Official Fukushima Report Blames Japanese Culture, Not Nuclear Power

The government-tasked commission tackles regulators and officials, buts it also makes some unusual assumptions about the March 2011 disaster.

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Fukushima commission chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa uses a fan during the group's official meeting in Tokyo. (Reuters).

The Japanese government's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded, in a 641-page report released Thursday, that the March 11, 2011 nuclear incident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant was a "profoundly man-made disaster." The "enormous amount of radioactive material" that was emitted into the environment, the study found, was the result of human negligence, rather than a natural disaster or -- in the parlance of theologians and insurance adjustors -- an act of god. The Commission held 900 hours of hearings and interviewed 1,167 people, finding that the nuclear meltdown was avoidable. The Commission's conclusions leave the jarring implication that regulators believe there is a category of nuclear disaster that might be unavoidable. Americans might be especially concerned, because the chairman of our own Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggested Friday that Fukushima did not violate any American safety standards.

The event that immediate precipitated the meltdown was, of course, the earthquake. At a magnitude of 9.0, it was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and one of the most powerful earthquakes ever measured. It sent a tsunami, a 133-foot-tall wall of water, crashing onto the coast. Together, the trembling earth and thundering water killed over 15,000 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings. They also overwhelmed the Fukushima plant, triggering a still-disputed chain of events leading to the nuclear disaster.

The plant operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) claimed that its safety infrastructure survived the initial earthquake, succumbing only the subsequent tsunami. The Commission disagreed, finding that many crucial safety systems failed before the flood. Moreover, the Commission characterized TEPCO's explanation as "an attempt to avoid responsibility by putting all the blame on the unexpected (the tsunami) ... and not on the more foreseeable earthquake."

In other words, because TEPCO was supposed to plan for an earthquake, it would be culpable for damage the earthquake caused; if, however, the destruction were attributed to the tsunami, a rarer event, TEPCO wouldn't be found negligent. After all, the thinking goes, who can be held responsible for an unpredictable act of god?

Leaving aside the dubious assumption that a tsunami on the island of Japan was an unimaginable occurrence, for the hundreds of people exposed to high levels of radioactivity, or the thousands of people who have had to relocate from the contaminated area, the distinction is likely cold comfort anyway -- and it doesn't do much to help Japan avoid the next catastrophe.

"Was the accident preventable?" the report asks, before launching into a necessarily technical discussion of which engineering precautions were not, but should have been, employed. What the report misses in its careful scrutiny, though, is the common sense answer: of course the accident was preventable. If you don't want to risk nuclear disaster, don't build nuclear power plants. Or don't build them in areas susceptible to earthquakes as well as tsunamis that also happen to be not too far from densely populated areas.

Somewhat oddly, the Commission indicts Japanese culture for the catastrophe. "This was a disaster 'Made in Japan,'" the report states. "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." Maybe so, but Love Canal and Three Mile Island, the BP oil spill and New Orleans' broken levees all point to similar sorts of disasters here in the U.S., a place that prides itself on harboring just the opposite of some of these cultural traits. Maybe there is some truth to this part of the report -- in the close relationships between officials at TEPCO and the Japanese government, for example -- but that alone doesn't seem to explain the "fundamental causes" that are not unique to this society or any other.

It might be more useful to look to a more basic, universal human truth: shit happens. Or, in the gnostic words of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who as one of the architects of the war in Iraq knows something about the fate of man's best laid plans, "There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- there are things we do not know, we don't know." He was pilloried at the time for his phrasing, but he was also right, and he underscores what's lacking from both TEPCO's account and the Commissions' correction: the acknowledgement that, sometimes, the inherent dangers of new technology can overwhelm our ability to ensure their safety.

Surely Fukushima, for all the faults and mistakes of so many of the people involved, was an accident in the sense that nobody meant for it to happen. But the Commission's implication that some nuclear accidents are unavoidable seems to invite disaster. We know that there will be earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, and floods. There will be negligence, malfeasance, corruption, and error. There will be dangers unforeseen. They will be worse than before. The most important part of the job for those charged with our riskiest adventures is to assume that these things will happen, and then work to mitigate them.

Finding and preventing every possible risk factor is the right goal, but also an impossible one. And that's the point. As we debate how to store nuclear waste, synthesize new strains of disease, and modify the genetic bases of life itself -- all of which share with nuclear power a remarkable contribution to society along with enormous risks -- the Fukushima report is a reminder that not every danger, for example those inherent in nuclear power, can be fully and finally prevented.