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.


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