Made in Japan? Fukushima Crisis Is Nuclear, Not Cultural

(photo: Steve Snodgrass)

Since the release of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Committee’s official report last week, much has been made of how it implicates Japanese culture as one of the root causes of the crisis. The committee’s chairman, Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, makes the accusation quite plainly in the opening paragraphs of the executive summary [PDF]:

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.

That this apparently critical self-examination was seized upon by much of the western media’s coverage of the report probably does not come as a surprise–especially when you consider that this revelation falls within the first 300 words of an 88-page document. Cultural stereotypes and incomplete reads are hardly new to establishment reportage. What might come as a shock, however, is that this painful admission is only made in the English-language version of the document, and only in the chairman’s introduction is the “made in Japan” conclusion drawn so specifically.

What replaces the cultural critique in the Japanese edition and in the body of the English summary is a ringing indictment of the cozy relationship between the Japanese nuclear industry and the government agencies that were supposed to regulate it. This “regulatory capture,” as the report details, is certainly central to the committee’s findings and crucial to understanding how the Fukushima disaster is a manmade catastrophe, but it is not unique to the culture of Japan.

Indeed, observers of the United States will recognize this lax regulatory construct as part-and-parcel of problems that threaten the safety and health of its citizenry, be it in the nuclear sector, the energy sector as a whole, or across a wide variety of officially regulated industries.

No protection

The Japanese Diet’s Fukushima report includes a healthy dose of displeasure with the close ties between government regulators and the nuclear industry they were supposed to monitor. The closed, insular nature of nuclear oversight that might be attributed to Japanese culture by a superficial read is, in fact, a product of the universally familiar “revolving door” that sees industry insiders taking turns as government bureaucrats, and regulatory staff “graduating” to well-compensated positions in the private sector.

Mariko Oi, a reporter at the BBC’s Tokyo bureau, described the situation this way when discussing the Fukushima report on the World Service:

When there was a whistleblower, the first call that the government or the ministry made was to TEPCO, saying, “Hey, you’ve got a whistleblower,” instead of “Hey, you’ve got a problem at the nuclear reactor.”

A disturbing betrayal of accountability in any context, it is especially troubling with the ominous repercussions of the Fukushima disaster still metastasizing. And it is also ominously familiar.

Look, for example, just across the Pacific:

[San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station] was chastised two years ago by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for creating an atmosphere in which employees fear retaliation if they report safety concerns.

. . . .

Edward Bussey, a former health physics technician at the plant, sued Edison in state court after he was fired in 2006 under what he said were trumped-up charges that he had falsified initials on logs documenting that certain materials had been checked for radiation. Bussey contended that he was really fired in retaliation for complaining about safety concerns to his supervisors and the NRC.

San Onofre–SONGS, if you will–has been offline since January when a radioactive steam leak led to the discovery of severely degraded copper tubing in both of the plant’s existing reactors. But here’s the real kicker: whistleblower suits at SONGS, like the one from Mr. Bussey, have routinely been summarily dismissed thanks to a little known legal loophole:

San Onofre is majority owned and operated by Southern California Edison, a private company, but it sits on land leased from the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base.

That puts the plant in a so-called federal enclave, where courts have held that many California laws, including labor laws intended to protect whistle-blowers, do not apply.

Lawsuits filed in state court by San Onofre workers who claimed that they were fired or retaliated against for reporting safety concerns, sexual harassment and other issues have been tossed out because of the plant’s location.

The Los Angeles Times cites examples dating back to the construction of San Onofre where personnel who complained about safety or work conditions were terminated and left without many of the legal options normally afforded most California citizens. The history of SONGS is liberally peppered with accidents and safety breaches–and the lies and cover-ups from its owner-operators that go with them. Considering that San Onofre employees are regularly punished for exposing problems and have fewer whistleblower protections, is it at all surprising that SONGS is reported to have the worst safety record of all US nuclear plants?

If San Onofre’s track record isn’t evidence enough of the dangers of weak regulation, the findings and conclusions of the latest Fukushima report make it crystal clear: “safety culture” is not undermined by Japanese culture so much as it is by the more international culture of corruption born of the incestuous relationship between industry and regulators.

It’s a nuclear thing…

But the corrupt culture–be it national or universal–is itself a bit of a dodge. As noted by the Financial Times, the Japanese and their regulatory structure have managed to operate the technologically complex Shinkansen bullet trains since 1964 without a single derailment or fatal collision.

As the Diet’s report makes abundantly clear–far more clear than any talk about Japanese culture–the multiple failures at and around Fukushima Daiichi were directly related to the design of the reactors and to fatal flaws inherent in nuclear power generation.

Return for a moment to something discussed here last summer, The Light Water Paradox: “In order to safely generate a steady stream of electricity, a light water reactor needs a steady stream of electricity.” As previously noted, this is not some perpetual motion riddle–all but one of Japan’s commercial nuclear reactors and every operating reactor in the United States is of a design that requires water to be actively pumped though the reactor containment in order to keep the radioactive fuel cool enough to prevent a string of catastrophes, from hydrogen explosions and cladding fires, to core meltdowns and melt-throughs.

