongoing crisis and appropriate measures for addressing risks. How the disaster response should have unfolded and how it should be currently conducted are highly contested issues within Japanese society. Despite the intensity of the debates and the real failure to initially contain the radiation from Fukushima Daiichi, a strong undercurrent of control persists below the chaotic surface that is the response to the nuclear disaster. Similar in nature to Furgeson’s anitpolitics machine, institutional framing of the Fukushima disaster has contributed to the successful management of an otherwise unruly and unpredictable nuclear catastrophe.

The Gods are in Control
State power in Japan is a fundamental factor contributing to the bounded depiction of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Government authority has largely been predicated on longstanding public perceptions of centralized rule. Japanese society has long viewed the state as okami, literally meaning gods. The perceived status of the Japanese central government has allowed the governing institution to act as the main authority of the nation with nearly absolute control over the environment, society, and politics. By and large, the government has enjoyed broad liberties derived from societal tolerance and respect. As a result, the government has been able to convince and assure the public of the absolute safety and benefits of nuclear power. The explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, however, forced the nation to confront the gaping contradiction that the “gods” appeared to be completely wrong.

On the surface, the government’s reactions to the nuclear crisis appear wholly inadequate. The apparent shortsighted nature of former Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano’s statement regarding the stability of the nuclear plant, for example, indicates incompetent governance and disaster management. Immediately following the explosion at reactor 1, Edano assured the press and the public that no damage had occurred to the reactor core and that no significant amount of radiation had been released (Yomiuri 20 March 2011). Later accounts by both the government and TEPCO, however, verified a core melt down, damages to the containment vessels, and release of contaminated cooling water from the containment vessel (Yomiuri 8 June 2011). In addition to the contradictory statements issued by the government, the spectacular technological failure of the nuclear plant safety infrastructure further implied government incompetency. The Japanese government has prided itself on the astute engineering of the physical world; yet the breach of radioactive material beyond the confines of the Fukushima complex represented a significant failure of control over the environment. The rupture was not simply confined to the layers of metal containing the uranium-plutonium fuel, but also penetrated the fortitude of state control of a process that was espoused as completely safe and risk free. Despite the evidence indicating the government’s lack of control, the gods of Japan had other plans for using the incriminating information to manage the Fukushima crisis.

Two significant mechanisms were employed by the Japanese central government to effectively render the Fukushima disaster inaccessible to ordinary citizens and confine the event within the perceived domain of the government. The first mechanism involved conceptual bounding of the uncertain physical threats of the disaster into discrete and manageable components. The use of the a rating system, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), to measure the severity of the event is an example of the controlled depiction of the disaster. Initially an INES rating of Level 4, a major but manageable incident, was issued at the onset of the nuclear disaster. Equivalent to the rating given to a minor 1999 incident in Tokai village, the rating indicated radioactive release mainly within the confines of the plant compound. As time progressed and radiation releases continued, Fukushima’s rating began to climb and the boundaries were readjusted to expand the scope of control. By April 12th the incident was categorized as a Level 7, the worst possible accident with a strictly enforced 20km evacuation zone and indoor evacuation up to 30km from the plant. Intriguingly, despite multiple modifications to the severity of the accident, the events were never framed as being out of control.

The second mechanism employed by the government involved the levitation of knowledge about the disaster and its impacts above the comprehension of the public. Where the simplification of the Fukushima disaster through a tight, bounded management framework allowed the government to assert control over the event, a contradictory framing of the disaster allowed the government to deflect responsibility. Any information that overly implicated the state, such as the detection of radiation beyond the evacuation zone by independent scientific studies, was rendered utterly uncertain. The injection of ambiguity into the depiction of the disaster allowed the government to distance itself from the failures represented by the disaster. Consider, for example, Edano’s favored descriptions of the impacts of Fukushima during his many press conferences; Edano would often describe the impacts of released radiation as “likely minimal,” “dispersed,” or even “unknown” (Yomiuri March 12, 22, April 8). Most fundamental to the government’s production of uncertainty, however, was the repeated assertion of its efforts to determine the true extent of harm and damages. Substantial emphasis was placed on the government’s ongoing dedication to confirming and assessing the health and environmental impacts of the Fukushima disaster (Yomiuri March 17). In effect, the government’s portrayal of the disaster as uncertain conveniently allows the institution to deflect unwanted responsibility, delegitimize alternative interpretations of the disaster, and assert its own authority to dictate the extent of the disaster.

