Saturday, July 7, 2012

Fukushima Accident Report:

"Made in Japan"

The long-awaited report from the Japanese Diet's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission is out.  While I have not been able to read it completely (and I believe only portions are available in English at present), one item that has gotten a lot of attention so far is the statement by Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the chairman of the panel, that the accident was "Made in Japan"--that is, that it was a product of Japanese cultural tendencies.  Specifically, he states:

"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 programme'; our groupism; and our insularity.  What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster 'Made in Japan'."

These are observations that have long been made by people outside Japan, myself included, so the conclusions come as no surprise.  (Some of my comments on this blog site include:  a number of blogs I wrote in the first 6 months after the Fukushima accident, and a report on comments by Professor Yoshiaki Oka I prepared somewhat after that.  What will be important is how the government and industry react to these observations.

As Japan begins to grapple with addressing these concerns, it would be well to keep several points in mind:

1.  These traits are "cultural tendencies," not laws of nature.  All countries have some traits that we would call "national" or "cultural" traits--Americans are "cowboys," British are "stiff upper-lipped," French are "arrogant."  The list goes on and on.  But when you get to know individual Japanese, or Americans, or British, or French, you realize that these characteristics vary widely over each population.  For every stereotypical national trait, I can probably find an exception among the people I know. 

2.  These cultural tendencies are not all bad.  Each tendency is very appropriate at certain times and places.  Societies need a certain degree of obedience to function.  A group mentality can help a civilization survive.  Cowboys represent the "pioneering spirit" that served America so well in its early days, and still is beneficial in many ways to this day.  I hope this statement by Professor Kurokawa, does not cause the Japanese to feel that they have "bad" characters.  

3.  These traits are not all good either.  Any personality or cultural trait taken to an extreme, or applied in the wrong environment, can backfire.  In the US, we tend to laud the pioneering spirit, the "can do, go it alone" attitude.  In a nuclear power plant, however, rules and procedures must be followed.  I'm not a sociologist, but I know that in Japan, the "groupism" and "obedience to authority" arises from the historic agricultural economy, and is beneficial in many ways.  However, individuals sometimes need to stand up and confront authority.

4.  All nations and all organizations struggle to find the right balance.  The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was founded to assure separation from development and promotional functions and to assure "independence."  However, when I worked for Commissioner Rogers at the NRC, a number of us had begun to feel uncomfortable with the fact that some of the staff and management felt that "independence" should almost be a wall between the regulator and the licensee, and that any direct communication between them was inherently bad.  It was that concern, among others, that prompted Commissioner Rogers to instigate the preparation of NRC's Principles of Good Regulation. The very first of the Principles of Good Regulation, independence, is described as follows:

Independence does not imply isolation. All available facts and opinions must be sought openly from licensees and other interested members of the public. The many and possibly conflicting public interests involved must be considered. Final decisions must be based on objective, unbiased assessments of all information, and must be documented with reasons explicitly stated.

I have previously commented in more detail on both the Principles of Good Regulation and on the issue of independence as it might apply in Japan.

5.  The changes needed are fundamental and won't be easy.  In the past, there have been several reorganizations in Japan intended to address problems that were previously observed.  These have involved both the government agencies and the research and development institutes that serve them.  After one such reorganization, a very senior official in that organization commented to me that "We have changed the name, but nothing has really changed."  This was some time ago and was the private comment of one individual, so I do not want to blow it out of proportion.  However, at the time, I sensed that this was a widespread attitude.

Cosmetic changes were really not enough at that time, and perhaps in the long run, helped contribute to the situation Japan faces today.  Cosmetic changes certainly will not suffice today and in the future.  The Japanese government must make profound changes in the way the different parts of the government communicate and coordinate, and in the way that the regulator coordinates with the licensees.  The lines of authority must be drawn in a way that differs from how they have traditionally been drawn and how they may continue to be drawn elsewhere in the government.  Embedded practices, such as amakudari (which I previously addressed, and on which I also issued a post highlighting some comments made on the first blog), that may hamper the ability of the regulator to operate independently, must be addressed, but doing so has profound implications on basic personnel practices.

Japan seems to be making a promising start with its plans for regulatory reform.  However, many details of these plans have not yet been finalized, so it is difficult to comment further at this time.  In addition, just establishing a new organization will not be enough.  The implementation plan must assure that the fundamental changes are really made, and that the reorganization does not turn out to be just another case of changing the name of the organization.      

6.  Maintaining a new culture is a continuing process.  Even beyond the implementation phase, the kinds of changes Japan needs include fundamental behavioral changes by the individuals in the system.  Some undoubtedly go against the cultural traditions that all Japanese grow up with.  For example, children are taught that "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down."  That message provides a powerful disincentive to speaking up when someone sees something wrong.  The "rules of the road" for staffers of nuclear power plants and nuclear regulatory organizations needs to be a little different from the rules for the prevailing culture.

Once again, this is equally true for other characteristics in other cultures.  I have written in the past about what I called the "eraser mentality" in Japan--a tendency I saw to try to cover up errors.  We have seen that tendency in reports on some of the smaller accidents in Japan in the past.  Although I focused on this trait in Japan, perhaps because I saw it there in a more exaggerated form, this is a human tendency.  Who among us, after all, has not been tempted to try to deny that they did something wrong, especially if they thought they could get away with it?  In the US, I know that creating and maintaining an environment that encourages people to own up to mistakes is an on-going process and requires actions at every level.


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