The 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident and preceding earthquake and tsunami devastated the region in a matter of hours. Managing Lendlease’s risk response from the region, Kevin Bates describes putting a pause on other business concerns to focus on what mattered most – people. 

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale and a powerful tsunami, led to a major nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima, Japan.

The earthquake knocked out the power supply and backup generators of the power plant, leading to a loss of cooling functions in several of the plant’s reactors. The lack of cooling caused a series of nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen-air explosions, and the release of radioactive materials into the environment.

Tepco/ Fukushima  Nuclear accident following tsunami

It has been labelled the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Kevin Bates, group head of risk and insurance at Lendlease, describes his experience of the event.

“I was living in Singapore at the time and was leading a regional crisis team for the Asia region of my organisation,” he says.

“It impacted us as an organisation, from an operations perspective but also, more importantly, from a human element perspective. We had a large team in Japan and a significant number of employees in the affected area.

“Our Japan-based managing director went to work on the recovery with the Japanese government. I joined him a couple of weeks later, when the area was deemed safe, in order to support the recovery and support our employees as they attempted to return their lives to normal.”


Bates said he was sitting in his office in Singapore when the event took place. There was a surge of phone calls and notifications.

“I spoke to the managing director for our Japanese business immediately. He clarified what we knew was taking place. I was acutely aware that we had a team in the affected area,” says Bates.

“At first, it was a fact-finding and information-gathering process. The key point we focused on straight away was obvious – people. This was a natural disaster-driven event so was expected to have a massive impact on people.”

Bates describes having hourly briefing calls to discuss the evolving event. Any information from these calls was relayed back to the response team. “We realised during this process that the team on the calls needed to have that burden taken off them if they were to enact responses in other areas. That was actually a huge leap in maturity for us: realising, in real-time, that our resources and bandwidth needed to change.”

“We had to get ourselves into the right headspace in terms of pressing pause on prioritising the business”

Bates notes that during a crisis it is usually “all hands on deck” at the affected area, but this was an unusual event as there were more immediate considerations about the impacts on people. “You need to be considering the business continuity and how we continue our operations. But before that, you take a pause and consider all of the human factors.”

Bates explains that there were people helping in the response that did not even know if their homes were still intact or if their families were safe. “So we had to get ourselves into the right headspace in terms of pressing pause on prioritising the business and instead saying to employees: ‘You need to actually go and solve matters for your family and for your homes,” he says.

Only after focusing on those human aspects, was there then a process of asking what the event meant for business continuity and impacts on the supply chain. “You need to analyse the ongoing business environment and get very macro in your thinking. For example, a lot of steel comes out of Japan. That is going to be needed for rebuilding infrastructure,” says Bates.

“How reliant are we around the world, from a supply chain perspective, on Japanese steel? Something as localised as an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident, could mean that the export of critical materials is banned. The Japanese government has done it before and they will do it again.”


Bates says that during his 19 years with Lendlease, it has always been a case of refining and improving its crisis management plan and resilience framework.

“We have yellow, orange and red levels to our response. Yellow is a business unit level response, orange is regional and red is group level, all rated from a severity and geographical spread basis.

“There are certain parameters that decide which level is allocated. Regardless, there is always notification to the tier above. You need a specific process for when there needs to be a handover or escalation to a higher level.”

“You also need to assume that not everyone will have access to their laptop, so does everyone have access to a hard copy of the crisis plan at home?”

In the aftermath of the event, Bates felt satisfied that the Japanese team was highly prepared for such an event and would be again in the future. “Under every single employee’s desk was a small box. They have a good old-fashioned printed map, with a walking route home for such an event. There was also telecommunications in place, plus snacks and drinks.

“The major lesson we learnt was that the Japanese team actually practiced what they preached. Everyone has got a crisis plan, but they check and revise their plan, and keep on top of details even checking that the snacks in the boxes under the desk are not out of date.”

He notes that it is always important to remember that a crisis will not necessarily happen between 9 am and 5 pm, Monday to Friday.

“You also need to assume that not everyone will have access to their laptop, so does everyone have access to a hard copy of the crisis plan at home? Is it printed out and current? “It is ensuring all of those simple things and all of their variations have been fully considered that is vital.”