Sunday, July 08, 2012

Fukushima: final report

An independent commission has released the results of their investigation into the Fukushima nuclear accident, and it is a fascinating read. It's very different than other disaster post-mortems, like those of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Air France 447, Costa Concordia, and so on.

Most notably, the report is in English. I don't mean "translated", I mean the core content itself is written from a Western perspective. It's written by academics and professionals who spend as much of their time interacting with the rest of the world via the Internet. They explicitly lay the blame for the disaster on insular Japanese group-think, and intend their report for the global audience, to help other countries improve the safety of their nuclear programs.

My brother who lives in Japan calls this the conflict between the "Showa" era and the "Google" era. This refers to the Japan habit of dividing their history into periods named after the ruler of the time (Tokugawa, Meiji, Taisho, Showa, Heisei). The last era was from 1926 to 1989 was named for the Showa emperor, which started with the militarization of Japan and WW II, and ended with the rise of Japan as an industrial superpower. The current era is officially named after the Heisei emperor, but my brother names it the "Google" era instead. The Internet has plugged the Japanese youth into world culture like nothing before (a process that goes both ways, as Japanese anime influences world Internet youth). Likewise, academics and professionals are plugged into the Internet, and see things from the worldly perspective of their areas of expertise rather than the local perspective.

The report is clearly written from a worldly perspective. For example, the authors are clearly aware of the Deepwater Horizon gulf oil disaster. They describe the problem of "regulatory capture" that was a major cause of both disasters, as the government agencies regulating the respective industries had a dual mandate to protect safety/environment and promote nuclear-power/oil-production. Humorously, the report claims that the nuclear regulatory agency needs major reform, and not just a "name change". This refers to how the U.S. renamed the "Minerals Management Service" to "Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement" in response to the BP oil spill, but did not fix it's problems, such as the dual mandate of increasing oil production while protecting the environment.

The most important part of the report is the introduction which says:

 For all the extensive detail it provides, what this report cannot fully convey – especially to a global audience – is the mindset that supported the negligence behind this disaster.
 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.
  Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same

This is astonishingly un-Japanese. After reading this, I went back and checked the names of the authors to make sure that they were all indeed Japanese.

In truth, Americans aren't much better. We also have group-think that leads to disasters. I suppose that's the difference in the generation struggle between the "Showa" and "Google" eras, the willingness to criticize groupism, even if you don't practice what you preach.

The report summary is written for the non-technical audience, and reveals great details not found in news media articles. This is perfect for a person like me who wants technical details, but who would find terminology and concepts of the nuclear power industry a bit daunting. These technical details impressively back up the cultural assertions: the vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis was obvious to everyone else, yet TEPCO and the Japanese regulators took no action.

I would suggest one additional problem not mentioned in the report. One reason for group-think that causes real problems to be ignored is that organizations are under attack from know-nothings that hype imaginary problems. I see that in my own area of expertise in cybersecurity/hacking against the power-grid, where know-nothings like Richard Clark hype imaginary dangers and nonsensical solutions. This causes siege mentality among those in the power-grid, causing them to reject real dangers along with the hyped dangers.

Anyway, if you are in a disaster-prone industry like I am, I strongly recommend reading the Fukushima report. It's a fascinating read.


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Harry Shearer said...

One disaster post-mortem not mentioned by Rob: the twin forensic engineering investigations, by the ILIT team at UC Berkeley and the Team Louisiana, into the flooding of New Orleans in 2005. They do not make the same mistakes as the reports denigrated in his list, and for their completeness, scientific diligence, and completeness, the authors were punished by being completely ignored by the national news media.