Gregory Clark’s March 24 article, “Nuclear meltdowns and Japanese culture,” reinforced the stereotyped Western view of Japan, which very often tries to cast cultural traits as a contributory cause of a failure or, in this case, a major disaster.
The article fails to acknowledge the unprecedented magnitude of the earthquake and the tsunami that followed. We have all seen the amount of devastation that the 10-meter-high wall of water caused.
As for the Fukushima nuclear reactors, the amount of cooling needed requires that they be located near the shoreline. Clark’s suggestion that the emergency generators should have been located below ground, as at American reactors, could not have prevented water from entering air intakes to the engines. Nor would perching them on tall structures have prevented them from collapsing from the force of the tsunami or perhaps from one of the typhoons that hit Japan every September.
While I acknowledge that Japan’s culture of encouraging lifelong employee loyalty to an organization can impede criticism, let us not forget that the same culture has provided the world with novel quality systems that cannot be fully implemented in the West because of the lack of self-motivation and trust among factory workers.
Clark naively suggests serious dialogue and spot inspections of Japan’s reactors by members of the antinuclear movement. How practical is this, and how much of it would serve only as lip service? This is a topic that needs increased awareness, systematic education and informed debate based on analytical studies. Populist measures only spread mistrust.
Clark’s statement that the Japanese population has had to accept what “the nuclear energy people knew was best” does not acknowledge that it is possible that most Japanese people recognize that operating a nuclear power plant in an emergency is a task best performed by the plant operators, with qualified technical advice.
Having worked in Japan for seven years, I know how Japanese culture enables a large majority of the population to contribute constructively to the development of a nation. This is a culture that has withstood tsunami, volcanic eruptions and typhoons for centuries, and built a nation that has given the world technologies and management systems that epitomize continuous improvement. Lessons will be learned from the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Let us study these with the help of the Japanese who have built several second- and third-generation reactors that still operate in Japan.
Just as the lack of adequate instrumentation and emergency response before and after the Three Mile Island (Pennsylvania) accident (1979) was not attributed to a problem with Western culture, it is time we stopped associating the Fukushima accident with the fallout of Japanese culture.