Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nuclear meltdowns and Japanese culture

Japanese engineers have a much deserved reputation for efficiency. How else could they have created a car industry that could defeat the U.S industry on its home ground? But the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant suggests a partial rethink is needed. When it comes to nuclear affairs, maybe they are not as brilliant as they should be.

Some years back I found myself appointed to official committees and councils (shingikai) set up to consider nuclear energy policy and nuclear safety. What I saw and heard then gave me little confidence that Japan was on top of the safety question. The overall impression was one of pervasive, bureaucratic incompetence and complacency.

We were told constantly how Japan's high technical levels and attention to safety meant that accidents like the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion in the former Soviet Union or the 1979 Three Mile island meltdown and radiation leakage scare in the U.S. could not happen to Japan. Yet today we are looking at a disaster much worse than Three Mile Island. On the international scale of danger from nuclear accidents, Fukushima is said to be closing in on Chernobyl.

What went wrong? Attention is focused on the frantic efforts to ease or prevent radiation leakage from damaged reactor buildings. But the contradictions, obfuscations and attempted excuses in official statements are not reassuring. And when it comes to the original cause of the disaster, namely the mistaken location of the emergency backup equipment allowing it to be flooded by the tsunami, then no excuses are possible. It was a typically Japanese failure to engage in contingency planning — a worthy trait at times but not when it comes to nuclear power.

The Tohoku coastline, including Fukushima, faces one of the world's more active areas of tectonic plate activity. It ranks with both Chile and Sumatra in its ability to cause devastating tsunami. The plant began construction just 10 years after the 1960 Chile-origin tsunami that had wiped out many Tohoku coastal towns and villages.

The deadly 2004 Sumatra earthquake would have been a good reminder of more tsunami dangers to come. Yet, both then and until now, the planners seem to have believed that the sea wall in front of the site was sufficient protection from a locally generated tsunami.

As it turned out, they were wrong; the tsunami swept across the wall and flooded the equipment, causing the present emergency. But if the emergency equipment had been placed on high ground or, even better, put underground, as seems to be the current U.S. policy, then the size of the tsunami would not have mattered. Yet, for some incredible reason, the equipment was placed above ground and close to the water's edge — an open invitation for the trouble we now see. Whose decision was that?

At a recent press conference, Shiro Ogura, a retired Toshiba expert on nuclear plant design formerly involved with the Fukushima project, blamed U.S. company General Electric, which built the original plant. But why didn't someone on the Japanese side more familiar with tsunami point out the danger either then or later?

In the endless meetings on nuclear safety and policy I attended over three years as a member of those committees, such problems got little attention. Instead, voluminous situation reports constantly repeated the need for nuclear energy (with which I agreed) while giving bland assurances of its safety.

Glossy brochures and elaborate public meetings aimed to counter the strong antinuclear movement in Japan seemed the main objective. My suggestions that staff who pointed out dangers and lapses — whistle-blowers as we call them — should be rewarded got short shrift.

The suggestions were "contrary to the Japanese culture of enterprise loyalty," I was told bluntly. Pointing out that other well-known aspect of the same group culture — a tendency to coverups and complacency — did not seem welcome.

My suggestion that serious dialogue with the antinuclear movement, including permissions for spot checks on generating plants, would do more to convince and educate people than glossy pamphlets got nowhere. The paternalistic assumption was that the nuclear energy people knew what was best for Japan, and the rest of Japan had to accept that, period.

Even now officialdom does not seem to want to realize the extent of the disaster it has created. While U.S. experts issue deep warnings of impending meltdowns, Japan's officials and experts try to convince us and themselves that each stopgap measure will provide the answer.

The national ganbaru (try hard) mentality will conquer all, they seem to think, including those warnings by the foreigners. Or else some kamikaze (divine wind) will come to rescue Japan, once again. TV stations continue with their usual diet of cheap gag shows and food tasting. Similarities with Japan's fatalistic optimism in the final Pacific War days are not hard to find.

 何がまちがったのか。いま損傷を受けた原子炉建屋から漏れる放射能を減らす、あるいは防ぐための必死の努力に注目が集まっている。しかし、公式発表の矛盾、わかりにくさ、苦しいいい訳を聞いても、安心できない。災害の根本原因については、つまり非常用バックアップ装置を津波に襲わせてしまったという建築場所のミスは、弁解の余地がない。不慮の出来事へ備えをしなかった― 時には役立つこともある特性だが、こと原発に関してはそうはいかない― という典型的に日本的なミスだ。
 だが彼らはまちがっていたことが判った;津波は壁を乗り越え、設備を水浸しにし、目下の非常事態を招いた。仮に非常用装置を高台に置いていたなら、そしてさらによいのは地下に埋めていたなら、― それが現在アメリカの方針のようだが― その場合は津波の大きさも問題にならなかっただろう。ところが、何か信じられないような理由で、設備は地面の上に、しかも海側に置かれていた。今回の事故を、どうぞと招いているようなものだ。これは誰の決定によるものか。
 私は3年間これらの委員会のメンバーとして参加した会議で、こうした問題はあまり注目されていなかった。その代わりに、大部の現状報告書が原子力エネルギーの必要性(これには私も賛成だが)を繰り返し強調する一方、安全については煮え切らない保証をしていた。日本で盛んな反核運動に反撃するための、ピカピカのパンフや用意周到な公聴会が主な目的のようだった。危険や不備を指摘する職員の内部告発― われわれは英語でホイッスル・ブローアー(警笛鳴らし)と呼んでいる― に報奨金を出してはどうかという私の提案は、あっさり却下。それは“会社に忠誠という日本の文化に反するものだ”、という一言で片付けられた。同じグループ主義文化の他のよく知られた面― カバーアップや自己満足に陥る傾向― を指摘しても歓迎されない雰囲気だった。