Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Japan Fukushima Commission Report

The Japanese government has released “The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission,” a 600-page report that is notably harsh in its criticism of the, for want of a better word, Japanese-ness of the accident. You can read the 88-page English summary of the report here.

Here’s a sample from the prefatory letter written by Commission Chairman Kiyoshi Kurakawa.

With such a powerful mandate, nuclear power became an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society. Its regulation was entrusted to the same government bureaucracy responsible for its promotion. At a time when Japan’s self-confidence was soaring, a tightly knit elite with enormous financial resources had diminishing regard for anything ‘not invented here.’

This conceit was reinforced by the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy, by which the first duty of any individual bureaucrat is to defend the interests of his organization.
Carried to an extreme, this led bureaucrats to put organizational interests ahead of their paramount duty to protect public safety.

Only by grasping this mindset can one understand how Japan’s nuclear industry managed to avoid absorbing the critical lessons learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl; and how it became accepted practice to resist regulatory pressure and cover up small-scale accidents.

It was this mindset that led to the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.

This is a very uncomfortable description – “the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy” – and he goes further even.

What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.”

Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.

Still, though this sounds as though the report will be an exercise in national self-abasement, it’s not. There’s a little of that – the report calls the accident “man-made:”

The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.

Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly “man-made.” We believe that the root causes were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.

The earthquake and tsunami, we should note, undid the best efforts of civil society. The context of the accident remains a very important consideration – an enormous number of people at Fukushima lost family members, friends and large parts of their towns.

Still, the report is largely objective in tone and will bring questions of national character – however uncomfortable they may be – into discussions of mitigating risk.

By all means, read the whole report. We’ll certainly be coming back to it.


Anonymous said...

This incident wouldn't been a fraction of the turmoil and misery it was had cooler and knowledgeable heads prevailed regarding the need and extent of the evacuation. That turned what could've been a tepid non-fatal industrial accident into a major human interest catastrophe, and that people over there are still acting like the reactors actually killed people suggests to me that the head of emergency management over there is not only overdue an overhaul but requires an extensive prerequisite course in nuclear power and the lessons of TMI and Chernobyl. I would like to see Japan muster up the guts its society has collected before and climb back on the horse that threw it and proclaim an accident learned with a shameless deathless triumph of old but resilient engineering and proceed on in the nuclear industry. The protesters are just barking up the wrong industrial accident mortality rate tree, and my hat's off to PM Noda.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that this is a report from a commission based in the Japanese Parliment, so it will have a political component, perhaps subtle, perhaps not, but nonetheless there. As such, these kinds of things always look to assign blame. That is almost a requirement. No one is going to have the political will to step up and tell it like it is, which is that this was a natural disaster whose potential consequences were in vast part mitigated by the robustness of the technology and inherent physics of the process.

FRE said...

Because I worked for a Japanese company for 10 years, I have some knowledge of Japanese culture.

Japanese culture tends to be very conformist. Japanese people are very embarrassed by mistakes and tend to hide mistakes or fix them in such a way as to minimize the number of people who know about them. Also, Japanese people tend not to point out the mistakes of others for fear of embarrassing them or seeming to be non-cooperative. The result is that Japanese culture makes it very difficult for the Japanese to achieve optimal solutions and to innovate.

The Japanese themselves are aware of these problems and at least some of them are working to circumvent them. Probably they will eventually succeed, but it may be a slow process.