Taken together, the use of certainty and uncertainty allows the government to articulate a powerful narrative of state control over the Fukushima disaster. The description of two different types of uncertainty provided by Thompson, Warburton and Hatley (1986) further illustrates how the government achieves a remarkable balance between the two framing mechanisms. The authors distinguish between technical uncertainty, where information is unavailable or inaccessible, and structural uncertainty, where information is selected to render certain aspects of a phenomenon certain and other aspects uncertain. Technical uncertainty can be managed by artificially drawing boundaries around uncertainty, thereby creating discrete certitudes out of what is otherwise unknown and perhaps unknowable. Structural uncertainty, on the other hand, essentially ignores information that inconveniently contradicts established certainties. To see how both types of uncertainties are simultaneously managed, consider the government’s establishment of the mandatory evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Despite the complete inadequacy of the evacuation zone to account for the true extent of the radiation released by the plant, the depiction of the problem to a designated area effectively constrained the technical uncertainties within the management capacities of the government. Any radiation outside the 30km radius was largely dismissed by the refrain that more information was necessary to confirm the contamination. Structural uncertainty was projected to areas outside the evacuation zone in order to limit the extent of government responsibility for the widespread radiation dispersal.
In essence, the adept balancing of certainty and uncertainty by the Japanese government is embodied by its skillful articulation of ambiguity. The inherent contradictions of government statements issued throughout the nuclear crisis are not simply artifacts of inattention or incompetence; rather, they reflect the construction of a strategic position that allows for rapid toggling between certainty and uncertainty. Here again, Edano’s statements help reveal the government’s use of ambiguity. In a press conference held in April of 2011, Edano outlined the vague outlook of the government, stating that the impacts of the disaster would be addressed “if a response can be made within a certain amount of time, concerns and problems will be resolved. At present, the situation is not one in which damage is likely” (Yomiuri April 13). Edano’s statement carefully leaves room for the potential failure of government actions. The disclaimer that damage could potentially occur, but is unlikely, depicts a government straddling the divide between certainty and uncertainty. What the government is certain of, therefore, is the uncertainty of the nuclear disaster.

The framing of the Fukushima disaster in uncertainty has been crucial to the enhancement of government control over the crisis. Due to the highly technical nature of the nuclear disaster, the state is one of the few institutions that can monitor and understand the effects of radiation dispersal. The veiling of the disaster’s impacts in uncertainty, therefore, enables the state to define the terms of its responsibility to the disaster and confine the overwhelming effects of the crisis. As the expert of its own problem, the state can legitimize its actions regardless of whether they achieve stated objectives. Furthermore, the ambiguity of the government’s disposition towards the nuclear disaster demonstrates is careful use of bounded certainties and uncertainties. Through the balanced use of framing mechanisms, the state enhances its ability to control the Fukushima disaster. Far from constituting a deranged and incompetent response to the disaster, the government’s approach to depicting the nuclear crisis is marked by an intelligent manipulation of contradictory information. In effect, the government elevates its authority to frame and portray the disaster. In an uncertain arena where no facts are valid, only the okami can be left to determine the order of affairs concerning the disaster.

