Thursday, May 05, 2011

My Take on the Asahi/Wikileaks, Mostly Focused on the Nuclear Disaster

Another stateside friend New York tossed this NYT report my way. The following is my response, lightly edited here with a sentence tacked on at the end.

The bits and pieces mostly jibe with what we've been seeing and hearing in the media since the DPJ took over. That's what's remarkable about the US wikileaks in general. It's like, tell me something we hadn't known or suspected. That said:
..."Compartmentalization and risk aversion within the bureaucracy, however, could increase Japan's vulnerability to threats for which it is less prepared,"

Bureaucratic decision making has been cited as a factor in Japan's lack of preparedness, almost exactly three years later, for the record-breaking tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and set off the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. While the cable offers few specifics about the weaknesses in Japan's disaster planning, it does go on to warn that a blow that disables the country could have catastrophic consequences for global trade and finance.
Note that the first sentence appears to refer to the response to a threat for which it has not prepared for, while the subsequent paragraph appears to be referring to the lack of preparedness itself. These are two connected but logically distinct propositions. Confuse the two, and you get a narrative that is literally nonsense. A bureaucracy, of course, is by nature compartmentalized and risk-averse, so, left to its own resources, will always respond poorly to the unforeseen. Case in point: Hurricane Katrina. That is why leadership is so important. Case in point: Hurricane Katrina. And leadership is where the Japanese public is pinning the blame on. In my conversations on this subject, I've insisted that the typical response under the LDP regime to a nuclear disaster--any disaster--would have been to put the administrative deputy chief cabinet secretary in charge of crack bureaucrats assembled from the responsible ministries, team him up with a parliamentary DCCS, and have chief cabinet secretary preside over the entire process. The CCS could share the chores of public communications with the prime minister. Basically, put the people who know how the parts work, to minimize on-the-job learning. Instead, Kan approached the task as if a car broke down in the middle of the road, tried to repair it himself, then ignored the manual and started asking passers-by for advice.

That said, I suspect that most of the things that came to pass were driven by science and engineering and that most of the mistakes came in the public communications process. Note, though, that the human response to any nuclear disaster tends to be deeply irrational, unscientific, and apocalyptic. This means that the margin of error for managing the figurative—if not the physical—fallout is very small compared to other disasters, such as massive toxic chemical spills—or the tsunami itself.


Matt D said...

This is a really difficult topic.

Speaking generally, people handled the earthquake and the tsunami well. People were calm, patient, and worked hard.

People handled the nuclear power plant less well ... and the government also handled it badly.

I think that nuclear power can not exist without assistance from the government. There needs to be caps in liability or insurance would be too expensive. There needs to be money directed in this direction for research. I'm sure even in the area of financing such an enterprise the government plays a strong role. This is called energy policy.

But I wonder if maybe nuclear energy isn't quite ready for prime time. That is, the government is making it happen perhaps faster than it really should happen.

So it's no wonder people are confused about it.

Are some amounts of fallout good for us? Some people seriously argue this, and they could even be right ... yet the commonly accepted view is that no matter how small the dose, people are affected. Even if you take the *entire* northern hemisphere, the chances of a single person being effected are so tiny, for that person it just can't be a concern. Yet if that model is correct, then a large number of people are affected simply because of the big numbers. But how many? No one seems to know.

What's what? And is TEPCO and the government always up front with everyone?

All this, and nuclear fuel is still quite expensive. If you add in the cost now of the accident, it's really, really expensive ... the free market would have gone a lot slower, and maybe that would have been better.

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