Sunday, July 24, 2011

Nuclear Regulatory Independence in Japan:

The Role of Technical Capability

One area that has been somewhat neglected in the discussions of regulatory independence in Japan is the role of the technical capability of the regulatory staff. In the long run, this factor is probably as important as the other factors that have been discussed, including the organizational independence and the implications of amakudari, and deserves more attention. I will try to make a few observations here.

One fundamental characteristic of the Japanese government is that the majority of the government employees are generalists. Although the Japanese government does employ some specialists in different fields, the majority of staff, even in highly technical areas, do not have technical degrees or experience in technical fields.

Furthermore, the government employment system operates much like the US military and diplomatic personnel systems operate--that is, over the course of their careers, individuals are rotated to positions throughout their agency, and sometimes to other agencies, in a deliberate career-building process managed by personnel departments. As in the US military and diplomatic systems, individuals "belong" to/have a lifetime employment promise from the agencies that hired them originally and a permanent transfer to a new agency, e.g. the independent regulator, raises complex career questions. (This helps explain why Japanese government reorganizations are very infrequent.)

One of the objectives of the process is for senior employees to have achieved a broad understanding of the full range of activities of their organization, rather than to have an in-depth understanding of any single part of the agency's activity. Thus, for an agency like NISA's parent agency, the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry (METI), which has a large scope of responsibility, an individual may move from positions dealing with the oil sector to the nuclear sector to the manufacturing sector to international trade to economic development, without ever becoming a qualified expert in any single areas.

As a result of this process, government agencies have come to rely heavily on committees of experts, mostly drawn from universities and sometimes including retirees from industry. These experts have in-depth technical training and are able to review technical matters and provide advice to government agencies. As far as I can tell, the advice is usually good. The problem is that the staff is overly reliant on the advice and is unable to develop any of their own independent assessments. Therefore, they may not be able to recognize it in the hopefully rare cases where an expert adviser makes an error. There is also a danger that accidental biases in committee selection could bias results and give less attention to certain issues.

In 1992, I was working at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and I was assigned to spend 6 months at the regulatory organization in the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), the predecessor to NISA in METI. My assignment was to monitor the Japanese efforts to license the GE Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR), which NRC was then gearing up to do. I remember once asking a staff member at MITI what the basis was for a decision they were making on the licensing of the ABWR. The answer I got was that an advisory committee member said so. When I asked how the advisory committee member had come to that conclusion, the MITI staffer did not know. It was sufficient that he had the word of the advisory committee member. I found it troubling at the time that he had absolute confidence in something that he could not, and did not try to, verify for himself. After all, anyone can make a mistake, even an expert.

Once again, as always, such technical independence is a matter of degree. People could point to the US NRC, and I suppose to every other nuclear regulatory organization in the world, and note that it gets a lot of technical input from outside. The NRC, in particular, has a statutory standing advisory committee, the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS), as well as other advisory groups. In addition, it contracts with the national laboratories, universities, and other organizations to conduct experimental research and to provide technical reports on a number of subjects.

Nevertheless, there is a critical difference--the staff at the NRC, which has about the highest percentage of advanced degrees of any agency in the US government--is capable of independently reviewing and understanding the advice and reports it receives. When an NRC staffer stands up before the Commission or other body to discuss a study produced under a contract he or she managed, that staffer can explain the technical basis for the conclusions of the study.

Like amakudari, the practice of staffing government agencies with generalists is embedded deeply within the Japanese government system and will be a difficult one to overcome. However, the government does employ a small number of technical specialists, so there is some recognition that people with such capabilities are necessary. It seems to me that, along with the the other reforms to the nuclear regulatory system that the Japanese is considering, provisions should be developed to increase the percentage of technically trained staff in the new regulatory organization. Such a change will go a long way toward addressing one fundamental barrier to true regulatory independence in Japan.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Fukushima and Coverups:

Eraser Society

I am now going to risk compounding the error of working outside my area of expertise. In a recent blogpost, I talked about the revelation that TEPCO engineers were concerned about a GE decision on the placement of the diesel generators at Fukushima, but that nothing was apparently done about their concern. I attributed this to a social tendency no to want to make waves. I can't tell whether the engineers are to be "blamed" for not raising the issue, or whether the issue was raised, but TEPCO management is to be "blamed" for not challenging GE. Whatever the case, I noted that the behavior fits with the fact that I have learned that children in Japan are taught that "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

This started me thinking about whether there are other character traits that may influence safety at nuclear facilities, and I recalled the several instances of coverups that have been revealed over the years at different nuclear facilities. The most well known may be the Monju coverup, but there have been others, including one at Fukushima in 2002. Now, no one from any culture really wants to acknowledge a mistake, and in this case, I don't know what Japanese children are taught, but I do recall several experiences when I lived in Japan that make me wonder if there is a different tolerance for error. I do know that I was always taught that we all make mistakes. The point is to learn from them. Maybe Japanese children are taught that. Maybe not.

