Personal accountability trumps organizational loyalty

U.S. President Harry S. Truman's
famous motto: "The buck stops here."

In a fiery essay published in the Financial Times July 10, Columbia University Professor Gerald Curtis makes the point that what people do matters. Organizations may come and go, but the actions of individuals are what make history.

Curtis, who has lots of experience in Japan, writes that the Fukushima crisis is not just about natural disasters, but also about the accountability of people.

Curtis nails it on one with this summary.

"Culture does not explain Fukushima. People have autonomy to choose; at issue are the choices they make, not the cultural context in which they make them. If obedience to authority is such an ingrained trait in Japan, how then is it possible for a group of Japanese to write a report that not only questions but lambasts authority, anything but an example of reflexive obedience? The culture argument is specious."

And as far as individual choices are concerned, Curtis singles out former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan for interfering with TEPCO's response to the crisis. TEPCO managers are taken to task for unrealistic and disconnected responses to the crisis that put business objectives ahead of disaster response. A hero amid the bums is TEPCO plant manager Masso Yoshida who disregarded orders from TEPCO executives not to use salt water to cool the damaged reactors.

Maybe it is time for Japan to stop the cop out of blaming its conformist culture for a lack of initiative. Not that is it likely to happen, but bringing charges against TEPCO and government officials for their criminally inept handling of the disaster could make an example of them for future generations. It could also set a precedent for the actions of the leadership of the newly authorized nuclear safety agency which is expected to begin operations later this year.

Connecting the dots

There's also an example for Japan in the U.S. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko resigned his position because of his actions that undercut the credibility of the safety agency. His divisive management style, and erratic behavior, relative to the other four commissioners, showed that like TEPCO's managers in Japan, he had lost touch with reality.

TEPCO's managers didn't want to use salt water to cool the reactors at Fukushima because they had the ludicrous objective of thinking the units could be saved. Jaczko spiked the NRC's plan to review the Yucca Mountain license application because of loyalty to his political sponsor, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who cares more about the livelihood of gambling casinos in Nevada than the nation's energy security.

Curtis doesn't connect these dots in his essay, but I see the parallels. The fundamental facts of science, engineering, and a realistic appraisal of physical conditions are the basis for effective nuclear safety. These requirements hold whether a nuclear plant is operating normally or during a natural or man made disaster.

What Curtis does make clear is that when managers who are accountable for the operation of nuclear power stations lose sight of the fundamentals, they remain personally responsible and cannot hide behind a corporate or government firewall.

New nuclear regulatory agency 

Japan will begin operations of a new nuclear regulatory safety agency in September. The new law will create a five-member independent commission, supported by technical staff, that will replace the compromised Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency which was housed inside the Japanese government's trade ministry.

The new agency will have several immediate tasks. The first will be to set up a new regulatory program with revised safety standards. Second, the agency will inherit the effort to restart shut down nuclear reactors certifying them as safe.  Third, the agency will have to grapple with whether some of Japan's older plants, now approaching 30 years of operational life, should have their licenses extended for another 20 years beyond the 40 year mark.

Public acceptance of restart of Japanese reactor fleet will depend on how quickly and how well the new agency gets down to business.

Japan Diet panel report a scathing review

5 Jul (NucNet): The crisis at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan last year was the result of “a multitude of errors and willful negligence” by plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), regulators and government, a Japanese parliamentary investigation said in a new report. (Executive summary only online)

In the preface, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, MD, former president of the Science Council of Japan and chairman of the parliament’s Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, said although the March 2011 accident was triggered by “cataclysmic events”, the subsequent accident at Fukushima-Daiichi cannot be regarded as a natural disaster.

“It was a profoundly manmade disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented,” Mr Kurokawa said.

The report, which has been presented to parliament for review, said last year’s failure of Fukushima-Daiichi was a “Made in Japan” crisis caused by the “ingrained conventions of Japanese culture”.

It said: “What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ 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.

“This conceit was reinforced by the collective mindset of Japanese bureaucracy, by which the first duty of any individual bureaucrat is to defend the interests of his organization.”
The commission’s report also points to problems in the response of TEPCO and then prime minister Naoto Kan, who resigned last year after criticism of his handling of the crisis.

“The... Fukushima nuclear power plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties”, the commission said in an English summary of a 641-page report.

Regulators, it said, had been reluctant to adopt global safety standards that could have helped prevent the disaster in which reactors melted down.

The commission concluded that the root causes of the accident were the organizational and regulatory systems that supported “faulty rationales for decisions and actions”, rather than issues relating to the competency of any specific individual.

The direct causes of the accident were all foreseeable, but the Fukushima-Daiichi plant was incapable of withstanding the earthquake and tsunami that hit that day. The operator the regulatory bodies the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC), and the government body promoting the nuclear power industry (METI), all failed to correctly develop the most basic safety requirements, the commission said.

The report highlighted what it called “collusion” between NISA and TEPCO before the accident. It says NISA told TEPCO that it did not need to consider a possible station blackout (SBO) because the probability was small and other measures were in place. NISA then asked the operators to write a report that would give “the appropriate rationale” for why this consideration was unnecessary.

The report has taken some six months to prepare. The commission was the first independent commission chartered by parliament in the history of Japan’s constitutional government and commission members said it is vital that the report be acted upon globally.

Mr Kurokawa’s commission is one of three large-scale investigations into the failure of Fukushima-Daiichi, which suffered multiple reactor meltdowns and hydrogen explosions after its safety systems were knocked out by the huge earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan’s north-east coast.