Figure 2: Radioactive material detected well beyond the designated 30km radius from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. State control of the fallout has been in the form of bounding the danger to the mandatory evacuation zone and dismissing the accumulation outside of the boundary. Source: The Asahi Shimbun 26 Nov. 2011

The Disaster Economics of Fukushima
For the company working at the center of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, TEPCO has, in a similar manner to the government, repackaged the disaster in a framework that best serves the company’s needs. Instead of using a governance framework, however, the company’s conceptualization of the event places the uncertainty and chaos of the disaster in territory that is paradoxically both familiar and unfamiliar to the company. TEPCO’s framing of the disaster within an economic context sustains the contradictory depiction of Fukushima. On the one hand, the agents of the disaster are considered externalities: elements which the company does not have to account for in routine operations. On the other hand, the disaster is also a financial burden where costs need to be strictly minimized. Both depictions of the Fukushima constitute TEPCO’s economic framing of the disaster and help the company maintain control over the crisis.
Prior to March 11th, TEPCO maintained what Oliver-Smith describes as an “otherizing” mentality that drew a stark division between society and its surrounding environment (2002). This society-environment division was most apparent in the way the company regarded the integrity of its nuclear power plants within the seismically active Japanese archipelago. To TEPCO, its power plants existed in their own space, devoid of any tangible relationship with the external environment. The artificial disconnect between the nuclear structures and physical environment is evident in the zero-risk mentality held by TEPCO and the rest of Japan’s nuclear industry. Despite the release of radioactive material from the company’s Kashiwazaki-Kawari nuclear power station following the 2007 Niigata Chuetsu-Oki earthquake, TEPCO continued to imagine the environment as disconnected “other” realm that could be confined within bounded conceptions. The disconnected conception of the environment is evident in a statement issued by the company regarding ongoing efforts to realize “nuclear plants invulnerable to any disaster” (TEPCO 10 Oct. 2007). For TEPCO, its nuclear power plants are viewed as existing in diametric opposition to the external environment. In order to prevent disasters the company must enhance the physical barriers between its plants and the surrounding environment as well as conceptually remove the nuclear plants beyond the realm of extreme disturbances.
In addition to constructing an artificial division between the environment and nuclear power plants, TEPCO also enhanced its conceptual control over its nuclear facilities by bounding them within an abstracted economic framework. In an interview regarding the Kashiwazaki-Kawari nuclear plant crisis, former TEPCO company president, Masataka Shimizu expounded on how the incident had influenced the company’s conception of disasters and disaster management in three ways. The first, echoing the earlier statement of the company, was the establishment of disaster-resistant nuclear plants. Shimizu explained that the lessons learned from the 2007 experience were being applied to the Fukushima Daiichi and Daini plants. Second, the company would work to ensure the safe, stable supplies of electricity to its customers. Third, in a feat of acrobatic conceptual manipulation, Shimizu explained: “we will constantly reduce costs… we must embrace ongoing cost reduction programs that utilize the creative expertise in reducing expenses that the pressure on earnings over the past three years has engendered” (TEPCO Annual Report 2010:9). That disaster management is embodied in cost savings is a testament to the “creative expertise” of TEPCO that convert technological disasters into mere financial disruptions. Under the company’s economic framework, disasters are regulated and controlled by cost-benefit tradeoffs and careful financial accounting. Any impacts that do not warrant monetary consideration are dismissed as externalities in the realm of the “other.”
TEPCO’s dedication to the abstracted conception of an environment disconnected from its nuclear power plants is particularly evident in the company’s framing of the Fukushima disaster. For the company, the March 11 tsunami constituted a violation of the division between its nuclear plants and the external environment. TEPCO has upheld and capitalized on its conceived division by asserting that it was, in fact, a victim of the tsunami. In a hearing in front of the Upper House Budget Committee in April, 2011, Shimizu apologized for the inconvenience caused by the disaster, but also emphasized that the tsunami had exceeded all expectations. Additionally, a recent interim report released by the company’s Fukushima Nuclear Accidents Investigation Committee reiterated Shimizu’s point and emphasized how the massive scale of the tsunami had overwhelmed all safety measures. The report explained that the Fukushima Daiichi plant had been built according to government standards and regulations; however, since the government regulations had not accounted for the immensity of the March 11 tsunami, there was nothing the company could have feasibly done to prevent damages to the nuclear reactors (TEPCO 2011). In essence, TEPCO diligently deconstructed the relationship between its nuclear power plant and the environment, thereby allowing the company to present itself as a victim of an externality. The nuclear disaster was a result of the environment’s violation of the boundaries created by the company.