Most of the multiple calamities to befall Fukushima Daiichi have their roots in the paradox. As many have observed and the latest Japanese report reiterates, the Tohoku earthquake caused breaches in reactor containment and cooling structures, and damaged all of Fukushima’s electrical systems, save the diesel backup generators, which were in turn taken out by the tsunami that followed the quake. Meeting the demands of the paradox–circulating coolant in a contained system–was severely compromised after the quake, and was rendered completely impossible after the tsunami. Given Japan’s seismic history, and the need of any light water reactor for massive amounts of water, Fukushima wouldn’t really have been a surprise even if scientists hadn’t been telling plant operators and Japanese regulators about these very problems for the last two decades.

Back at San Onofre, US regulators disclosed Thursday that the damage to the metal tubes that circulate radioactive water between the reactor and the steam turbines (in other words, part of the system that takes heat away from the core) was far more extensive than had previously been disclosed by plant operators:

[Each of San Onofre's steam generators has] 9,727 U-shaped tubes inside, each three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

The alloy tubes represent a critical safety barrier — if one breaks, there is the potential that radioactivity could escape into the atmosphere. Also, serious leaks can drain protective cooling water from a reactor.

Gradual wear is common in such tubing, but the rate of erosion at San Onofre startled officials since the equipment is relatively new. The generators were replaced in a $670 million overhaul and began operating in April 2010 in Unit 2 and February 2011 in Unit 3.

Tubes have to be taken out of service if 35 percent — roughly a third — of the wall wears away, and each of the four generators at the plant is designed to operate with a maximum of 778 retired tubes.

In one troubled generator in Unit 3, 420 tubes have been retired. The records show another 197 tubes in that generator have between 20 percent and 34 percent wear, meaning they are close to reaching the point when they would be at risk of breaking.

More than 500 others in that generator have between 10 percent and 19 percent wear in the tube wall.

“The new data reveal that there are thousands of damaged tubes in both Units 2 and 3, raising serious questions whether either unit should ever be restarted,” said Daniel Hirsch, a lecturer on nuclear policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is a critic of the industry. “The problem is vastly larger than has been disclosed to date.”

And if anything, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is underplaying the problem. A report from Fairewinds Associates, also released this week, unfavorably compared San Onofre’s situation with similar problems at other facilities:

[SONGS] has plugged 3.7 times as many steam generator tubes than the combined total of the entire number of plugged replacement steam generator tubes at all the other nuclear power plants in the US.

The report also explains that eight of the tubes failed a “pressure test” at San Onofre, while the same test at other facilities had never triggered any more than one tube breach. Fairewinds goes on to note that both units at San Onofre are equally precarious, and that neither can be restarted with any real promise of safe operation.

And while the rapid degeneration of the tubing might be peculiar to San Onofre, the dangers inherent in a system that requires constant power for constant cooling–lest a long list of possible problems triggers a toxic crisis–are evident across the entire US nuclear fleet. Cracked containment buildings, coolant leaks, transformer fires, power outages, and a vast catalogue of human errors fill the NRC’s event reports practically every month of every year for the past 40 years. To put it simply, with nuclear power, too much can go wrong when everything has to go right.

And this is to say nothing of the dangers that come with nuclear waste storage. Like with the reactors, the spent fuel pools that dot the grounds of almost every nuclear plant in America and Japan require a consistent and constantly circulating water supply to keep them from overheating (which would result in many of the same disastrous outcomes seen with damaged reactors). At Fukushima, one of the spent fuel pools is, at any given point, as much of a concern as the severely damaged reactor cores.

Ions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Even with the latest findings, however, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda pushed ahead with the restart of the precariously situated and similarly flawed nuclear reactor complex at Oi. It is as if the PM and the nuclear industry feared Japan surviving another summer without nuclear-generated electricity would demonstrate once and for all that the country had no reason to trade so much of its health and safety for an unnecessary return.

But the people of Japan seem to see it differently. Tens of thousands have turned out to demonstrate against their nation’s slide back into this dangerous culture of corruption. (Remember, the Oi restart comes without any safety upgrades made in response to the Fukushima disaster.)

And maybe there’s where cultural distinctions can be drawn. In Japan, the citizenry–especially women–are not demonstrating “reflexive obedience,” instead, they are demonstrating. In the United States, where 23 nuclear reactors are of the same design as Fukushima Daiichi, and 184 million people within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, when the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggested requiring some modest upgrades as a response to the Fukushima disaster, the nuclear industry got its henchmen on the NRC and in Congress to push him out. . . with little public outcry.

Still, the BBC’s Mariko Oi lamented on the day the Fukushima report was released that Japanese media was paying more attention to the birth of a giant panda at a Tokyo zoo. That sort of response would seem all too familiar to any consumer of American media.

That baby panda, it should be noted, has since died. The radioactive fallout from Fukushima, however, lingers, and the crisis at Daiichi is far from over. The threat to global heath and safety that is unique to nuclear power lives on.

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