Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fukushima and Safety Culture:

A Complex Issue

An article published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in recognition of the anniversary of Fukushima has brought new attention to the concept of safety culture and how it may differ between organizations.  The article compares the fate of the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station operated by Tohoku Electric Power Company to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station operated by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.  The article, which is based on a research paper from the University of Southern California, concludes that, despite a lot of similarities between the two sites (age and type of nuclear reactors, strength of earthquake, height of tsunami), the Onagawa site fared much better than the Fukushima site.  The article attributes this to differences in safety culture in the two companies.

The article and the longer research paper present an interesting thesis, but years after the fact, it is very difficult to sort out all the details behind the differences in the decisions of the two companies that produced the different outcomes.  In reality, the situation is very complex. 

As I reported almost 3 years ago, one of the factors that really caught my attention in the early reports following the accident was the fact that the height of the hill on which Fukushima Daiichi was built had been lowered!  This issue has been a continuing source of discussion over the last 3 years and is addressed once again in the new study.   Had they not cut off the top of the hill, the reactors would have been above the height of the tsunami.  How could they have made such a decision? 

The first article I saw reporting that the hill had been lowered noted that one possible factor in the decision was that it would allow the base of the reactors to be built directly on solid bedrock to mitigate any earthquake threat.  While that sounds like reasonable justification, other evidence cited in the same article suggests that the final decision was based on a cost-benefit calculation of the operating costs of the seawater pumps.  (Although it is not mentioned, presumably, there are alternatives for earthquake mitigation, perhaps more costly as well, that would not have required lowering the height of the site.)  And, we must remember that the decision was approved by the regulatory authority at the time. 

In fact, a little over a year after the accident,  the Japanese government's Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission concluded that "This was a disaster 'Made in Japan.'"  The report explains:  "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 program'; our groupism; and our insularity."

So, is the problem "Japanese culture"?  Perhaps.  But the article on the Japanese report notes that American culture is almost the opposite, yet the US has had its share of industrial accidents, many of which reflect similar types of technical misjudgements and institutional arrogance.

Is the problem "TEPCO culture"?  Maybe, but Fukushima Daini, which was also a TEPCO site,  survived almost unscathed.  Were the details of the challenges different, or was the subculture at the site different?

As is the case for most industrial accidents, there were many contributing factors to the Fukushima accident.  One can look at the situation and postulate a number of points, from the construction of the plant to the initial management of the accident, at which a different decision or a different action might have prevented, or at least drastically reduced, the magnitude of the accident.  One can look at both TEPCO's decisions and actions, and those of the government. 

Just as it is difficult today to understand fully the underlying motives for decisions made by TEPCO during the construction of the Fukushima plants, it is also true that there may be factors other than safety culture alone that led to the survival of the Onagawa site.  However, even if that is the case, it is clear that there were some significant differences at the two sites, and therefore, that there are lessons that can be learned.  The caution is that these are not the only lessons that need to be learned, and TEPCO is not the only entity that needs to absorb the lessons. 


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