Thursday, July 5, 2012

Japan's Nuclear Crisis, or, the Problem with Getting Along

Back in the 1980s, when westerners fretted that Japan was taking over the world, book after book was written praising the Japanese system. That system is much less adversarial than those of America or Britain; Japanese politics were for decades something of a sham, newspapers usually printed what the government wanted them to, judges generally deferred to police, students were trained to work together instead of trying to stand out, and so on. The idea was that everyone should work together under the guidance of a highly competent elite, which would always look toward the interests of the nation as a whole.

One of the problems with this approach was revealed when the tsunami crashed into the Fukushima Daiichi power plant last year. It turned out that Japan's allegedly wise technocrats were badly prepared for a nuclear disaster, and that they had made their country completely dependent on nuclear power without really insuring that the nuclear plants were safe. Disaster was averted by teams of engineers and workers who returned again and again into the irradiated zone, sacrificing themselves for the good of all.

Now an official commission has issued a scathing report on the disaster, and the authors say the fundamental problem was the same culture of getting along and not speaking out of turn:
The commission also charged that the government, Tepco and nuclear regulators failed to implement basic safety measures despite being aware of risks posed by quakes, tsunamis and other events that might cut off power systems and put nuclear plants at risk. For example, even though the government-appointed Nuclear Safety Commission revised earthquake resistance standards in 2006 and ordered nuclear operators around the country to inspect their reactors, Tepco did not carry out any checks, and regulators did not follow up, the report said. The government also failed to develop evacuation plans for the public, it said.

The report blamed the tepid response on collusion between the company, the government, and regulators — all of whom had “betrayed the nation’s right to safety from nuclear accidents.” Tepco “manipulated its cozy relationship with regulators to take the teeth out of regulations,” the report said.

Perhaps most damningly, the report pointed to a culture in Japan that suppresses dissent and outside opinion, which might have prompted changes to the country’s lax nuclear controls. By assigning widespread censure, however, the report also avoids laying the blame on specific executives or officials. Some critics have demanded that Tepco executives be investigated on charges of criminal negligence.

“What must be admitted, very painfully, is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan,’” Mr. Kurokawa said. “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.”
The adversarial system of competing parties and competing interest groups can be frustrating and maddeningly wasteful, but it has advantages. When an American politician screws up, he has opponents on hand to call him out; when a corporation tries to skirt environmental or safety rules, environmentalists scream. Things go more smoothly when everybody takes one for the team instead of having a tantrum, Japanese style, but the stuff that gets swept under the rug sometimes comes back to bite us.

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