Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Japanese satellites performed perfectly, but once the ground stopped shaking...

The Government of Japan's Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters has
released its findings entitled, "Report of Japanese Government to the
IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety - The Accident at TEPCO's
Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations" dated June 2011

(See -

While the report is geared for a specific technical audience, it has
revealed that the Japanese government may have stumbled into a
satellite black hole. This admission that the Japanese government and
disaster response personnel in particular soon found themselves
overwhelmed and cut off - a situation that applied to upper level
incident managers in Tokyo as well as personnel in the field -
represents an important step as the Japanese government assesses the
strengths and weaknesses of its emergency communications grid.

The report states -

"Additionally, the NERHQs (Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters)
directly called those municipalities. However, since communication
services including telephone lines were heavily damaged by the
massive earthquake, not all the direct calls reached the affected
municipalities. Prior notification to local governments was not
satisfactorily delivered because some municipalities did not
receive evacuation instruction either directly or indirectly." (p.

And later in a chapter which focused on the lessons learned, the report
also states that -

"Effective training to respond to accident restoration at nuclear power
plants and adequately work and communicate with relevant organizations
in the wake of severe accidents was not sufficiently implemented up
to now. For example, it took time to establish communication
between the emergency office inside the power station, the Nuclear
Emergency Response Headquarters and the Local Headquarters and also to
build a collaborative structure with the Self Defense Forces, the
Police, Fire Authorities and other organizations which played important
roles in responding to the accident. Adequate training could have
prevented these problems." (pp. XII 7-8)

By pointing to a much larger communications gap then was previously
disclosed - due to an infrastructure meltdown layered on top of a
possible lack of interoperability - the report does not mask nor
sidestep the issue of the inability of Japanese officials to
communicate quickly and effectively. In doing so, it raises questions
about the overall performance, reliability and robustness of Japan's
"Local Authorities Satellite Communications Network" as well as the
dedicated satellite networks known as "J-ALERT" and "SafetyBird."
SafetyBird in particular includes a dedicated nuclear power plant early
warning component, for example.

Did the severity of the earthquake simply knock out satellite dishes in
multiple locations by shaking them and therefore terminating the
connection between ground equipment and their respective satellites? Or
did power supply disruptions knock out satellite transmit and receive

No explicit language in the report points a finger at the satellite
ground segment, but the suggestion is too strong to ignore, and the
results are too obvious to overlook.

This report to the IAEA leaves many unanswered questions about the
status of satellite communications in this instance. By the way, this
writer examined this topic several weeks ago in a post which appeared
on "Japan Security Watch" which was entitled, "Japan's Earthquake
Revealed Key Satellite Gaps"


A more objective and more detailed analysis of what went wrong and why
so many key personnel were affected in the process needs to emerge.

In many respects, the lessons learned by Japanese disaster response
planners parallel those that the U.S. learned in the aftermath of
Hurricane Katrina which devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005.

The bottom line is that satellite phones and fixed, two-way satellite dishes
, along with the right number of trained and qualified personnel on scene - whether at a facility or a population center - need to be in place and ready to respond.
Operating both the satellite phones in question, and taking charge of
larger satellite uplinks to support phone banks as well as multiple
video feeds etc requires skill and plenty of practice. Absent these key
ingredients, the result can be an unpleasant, unwanted and prolonged

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