TEPCO’s self-portrayed victimization has had significant implications on the responsibility of the company to the nuclear disaster. Fundamentally, as the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, TEPCO has complete responsibility for the failed operation of its facility. Incidentally, the company is also one of the only institutions that can respond to the highly technical problem that has been generated. The contradictory dynamism surrounding TEPCO allows the company to justify its responses to the disaster and even legitimate its very existence. Consider, for example, the great lengths that have been taken to ensure the survival of TEPCO despite its monumental failure. The company itself is planning to tender its assets in an effort to raise money for compensation claims, decommissioning costs, and basic operational costs. Measures that will be taken by the company include reducing employee numbers, downsizing retirement funds, cancelling the construction of new thermal plants, and potentially selling existing plants to raise a total of 2.65 trillion yen over the next 10 years (Yomiuri 8 Dec. 2011). External funding will also support the company with various banks extending a total of 2 trillion yen in loans along with an aid package from the central government totaling nearly 1 trillion yen (Yomiuri 22 June 2011, Mainichi 1 Dec. 2011). Ironically, the very problem that TEPCO has created also necessitates its existence as demonstrated by the amount of support funneled into the company responsible for Japan’s worst nuclear accident.
Despite the company’s fiscal setbacks and lack of control over released radiation, TEPCO has succeeded in exerting conceptual control over the disaster by confining the event within a rigid economic framework. The impacts of the nuclear meltdowns have been framed as monetary issues that the company must carefully deliberate and manage. The recent formation of TEPCO’s Council on Disputes Concerning Atomic Damages Compensation reveals how the company compartmentalizes the impacts of the disaster into manageable units. The newly formed council is responsible for addressing all compensation claims submitted by victims of radiation contamination and businesses disrupted by the nuclear disaster. Although the payment of compensations forces TEPCO to acknowledge responsibility for the crisis, the company’s ability to dictate the terms of the compensation place the power to frame the disaster squarely within TEPCO’s management apparatus. A message displayed on the company’s website homepage regarding the determination of criteria for compensation claims illustrates the company’s constructed control over the Fukushima disaster:
Regarding the compensation for the damages referred to in the guidelines, given that the estimated number of target sufferers has increased almost ten-fold, it is expected that a considerable amount of time for preparation will be necessary. In accordance with the instructions and support from the government and municipalities, we will prepare to start the compensation procedures as early as possible. (
Ultimately, the emphasis on compensation converts the nuclear disaster into an economic event that more readily lends itself to control under TEPCO’s oversight. Reduced to an economic problem, the disaster can be subjugated to the company’s fiscal management plans and relatively tamed through cost reducing actions. The massive compensation costs that the company faces are an aspect of the financial disaster that can be settled through careful deliberation and “preparation.” What began as an environmental and social catastrophe has since been molded into economic disaster that TEPCO can control under its unique disaster management framework.

Immense in proportion, the multiple disasters that ruptured Japan’s environmental, social, and political stability are totalizing events that seem to defy measures of control maintained within Japanese society. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, in particular, has spawned both social and environmental impacts that are clearly beyond the control of even the most capable institutions and technologies. Despite the overwhelming magnitude of the nuclear crisis, the most powerful institutions in Japanese society have succeeded in blanketing the disaster in conceptual paradigms that render the event malleable under institutional control. The institutions responsible for the nuclear disaster are also the very institutions dictating the terms of the disaster. Both the Japanese government and TEPCO wield considerable influence over the framing of Fukushima; each is equipped with particular management expertise that confine the disaster within controllable parameters. The Japanese central government’s monopoly on uncertainty allows the institution to deflect responsibility when necessary and, more importantly, strip contesting portrayals of the disaster of all authority and legitimacy. Likewise, TEPCO delimits the impacts of the nuclear disaster within an economic framework which allows the company to not only determine who is a victim of the disaster, but also how much damaged was and is being caused by Fukushima. Framing is a mechanism of control both the government and TEPCO apply to the nuclear disaster in order to control the multidimensional effects generated by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

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