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Nuclear crisis given lightweight treatment

by Jeff Kingston

JAPAN’S NUCLEAR CRISIS: The Routes of Responsibility, by Susan Carpenter. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, 248 pp., $90 (hardcover)

Alas, this very important subject gets short shrift in this misleadingly titled, hastily cobbled together assessment of the causes and consequences of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. Less than one-third of the entire book deals with events since last March 11, and it is far better on the political economy of Japan’s bureaucratic institutions than on the nuclear crisis. She concludes that prospects for scaling back nuclear energy are dim, but has hopes for institutional renovation.

The nuclear crisis seems grafted on to the author’s main focus and previous books on Japan’s dysfunctional bureaucracy and the collusive and corrosive ties between business, politicians and the bureaucracy.

Her two previous books examine why Japan can’t reform and how the bureaucracy and practice of amakudari — “descent from heaven” (former government officials’ finding employment in the private sector) — impede and distort such efforts. Amakudari refers to bureaucrats landing post-retirement lavish sinecures at firms they previously supervised in their official capacity, a clear conflict of interest that comes at the expense of the public interest they are meant to serve. It is argued that bureaucrats tend to exercise their authority to curry favor with potential future employers, meaning lax supervision.

The Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) is certainly guilty of laxity, but Carpenter does not really make a convincing, detailed case of how this institutional rot contributed to the catastrophe in Fukushima. She provides considerable historical background, much of it tangential to 3/11, but doesn’t put the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) or NISA at the scene of the crime, or deliver any evidence or analysis about how 3/11 resulted from the insidious influence of amakudari. We are told of a former METI official on the board of Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), another crafting the national energy strategy, and officials taking jobs in nuclear energy-related organizations established by METI, but these are light jabs rather than body blows.

The government bears responsibility for the nuclear accident precisely because NISA did not promote a culture of safety in the nuclear industry and carried out its supervisory duties in a perfunctory manner. This institutional insouciance reflects the fundamental conflict of interest that NISA faced in operating from within METI, the government cheerleader for nuclear energy. NISA officials are METI officials and regular staff rotations ensure a consonance of interests and inclinations. It is revealing that METI sat on a whistle-blower’s report about widespread falsification of repair and maintenance records for all 17 of Tepco’s nuclear reactors until the press got wind of the story in 2002.

While one can learn here about such patterns of connivance, there is no effort to systematically assess how the bureaucracy was remiss in not compelling Tepco to prepare for a massive tsunami even though there had been repeated warnings over the prior decade, including findings by Tepco’s in-house researchers, and discussions between NISA and Tepco officials about the need to upgrade preparations for rare events. At the end of February 2011, the government decided to extend the operating license of the aging Fukushima No. 1 plant despite stated reservations about slipshod maintenance and stress cracks in the backup diesel generators.

Only four days before the earthquake struck, Tepco submitted a report to the government clearly indicating that it had contemplated a massive tsunami on the scale of 3/11 as early as 2008. This would undermine subsequent claims that the devastating wave was sotegai (beyond expectations). Carpenter needs to examine such instances to deliver the powerful indictment she intends.

She convincingly argues, however, that “The network of interconnecting formal and informal relationships between politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen continues, and this organic interdependence paralyzes the implementation of policy during crisis.” Thus, I expected that she would laud Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s distrust of bureaucrats during the crisis and efforts to bypass them. She does not do so, instead uncritically summarizing the media whacking of Kan.

Carpenter’s analysis does not anticipate, or draw on, recent reports probing the causes of the nuclear accident and there is very little on the Fukushima crisis management and the broader consequences of radioactive contamination. The post-3/11 material is a mishmash that reads more like a facts-on-file database than a coherent narrative. There are gaffes that make the reader question the author’s understanding of Japan; for example Shintaro Ishihara’s victory in the April 2011 elections is attributed to his support for developing a nuclear arsenal.

Carpenter does draw our attention to the orchestrated town hall meetings designed to fabricate public support for nuclear power and notes that “Governor Furukawa confessed that he had suggested to Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s former vice-president that the company urge staff to send emails to solicit public support … to restart Genkai.” Yet she doesn’t grasp how media revelations about this hornswoggle gave Kan a golden opportunity to order stress tests and thus derail METI plans to hastily restart nuclear plants around the nation. It was a canny end around the very bureaucracy that she castigates.

She concludes that “Inevitably, nuclear power will remain big business for Japan’s nuclear village” and argues that the web of METI and nuclear energy-related Independent Administrative Institutions (formerly Special Corporations) are a powerful impediment to reforming national energy policy. In her view, the nuclear crisis opens up an opportunity to reform the bureaucracy, and calls for “institutional restructuring,” reversing the mergers of 2001 and introducing merit-based promotion and higher compensation. To pay for this reform and recruit the best, she proposes a special corporate tax on large exporters.

Somehow, “The reorganization of the ministries would serve to assuage the hierarchical structure and discourage patronage and a yes-man society.” Perhaps, but most of the book suggests that this is unlikely to happen and one is left guessing about how this connects to Fukushima.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan, and editor of the forthcoming “Natural Disaster and Nuclear Crisis in Japan: Response and Recovery after Japan’s 3/11.” Routledge, 2012.