Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Japanese Government and Transparency:

Another Issue for Nuclear Reactor Regulation

Left: Damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, Japan. Right: President Jimmy Carter arriving at Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant after accident.

Just when I thought I'd said about all I could say on aspects of the Japanese government organization and operation, two excellent articles come to my attention. One addresses an issue that I have not directly covered in my previous posts. The second provides more background on an issue I did cover before. I will spend most of this post talking about the first issue, which is the lack of transparency in the way the Japanese government has acted in the past.

An interesting article in the Japan Times in the past week highlights differences in transparency in the US and Japan, using TMI and Fukushima as examples. It looks at both similarities and differences. Journalists covering both events described information coming from the respective government agencies as the events unfolded as "chaotic," "confusing" and "contradictory." Part of the real-time problems in both cases may be the almost inevitable confusion that seems to arise when information is coming in piecemeal and being redistributed the same way. In the case of Japan, however, the problems the journalists observed may have been exacerbated by the fact that it now appears that some information was withheld.

But what the article observes is the real difference between the two incidents is in the ability to reconstruct after the event what happened and what was discussed as the incident unfolded. In the US, even in the midst of the crisis, and I might add, at a time when the technical options were more limited, the NRC continued to follow the requirement to make records of all discussions that occur when a majority of the Commissioners meet. Because some of these meetings took place at odd times and places, the article reports that NRC staff carried tape recorders that they could turn on any time three Commissioners were present. Later, transcripts were made which provided a valuable record of what the NRC did and did not know.

By contrast, the rules in Japan are different. While important decisions must be recorded, until recently, the discussions leading up to those decisions did not necessarily have to be recorded. In particular, transcripts are required for formal meetings but not for impromptu meetings. The legal standing of the group holding the meeting also has allowed many meetings to take place without a record of them being made.

The good news is that a new law went into effect at the beginning of the Japanese fiscal year in April that establishes the same recording requirements for all government agencies, and extends recording requirements to cover the whole decision-making process. The bad news is that this law was not in effect in the immediate aftermath of Fukushima. Therefore, many critical meetings were held following Fukushima for which no records exist, and it may prove impossible to fully figure out what did happen in the interactions between the government and TEPCO. As a result, it will be more difficult to assure that any shortcomings are corrected in the future.

Japan does have an equivalent to the US Freedom of Information Act--the Information Disclosure Law which has been in effect since 2001. Under this law, citizens can request whatever governmental records do exist regarding the accident. However, the record will clearly have major gaps due to the lack of complete records relating to decisions, and some critics cited in the article believe that government officials will take a bureaucratic anti-disclosure stance. The fact that the world's eyes are upon them may make this more difficult. Time will tell.

The second article of interest to me this past week, also in the Japan Times, was about a reformist bureaucrat. Of particular relevance were his views on amakudari, which I addressed in an earlier blog post. The article covers much of what I covered before--that is, the Japanese government is an "up or out" system, so many bureaucrats must leave the government with inadequate pensions and years of productive working life left. The system that has evolved has them outplaced into government-affiliated organizations or private companies that are connected in some way with the ministry where they worked. Therefore, they have a powerful self-interest in protecting and supporting the industries they are supposed to be regulating. The article adds some further details and examples. It also observes that private sector workers may have the same inclination to manipulate systems to their own benefit, but the competition between their firm and other firms helps keep this tendency in check. There are no such "checks and balances" within the government.

At present, there is a bill in the Diet (the Japanese Parliament) that would institute some government reforms. However, the article says that the prospects for the success of this bill are uncertain, and in any event, it does not address the system of amakudari at all.


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