Could Fukushima Cause A Change In Japan's Groupthink?

Was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown a preventable accident just waiting to happen, or an Act of God, something that could never have been forecast and prevented? That has been the fundamental debate in Japan ever since the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami devastated northeast Japan and precipitated multiple meltdowns at a nuclear power plant complex.

The preventable, “Made in Japan” argument got a major endorsement earlier this month with the publication of a report from a special parliamentary commission that spent six months investigating the crisis and then came down solidly on the man-made accident side of the argument.

“Its fundamental cause can be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture, our reflexive obedience, reluctance to question authority our ‘groupism’ …and insularity,” stated the preamble of the report. With a combination of self-serving and bureaucratic thinking, the industry “put organizational interests ahead of the paramount duty to protect the public.”

The 10-member panel’s findings strongly reflected the views of its chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa, science advisor to the premier and an outspoken critic of Japanese “group think” and risk aversion. Educated as a medical doctor at Tokyo University, he himself took a big risk by leaving Japan at age 32 to live and work in the United States for some 15 years before returning home.

“That experience changed my life,” he once said. In a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Tokyo well before the crisis, he said, “we need to fundamentally change the way we make decisions - in government, business, medicine, and academia.”

The commission was formed by act of parliament last September. Its functions are similar to the kinds of investigative bodies the US Congress has formed to dig into such tragedies as the Challenger disaster or, more recently, the attack on America on Sept 11, 2001. Except that this was the first such commission ever formed in Japan.

The commissioners heard open testimony from most of the leading players in the disaster, up to and including former prime minister Naoto Kan,, who testified for more than two hours, plus the chairman and president of the Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), owner of the plant. (One important omission: the plant manager during the crisis, Masao Yoshida).

Confusingly, there are two independent investigative committees with similar names working independently of each other on the Fukushima problem. The Verification Committee for the Accident at Tepco’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Station, also with 10 members, is headed by Yotaro Hatamura, professor of engineering emeritus at Tokyo University.

Constituted one year ago, the Hatamura Committee, for short) has released a 500-page interim report, heavy on the technological aspects of the crisis in late December. Its final report is due at the end of July. The utility itself released its own report, mainly asserting that the strength of the tsunami could not be predicted. It was widely dismissed as self-serving.

The commission had heard testimony that regulatory officials had become concerned about vulnerability to tsunami after studying the impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. However, these concerns were evidently not relayed to the top management. All of Japan’s nuclear power stations are located along the coast and exposed to tidal waves.

The Fukushima disaster was precipitated by an off shore earthquake that measured 9 on the Richter Scale which in turn let loose a 15-meter high tsunami that devastated the coastline and disabled all but one of the 13 emergency diesel generators that are meant to run the emergency cooling system in the event of a power blackout.

The circumstances of the Fukushima power plant disaster are somewhat comparable to Hurricane Katrina in the US. The disaster in New Orleans obvious was triggered by a massive storm, yet it was the failure of man-made defenses such as the levee for Lake Ponchitrain that caused most of the damages, dislocation and deaths.

Ironically, President George W. Bush was severely criticized for waiting too long to visit New Orleans; Prime Minister Kan was slammed for visiting too soon. He flew to the site less than 24 hours into the incident and generally got in the way of people who were desperately struggling to contain the accident. The Kan visit “diverted attention and time of the on-site operational staff and confused the lines of communication,” said the Kurokawa report.

The details of the 600 page report will take time to digest and translate. But several things have become clear. One is that Japan simply has no mechanism, no real equivalent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for dealing with disasters (keeping in mind the parallel human tragedy which has left about 20,000 dead). That is strange as Japan is no stranger to serious natural disasters such as the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

Everything was handled on an ad hoc basis out of the prime minister’s office, often with the PM himself calling the shots, advised by associates whom he trusted but knew little about nuclear power. Those who were supposed to be advisors often gave bad counsel. The chairman of the country’s main advisory commission assured Kan that no hydrogen explosion was likely – just before it happened.

The regulatory structure was also inadequate to the task,. The key agency involved, known as the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (Nisa) was a department of the ministry of industry responsible for promoting nuclear power. At the time of the accident it was headed by a ministry bureaucrat who admitted he had no training in nuclear power.

Parliament has already passed a law last month creating an independent Nuclear Regulatory Agency, patterned after the similarly name institution in the US. It is likely that more reforms will be made after the parliamentary commission’s report and those of the other bodies studying the accident are completed and digested.

Whether or not Japan has a nuclear power industry will depend to a large extent on how the public perceives and accepts these efforts and reforms as making nuclear power adequately safe. But while it is relatively easy to set up a, say, a new independent regulatory agency, it is not so easy to change the culture that Kurokawa said was the root cause of the disaster.


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