What I do recall though, is several instances where I felt a Japanese person made an inordinate effort to "hide" an error, or even an apparent error. In one case, I was talking to an administrative person about arranging a trip. She was making notes in pencil as I laid out my plans. Several times, I started to propose one schedule, then changed my mind. It was my mistake, really. Each time, she industriously erased what she'd written and rewrote the corrected information. Finally, I asked what she was going to do with the paper. She was only going to use it to type out the travel authorization form. I was left wondering why she didn't just cross out the incorrect information.

I never got a satisfactory answer, but sometime later, someone left me a note telling me that the meeting room for an upcoming meeting had been changed. The note was written on yellow lined paper, but something had been whited out with a liquid erase product. You could see that a mistake had been made, but you couldn't see any more what the mistake was. Again, I wondered why not just cross it out? Why use this product, wait for it to dry, and rewrite over that.

Shortly after that, I was walking down a Tokyo street and a local gym was handing out a promotional product. Such handouts are a long-standing advertising commercial tradition in Japan, and the handouts include small useful items, such as packets of tissue, pencils, pens, and pads of sticky notes, all carrying the corporate name. In this case, I was handed what looked like a pencil, but when I got it home and looked more closely, it was an eraser encased in a plastic tube that could be pushed up as it was used up. I remember thinking at the time that pens and pencils would be good giveaways in the US, but I doubted that anyone would use an eraser. At that point, I jokingly started saying that the Japanese were an "eraser society."

(As an aside, one Japanese person to whom I'd made that statement retorted that their erasers were much better than ours! He was right. Their erasers never smeared the pencil lead. Which probably only reinforced my point.)

Now, perhaps I am blowing a few small observations out of proportion. Perhaps the admin person who erased her notes or the other person who whited out his mistake on a casual note were just a couple of unusually compulsive people. And as I already noted, no one likes to be caught making a mistake, and a lot of individuals will cover up mistakes if they think they can get away from it. I'm sure anyone can find dozens of instances in the US, in Europe, and everywhere else. But these small cases, and the eraser giveaway, and some of the well-publicized cases in the Japanese nuclear industry that went all the way to the top of their organizations, have made me wonder if there isn't something to my observation.

If there is, the response of the Japanese nuclear establishment should be to follow some of the examples outside Japan, where people are trained in the importance of not hiding problems, and there is a concerted effort to foster an environment where people are not punished for admitting errors. And, just as important, the Japanese nuclear establishment needs to see from the examples that the situation outside Japan is far from perfect in this regard. The importance of not covering up mistakes or errors is one that needs continual reinforcement, and maintaining an environment that allows people to come forward about mistakes without fear of retribution is a constant challenge.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Considering the Fukushima Accident:

Does Culture Matter?

I have given some more thought to the article I cited in my last blog about the placement of the diesel generators being a GE decision. The article stated that some TEPCO engineers were concerned about the decision at the time. It is not clear whether they expressed this concern. Even if they had, it is not clear what TEPCO would have done.

It occurred to me that the incident may reveal some elements of what is said to be the Japanese character. I may be way out of my league here, as I'm not a sociologist. Furthermore, I fully believe every culture and nationality has a full range of personalities. Not every American behaves like a cowboy, and not every Japanese conforms to the socially cooperative behavior supposedly associated with an agriculturally-focused society. Still, we saw in the aftermath of Fukushima that many Japanese did cooperate, share, take their turn, exercise patience, not loot or steal (even when they'd lost everything), etc., much better than we tend to think Americans would do in a similar situation. So maybe there are some tendencies that can be explored.

And I did live in Japan, which I hope gives me a little more insight into matters of national character. I do know, because a number of people have told me, that Japanese children grow up being taught "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down." By contrast, I don't know if we are taught in terms of such a homily, but I know that part of my upbringing was the message that "I was only following orders" was not a good excuse.

So I'm not terribly surprised to see that part of the issue in Japan may have been that the Japanese engineers didn't stand up to authority when they should have. Or, more insidious still, that they did stand up, but were ignored.

Clearly, every personality characteristic has its pluses and minuses, the times where the trait shines and the times where the trait fails the individual or society. Cowboys are independent and self-sufficient, but going it alone doesn't always work--either at nuclear power plants or anywhere else. Social conformity makes for more harmonious interpersonal interactions, but can discourage independence of thought or action where it is needed. So the point is not to change things 180 degrees, but rather to establish the conditions that can enable the appropriate behavior for each situation.

Challenging authority is always a difficult proposition, and I won't pretend that the situation is perfect in the US. But the US government has had a law since 1989 that provides for the protection of Federal whistleblowers, and in addition, the NRC has a system for handling differing professional opinions (DPOs). Whistleblowers in industry are protected by a variety of laws that are administered by the US Office of Whistleblower Protection. In Japan, such measures seem to be much newer and more limited. The Japanese Whistleblower Protection Act, which became effective in 2006, applies to both government agencies and commercial enterprises.

