Let’s All Awaken from Japan’s Nightmare

April 1, 2011
The shock waves of the crisis in Japan must be met by an opposing force of shared resolve—to consider the unthinkable.

This was supposed to be our Green Issue. When we planned it last year, we knew just what had to be in it. Reverse Logistics? Check. LEED Certification? Check. Alternative Power Sources? Check.

What we didn’t plan for was nuclear chaos coming to Japan and changing the way we think about our power sources. Unfortunately, neither did Japanese nuclear authorities. And they’re suffering for it.

Consider this our Orange Issue—as in CAUTION—don’t get too comfortable with your plans. As I write this, logistics professionals are helping Japanese citizens survive the aftermath of events nobody planned for. Nobody thought a level 9 earth quake and a 40-foot tsunami could make us re-think how we manage nuclear power. Now we have to. The planners in Japan—logistics and every other type—never expected a chain of environmental events could lead to nuclear meltdowns, let alone supply chain meltdowns. They let financially-minded planners decide that clustering several nuclear power plants within close proximity in an active seismic zone was a good idea.

To be fair, nuclear-power experts are now saying that few operators of reactors anywhere in the world are prepared for the kind of environmental one-two punch that hit Japan. Not only were all the back-up power generators at all six of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors wiped out, but so were the transportation and communications infrastructures supporting these facilities.

So, yes, the mass confusion that hit Japanese citizens at the outset of this tragedy is understandable. But the smug attitude of the local nuclear authorities before these events occurred is not. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the Fukushima Daiichi plant’s own accident management protocol states: “The possibility of a severe accident occurring is so small that from an engineering standpoint, it is practically unthinkable.”

We’re all thinking about what happened to Japan now. A year ago, the idea of including an article about disaster response in our Environmental Issue would have seemed like a non sequitur. Now it makes perfect sense. So not only do we have one, written by a U.S. Army Reserve Officer who served in Iraq (Salvaging Value from War and Disaster), but this month’s Corporate Citizen column (Take Part in Disaster Relief) is by Kathy Fulton, director of operations for the American Logistics Aid Network, a non-profit organization focused on recruiting supply chain professionals to support humanitarian relief.

Although Ms. Fulton’s column doesn’t address the situation in Japan directly, she includes some advice that would have done the near-sighted planners at that nuke plant some good:

“Know your emergency management groups. Emergency management structures differ from community to community. Find out who is responsible for emergency management in your area; meet with them and work together to draft response plans that make sense for your business, your employees, and your community.”

Ironically, that WSJ article I cited concluded that the accident management plans at all the nuclear power plants in Japan are written to address internal plant problems and don’t take into account external shocks such as the quake or terrorist attack. Now it’s up to external logistics experts—and the citizens themselves—to salvage as much of their lifestyle as they can from the wreckage. Brigadier General Mark W. Corson, the author of our piece on disaster response, sums up the situation nicely:

“As rescue and relief operations transition to recovery and rebuilding operations, the Japanese civil government will take over operational and tactical level sustainment. Civilian logistics professionals and their companies will have an important role to play in these efforts. The key to this combined effort will be understanding the requirements in terms of who needs what, where those needs are, when they need it, and how badly they need it (priority).”

As with any disaster, good outcomes will come out of this one. The world will revisit its assumptions about nuclear power. We will learn useful lessons about repairing a broken transportation infrastructure and protecting our communications infrastructure. And we will have great role models in the Japanese citizens themselves, who are showing the world how to retain their sanity and civility in the face of unimaginable chaos.

So our green issue is really an orange one. Use caution in any plan you make, especially those affecting your internal and external environments. Consider any extreme contingency that could affect them. And take action to help fellow citizens when those contingencies are realized.

There won’t be a Red Issue of MH&L. If we let ourselves get to that point, nobody will be reading magazines.