Japanese engineers have a much deserved reputation for efficiency. How else could they have created a car industry that could defeat the U.S industry on its home ground? But the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant suggests a partial rethink is needed. When it comes to nuclear affairs, maybe they are not as brilliant as they should be.

Some years back I found myself appointed to official committees and councils (shingikai) set up to consider nuclear energy policy and nuclear safety. What I saw and heard then gave me little confidence that Japan was on top of the safety question. The overall impression was one of pervasive, bureaucratic incompetence and complacency.

We were told constantly how Japan’s high technical levels and attention to safety meant that accidents like the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion in the former Soviet Union or the 1979 Three Mile island meltdown and radiation leakage scare in the U.S. could not happen to Japan. Yet today we are looking at a disaster much worse than Three Mile Island. On the international scale of danger from nuclear accidents, Fukushima is said to be closing in on Chernobyl.

What went wrong? Attention is focused on the frantic efforts to ease or prevent radiation leakage from damaged reactor buildings. But the contradictions, obfuscations and attempted excuses in official statements are not reassuring. And when it comes to the original cause of the disaster, namely the mistaken location of the emergency backup equipment allowing it to be flooded by the tsunami, then no excuses are possible. It was a typically Japanese failure to engage in contingency planning — a worthy trait at times but not when it comes to nuclear power.

The Tohoku coastline, including Fukushima, faces one of the world’s more active areas of tectonic plate activity. It ranks with both Chile and Sumatra in its ability to cause devastating tsunami. The plant began construction just 10 years after the 1960 Chile-origin tsunami that had wiped out many Tohoku coastal towns and villages.

The deadly 2004 Sumatra earthquake would have been a good reminder of more tsunami dangers to come. Yet, both then and until now, the planners seem to have believed that the sea wall in front of the site was sufficient protection from a locally generated tsunami.

As it turned out, they were wrong; the tsunami swept across the wall and flooded the equipment, causing the present emergency. But if the emergency equipment had been placed on high ground or, even better, put underground, as seems to be the current U.S. policy, then the size of the tsunami would not have mattered. Yet, for some incredible reason, the equipment was placed above ground and close to the water’s edge — an open invitation for the trouble we now see. Whose decision was that?

At a recent press conference, Shiro Ogura, a retired Toshiba expert on nuclear plant design formerly involved with the Fukushima project, blamed U.S. company General Electric, which built the original plant. But why didn’t someone on the Japanese side more familiar with tsunami point out the danger either then or later?

In the endless meetings on nuclear safety and policy I attended over three years as a member of those committees, such problems got little attention. Instead, voluminous situation reports constantly repeated the need for nuclear energy (with which I agreed) while giving bland assurances of its safety.

Glossy brochures and elaborate public meetings aimed to counter the strong antinuclear movement in Japan seemed the main objective. My suggestions that staff who pointed out dangers and lapses — whistle-blowers as we call them — should be rewarded got short shrift.

The suggestions were “contrary to the Japanese culture of enterprise loyalty,” I was told bluntly. Pointing out that other well-known aspect of the same group culture — a tendency to coverups and complacency — did not seem welcome.

My suggestion that serious dialogue with the antinuclear movement, including permissions for spot checks on generating plants, would do more to convince and educate people than glossy pamphlets got nowhere. The paternalistic assumption was that the nuclear energy people knew what was best for Japan, and the rest of Japan had to accept that, period.

Even now officialdom does not seem to want to realize the extent of the disaster it has created. While U.S. experts issue deep warnings of impending meltdowns, Japan’s officials and experts try to convince us and themselves that each stopgap measure will provide the answer.

The national ganbaru (try hard) mentality will conquer all, they seem to think, including those warnings by the foreigners. Or else some kamikaze (divine wind) will come to rescue Japan, once again. TV stations continue with their usual diet of cheap gag shows and food tasting. Similarities with Japan’s fatalistic optimism in the final Pacific War days are not hard to find.

Gregory Clark is a longtime resident in Japan formerly involved in academic and government affairs. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net

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