I do know that many people who have challenged authority in the US would say that these provisions have not been completely effective here. And it is still true that many Americans would talk themselves out of standing up to authority, even with these provisions in place. How much more difficult it must be in a culture where children are trained from their earliest days not to challenge authority.

Nevertheless, having specific provisions in place does encourage some people to step up with concerns and put pressure on organizations to address them. Further development of such measures may be a necessary step at in Japan, and training regarding their provisions, could help change the culture in the organizations building, operating and regulating nuclear power plants in Japan.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Post-Fukushima Findings:

The Origins of the Problem begin to Emerge

Ground zero: Bulldozers (top) take the top off a 35-meter bluff to prepare the site for the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in the late 1960s in this image taken from the documentary "Reimei" ("Dawn"). Left: The construction site is seen after the leveling work. Right: An excavated area where the emergency diesel generators were installed is seen at the construction site.
Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Japan Times

Until now, our understanding of the Fukushima accident has been focused on information that was immediately available in its aftermath--the size of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the location of the emergency diesel generators, the loss of all onsite and offsite power, etc.

Recently, some new information has begun to emerge, information that may further inform what else needs to be examined at other nuclear power plants, especially in Japan, and what safeguards need to be put in place for the future.

One Japan Times article points to the huge irony that Fukushima Dai-ichi was built on a hill that had been cut down in an effort to make the plant more secure against earthquakes! It is a well accepted practice in earthquake areas to anchor building structures in bedrock in order to increase the stability of the building in case of a severe earthquake. Coupled with the facts that have already come out about how the potential magnitude of the maximum possible tsunami was grossly underestimated, it probably seemed like a reasonable engineering tradeoff at the time. And the subsequent cost tradeoffs also seem rational in that light. Although we cannot know for certain today what damage the plant might have suffered from the earthquake had it not been built in the bedrock, clearly, the decision to level the hill exacerbated the effects of the tsunami.

Like many others, I'm still puzzled that there was not earlier recognition of the earlier large tsunami in that region of the country, but I am not a seismologist, and only know by what I've been reading when and how such information was understood.

A second Japan Times article indicates that the decision on where to place the diesel generators was made by GE, and that some TEPCO engineers are now saying that they had concerns about this decision but that it was the long-standing policy at Japanese utilities (pre-dating nuclear power) not to make alterations to imported designs. What is not clear yet is if anyone at TEPCO or the regulatory authority at the time voiced these concerns.

Surely, this is the first of a lot more of the history of the design and construction of the Fukushima plant that will emerge in coming months. I hope that the outcome will not degenerate into finger pointing. The damage has been done. What is needed now is to learn from it so that no similar events ever happen again anywhere in the world.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Comm. Rogers on the Current NRC:

Too much politicization?

I recently became aware that my former boss, Commissioner Kenneth C. Rogers had published a guest column in the Seattle Times addressing what he sees as the politicization the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) under the current Chairman.

Since I know Japan is now considering how to change its regulatory approach, some of Commissioner Rogers' comments on this issue, and some of my recollections of my time at the NRC, may be useful.

Commissioner Rogers refers to the Principles of Good Regulation, which were developed under his leadership during his time on the Commission. The very first principle is independence. One of the main criticisms of the Japanese regulatory system was its lack of independence--from licensees, from the promotional parts of the government, and from politics. What Commissioner Rogers' guest column makes clear is that an organizational structure can help foster independence, but structure alone is not enough, and saying you are independent is not enough. The ongoing commitment of all parties to maintaining independence is required.

Commissioner Rogers identifies his concerns about some of what we are hearing is happening at the Commission now, and says that, in his 10 years on the Commission, he "even though there were policy disagreements between commissioners...I never identified any initiatives by a member as politically driven."

This is very true. The Commission of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I worked for him, was an excellent model for how a commission should act. The commissioners set the tone. Athough it was surely not perfect, as far as I could ever tell all information was shared, and all the commissioners' offices were invited to meetings where issues were discussed and views were exchanged. The commissioners didn't always agree on everything, but the tone was open and professional. And it was usually apolitical. I once commented to my husband that I usually couldn't tell by their votes what party each commissioner came from. Occasionally, yes. But often not.

By contrast, my husband worked, at the time, for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There, every vote was strictly along party lines. There, every commissioner actually had either a donkey or an elephant after his name in the annual report! But communications issues are financial issues and nuclear issues are health issues, and therein lies the difference. Or so I thought at the time.

It is for just that reason that I think Commissioner Rogers' guest column is important. As he so eloquently said, the Commission must have "a status of independent, solidly based integrity in which broad public interests rather than narrow partisan interests must dominate. Dedicated adherence to The Principles of Good Regulation could provide the way to get there, if all commissioners shed the political attachments they entertained before joining the commission."

This also is the goal to which the new Japanese regulatory organization, whatever form it takes, must constantly strive.