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
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.