Friday, August 5, 2011

Suggested Changes to the Japanese Nuclear Program:

Guidelines versus Requirements

It has occurred to me that some of my previous posts may sound too much like I think I have a neat set of answers to "fix" the Japanese nuclear program. In trying to make certain points--and to keep my word count under some control!--I have sometimes not gone into all the ifs, ands, and buts to some of my observations.

In particular, I want to step back slightly from any impression that I have tried to present a "how to" for the Japanese government or the Japanese nuclear industry. Most especially, I want to make sure no one thinks that citing a model in the United States or Europe is intended to imply that the model should be copied completely.

The ways in which the nuclear industry and government structures have evolved in each country are a complex blend of the history of nuclear power development in that country, the legal structure, and the typical government organization and staffing. Therefore, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to simply duplicate the institutions and practices of one country in another. In fact, I would go farther and say that, even if certain things could be duplicated, they might have unintended negative consequences of their own, simply because a forced fit is probably a bad fit.

To be specific, many have criticized the Japanese government practices of amakudari (early "retirements" from the government to positions in the industries the government agencies control) and of staffing government organizations with highly technical missions with staff who are generalists. In some cases, I have expressed by personal view that some of these practices (particularly the practice of amakudari) need to be changed throughout the Japanese government. Obviously, that is a tall order and may not be the fastest or most practical way to implement the needed change in the nuclear regulatory agency.

If the practices of concern cannot be changed completely, the message is that the underlying weakness of the practice should be addressed. In the case of the practice of amakudari, perhaps the weakness could be overcome by placing government retirees from the regulatory agency in positions in non-nuclear industries. Or, perhaps restrictions could be imposed on what the individuals are able to do. (This latter measure does have a possible model in US practice, but the requirements might have to be even more stringent if there is widespread movement from the government to the private sector.)

In the case of the use of generalists in technical positions, clearly the Japanese practice of using expert committees was an effort to overcome the deficiency of technical talent in the agencies. However, it is my view that this has not proved sufficient. The government does hire some specialists, so it would seem that an alternative solution would be to increase the fraction of specialists. Possibly some better career paths would have to be developed. This would not necessarily follow US or any other national practice, but could be structured to accomplish the same goal--that of assuring that there are staffers within the government who have an independent capability to understand the technical arguments presented to them, whether these are arguments made by the regulated industry, outside technical researchers, or expert committees.

One thing that is very different in the United States is that our nuclear power program is a product of our World War II weapons development program. Part of the legacy of this program is an extensive infrastructure of national laboratories with numerous experimental and test facilities and a large staff of highly trained technical people. Thus, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the US Department of Energy have access to a unique repository of experimental and analytical capabilities and use them on a regular basis to contribute to policy deliberations. In addition, of course, the US government agencies have access to a large academic reservoir of talent.

Even with all this capability, the United States is turning more and more to collaborative arrangements with other countries for research. In part, this is because many research facilities in the US have shut down over the years, and other nations, in some cases, have newer facilities. In part, many countries have come to realize the benefits of sharing the costs of expensive research efforts and of pooling the top talents of several countries.

Therefore, the fact that other countries may not have the equivalent of the US national laboratory infrastructure does not mean that they cannot participate in cutting-edge research activities, and does not mean that they have to try to reproduce a US-style set of national laboratories. Where I have cited the US national laboratory infrastructure, the message should be that there is a need for strong technical support. The ways in which this support can be developed and provided will vary from country to country.

It would be far neater and more satisfying, I suppose, if I could come up with an exact recipe for what the Japanese should do. However, I can't. I may have developed a pretty good understanding of some areas of Japanese activity related to my own interests, but I'm not sufficiently expert in all the ramifications of the Japanese government personnel system or the entire spectrum of the research community to give precise formulas for anyone to follow. Specific measures need to be developed with inputs from experts in all these areas.

What I hope my previous posts have done is to outline what I see as some fundamental concerns that I have had, and that others may share. My hope is that these insights can be useful at this time, when the Japanese are making many changes as a consequence of the events triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.


1 comment:

  1. A noble quest! It's also great to have someone going into the cultural/structural background in such depth.

    Most people in Japan deplore the practice of amakudari like yourself. It's a lot like the problem Washington has with lobbyists tho. Quite hard to stamp out as the beneficiaries are quite powerful people.