The Fukushima Post Nuclear Disaster Analysis

I do wish I had photos of the Fukushima plant, both before and after, though I won’t be going too soon. No pun intended, but there won’t be much fall out from the Fukushima crisis, and it’s no coincidence of little tangible fallout both literally and metaphorically. The worlds’ media is saying that there will be earth-shifting consequences, as already seen with Germany their re-thinking their nuclear energy policies. Fukushima has apparently put nuclear power back decades in the UK and the US, and undoubtedly here, too. However, the ramifications in Japan are not going to be as large and paradigm shifting as they should be. Undoubtedly there will be few if any new nuclear power plants to be built in the next twenty plus years in Japan, but still the full ramifications of the Fukushima disaster are not going to experienced and felt. Why? Culture.

It is innate in all humans to avoid being seen as the culprit of any disaster. Whether it is the loss of data in an office, or when cars bump into each other at busy intersections, we humans tend to blame others for our mistakes. In contrast, Japanese Prime Ministers don’t have a good reputation for political grit. The BBC uses the term ‘revolving door‘ to describe the Japanese national political culture (see Japan’s Political Revolving Door and What led Shinzo Abe to Resign?). That is to say, at the slightest hint of smoke, at the slightest sign of problems, at the first chink in the armour, the opposition and the PM’s own party demands the leader steps down to ‘take responsibility’, which seems a contradiction. However, it might appear that it’s not so much a revolving door system, but a take-a-number-and-wait-your-turn system of Prime Ministership. Prior to the previous national election in 2009, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had ruled Japan for 54 years until the first election which voted them out, over saw many political disasters. In the electoral term until 2009, there were four Prime Ministers, one elected, Junichro Koizumi, and the unelected Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda, and then Taro Aso respectively, with the first retiring, and the middle two extricating themselves for a variety of scandals that were not their fault. The biggest scandal that rocked the public’s confidence in the LDP was the pension system, where many people made sometimes large voluntary premium payments, of which many were not recorded and pocketed by pension-office bureaucrats. Though, the whole pension problem came to light when it was realised that hundreds of thousands of pension records were lost in the computerisation of the pension system. Probably, many were computerised but not matched to the proper owner, but many uncomputerised files (pieces of paper) were destroyed, perhaps mistakenly with computerised counterparts. So far, nobody has been found responsible for the wrongful destruction of so many records, nor was anybody held to account for the decision not to store them for the long term. Furthermore, there hasn’t been a search for, enquiry, nor attempt to prosecute anyone for the pension bungling. The usual fall-guy for such a scandal is the Prime Minister, and the PM of the day was the first one in 54 years not to step down: Taro Aso, who lost the 2009 election, and handed political leadership to a non-LDP lead cabinet, the first since democratisation after world war two. So this shows that there is not a culture of looking for the fundamental root and cause of a problem in Japan. This has been shown in non-political situations, too.

MacFarlane and Saitoh wrote an academic article for an academic journal. The sort of journal that undergrad’s are supposed to read. In their article they focused on the cultural perception of ethics in research in Japanese universities. Since world war II, research subjects (now known as ‘participants’) have internationally recognised rights in human research stemming from the Declaration of Helsinki, in addition to the normal human rights treaty. The problem with the Helsinki declaration is that it is based on Euro-Catholic-Aristotelian principles, and is expected to be applicable in African, Muslim, and Buddhist-Confucianist  countries et al. So it was of great interest to see what and if there are any incompatibilities. As it turns out there are. The European Helsinki declaration favours human rights, but the Japanese favour financial integrity.

What background is there to this? During the pre-war Japanese military expansion, the infamous Unit 731 conducted horrible experiments on prisoners, testing chemical and biological weapons. After the war, it was claimed that the scientists were permitted by the Americans to go free in return for their data. These scientists got jobs teaching and researching in some of the top Japanese universities, eventually getting promoted to the most senior positions. Consequently, whenever the subject of human rights in research is broached, it was always briefly, in fear of causing particular members of faculty to lose face. Consequently, in the mid 1950′s, early 1960′s, and early 1970′s when there were other abhorrent medical projects done in Japanese psychiatric wards (on the people with the least protection), which resulted in deaths, the researchers conducting the experiments were convicted for their crimes under local laws, but the root of the matter was never investigated. Interestingly, hospitals including doctors, nurses, ward staff, assistants, research supervisors, and hospital attendants were implicated nor berated for allowing these experiments to proceed; the research cultures where these researchers worked were never investigated.

So, today with the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants, owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCo), it is almost without a doubt that those who are truly responsible for the root cause and origin of the problems that occurred will never be held to account. I would expect that the current Prime Minister Naoto Kan will be crucified by the media and the opposition parties for his apparent bungling of the nuclear situation, and there will surely be a new unelected Japanese Prime Minister before summer has ended. In fact, if there was anything like a British or Australian Royal Commissions in a moderately open and transparent society it would certainly find that there may have been improper dealings between previous TEPCo executives and  LDP politicians & nuclear regulators. An in-depth enquiry may find that there may have been fundamental failures to ensure adequate protection and updates of these reactors. This is not without precedent. According to the BBC, former TEPCo executives had apparently falsified safety records. In 1999 the Tsuruga nuclear plant of Japan Atomic Power leaked radioactive water and lied about the quantity. People were hospitalised at the Tokaimura incident, and that BBC page lists previous known incidents that occurred in the 1990′s.

During the magnitude 9 Tohoku Earthquake the reactors immediately stopped, as they were meant to, critically cutting off power for their own cooling. This meant that the primary backup was a diesel generator that would provide electricity to maintain the cooling system of the nuclear reactors. The secondary backup were batteries, and the plant was apparently without a tertiary backup system. Critically, it is not clear why there was not a tertiary backup system installed. One guest expert on the BBC commented that earthquake-tsunami proof water vats that could have gravity fed water into the reactors to provide backup cooling. It should not be a surprise that the primary backup for the Fukushima plants would not survive a seawater tsunami, and that the secondary backup batteries would eventually run out. A problem that seems not to have been foreseen is that after a tsunami, roads into the plant might become temporarily impassable, making repairs to the diesel generators impossible to achieve before the batteries ran out. Without a doubt, the engineers and architects who designed Fukushima in the 1960′s did a brilliant job. The Fukushima disaster could have been as bad as the poorly designed Chernobyl plant. It is unfortunate that modern safety management of Fukushima remained in the paradigm of the 1960′s. This begs the question, how many other nuclear plants in Japan are susceptible to fundamental breakdowns? How many other plants are in dire need of updating. How many articles in legislation needs updating. I am not opposed to nuclear power, but only if it is properly managed, if there is adequate oversight, and there is continual and incremental improvements to all aspects of the plants, construction, maintenance, regulatory oversight, updating, and in management paradigms.

The real culprits, those who let lax standards and the non-compulsory updating of safety systems, will not be held to account. The Prime Minister will sure be replaced by the end of summer, and TEPCO will lose its executive directors (second time in five years). However, probably none of the other nuclear power plants will be updated. Regulators will give the appearance of action, but it will be just for show; nobody wants to lose face.

If you visit Tokyo, don’t drink the tap water.

References

  • (Also see the website references embedded in text)
  • MacFarlane, B., and Saitoh, Y. (2008) Research ethics in Japanese higher education: Faculty attitudes and cultural mediation. Journal of Academic Ethics, 6, p181-195.

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