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Mar 29, 2011

Fukushima and rational thinking versus populist panic

The managers and officials involved in Fukushima should face prosecution for their failure to act on earlier warnings, writes Allan Patience, a professor at Sophia University, Tokyo.

It is important to note that the recent 9.0 earthquake off the north-east coast of Honshu, Japan was not responsible for the unfolding catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear power generation plant. The structures were designed to withstand the impact of a geological movement of this order. They did so admirably, like nearly all the swaying skyscrapers, housing complexes, railways, bridges, and multistorey freeways across much of Tokyo.

The steadfastness of these structures is clear evidence that a sensible regulatory regime, rigorously enforced, results in reliable construction outcomes and protects life, limb and property.

The Japanese architects and engineers, and the government agencies responsible for supervising them since the Great Hanshin earthquake that hit Kobe in 1995, deserve international acclaim for their outstanding efforts.

It was, of course, the massive tsunami that is the devil in the nuclear pile in this instance. The huge wave knocked out the cooling systems and their back-ups at the Fukushima plant and this led inevitably — and predictably — to the current crisis.

So what critical lessons may be learnt from this “disaster in slow motion” at Fukushima?

First, locating the plant right on the coast, in a geologically unstable zone, was nothing short of stupid.  Experts had warned about this for more than a decade. The placing of the plant right on the coast was mainly about maximising profits for a privately owned and operated corporation, with little regard for public safety and community well-being. To put this kind of operation where it is vulnerable to a post-quake tsunami is evidence of appalling negligence.

Obviously the levels of supervision in regard to planning and operating the plant at Fukushima also demand urgent criminal investigation. They are in stark contrast to the much more scrupulous regulating of building practices in Japan since the Kobe earthquake .

A second lesson that needs highlighting relates to the entrenched culture of “money politics” that has been at the heart of the Japanese political system for decades, resulting in widespread corruption and a scandalous disregard of the public good.

Private corporations offer politicians bribes in return for political favours, such as setting up plants in regions that may be profitable in the medium term but which can have catastrophic consequences for people and whole communities.

So this lesson needs spelling out. Deregulated private enterprise, which thinks it has an unfettered right to pursue its own interests at the expense of people’s lives and livelihoods, is a terrible danger to the public good. This is exactly the same lesson we should have learnt following the 2008-09 global financial crisis. It is a lesson that is still resisted by entrenched CEOs and their cronies who assert that their massive salaries and bonuses are in the public interest. Poppycock!

This lesson is further highlighted by the fact that for years experts have warned that the Fukushima plant had reached its use-by date 10 years ago. Its technology was outmoded and increasingly unsafe. The recommendations of inspectors were mostly overlooked.

Those managers and officials should face prosecution for their failure to act in this instance. Their slothfulness renders them criminally culpable in the nuclear catastrophe that is now occurring on Tokyo’s doorstep.

Another lesson has to do with weak governance. In this respect, Japan is very like contemporary Australia. Politicians prefer populism to sound public policy. Political leaders think that opinion polls rather than ideas and ideals are what gives them legitimacy. Political debates have become puerile slanging matches and grudge competitions. All this when the times require, as never before, inspired and inspiring leadership.

Moreover, Japan’s governance system is grotesquely bureaucratised, in-bred, and in many areas shockingly incompetent. Much the same can be said of contemporary Australia — especially at state government levels. Meanwhile, the people suffer and the public good as measured by good schools and universities, good hospitals and health care systems, good public transport, and well-maintained infrastructure is in serious decline.

Prime Minister Kan is  under immense pressure to address the current crisis with all the urgency and sophistication it demands. But what we have already seen is reminiscent of the government response to the Kobe earthquake. Confusion, dissembling, contorted explanations, outright lies, and excruciatingly slow response times all point to governance ineptitude on a horrifying scale.

Meanwhile, in Australia it appears that the opponents of nuclear energy are almost beside themselves with delight at the tragedy that is happening in Fukushima. They appear oblivious to the human culpability — mental laziness, moral turpitude, and n-ked greed — that has brought this catastrophe upon the heads of so many innocent Japanese.

Yes, the first thing we must do is think very carefully about nuclear energy. But to use the current crisis in Japan to shut-down a sober, rational debate about all the issues reflects a level of populist ignorance that is frankly very frightening .

We must also address the deep-rooted problems of governance weakness that is bedeviling all the advanced democracies today. These have to do with shockingly low levels of public debate, where the loudest shouting wins, rather than a thoughtful weighing of all the relevant issues.

Japan needs all the help and compassion that a good ally that has benefited from the Japanese economy for more than half a century can offer. It’s time for Australia to step up.

Allan Patience has been a professor at Sophia University, Tokyo, since 2008. Next month he will join the Asia Institute in the University of Melbourne.

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105 comments

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105 thoughts on “Fukushima and rational thinking versus populist panic

  1. David Dowell

    Professor Patience has a point but it may not be the one he meant to make. The very politicians and business leaders he cries out against are the ones that would be responsible for building and regulating nuclear plants built in Australia. I would love to name but won’t for Crikey’s sake, the troop of bottom feeders that would assemble to create an Australian nuclear industry. Or maybe we can.

    Anyone like to start to assemble a possible team to create this industry?

    Oh and by the way can we be spared stuff like this. “Meanwhile, in Australia it appears that the opponents of nuclear energy are almost beside themselves with delight at the tragedy that is happening in Fukushima.”

  2. syzygium

    Rationality is all well and good, but the problem with the rationalist exercise is that it presumes a perfect world. Or, to be more precise, blames human failing when things don’t work out the way they’re supposed to. Cutting corners, the powerful trying to maintain and hold on to power, greed, laziness, short-sightedness, not seeing the foreseeable – these are all part of the human condition, and have been with us and always will be with us. I think we’d be better off just being honest with ourselves and saying that nuclear power is too dangerous for us. We’re only human, and that ain’t too bad.

  3. syzygium

    >Oh and by the way can we be spared stuff like this. “Meanwhile, in Australia it appears that the >opponents of nuclear energy are almost beside themselves with delight at the tragedy that is >happening in Fukushima.”

    Yar, bit of a low blow, that one.

  4. Bill Parker

    And last night’s dramatic “4 Corners” reflects that same corner cutting I am thinking. No the world isn’t perfect, but no aircrew or passenger should have ever been put in that position. Nor should they in Japan with Fukushima.

    We seem to be too concerned over getting traffic management cones correctly placed.

  5. wayne robinson

    Professor Patience is absolutely correct in what he says. Putting the reactors on the coast, with inadequate tsunami protection, and then putting the emergency generators at the lowest point was a recipe for disaster.

    I agree nuclear should be on the agenda, once the problems of waste disposal are sorted out. Fourth generation nuclear reactors? Thorium reactors?

    It’s an unfortunate fact that nuclear reactors (and also coal powered plants) require a lot of water for cooling. In Australia, nuclear power plants would have to be placed on the coast, since we don’t have any reliable rivers. Excessive heating of European rivers has caused the down powering of reactors just when they’re most needed.

  6. cam

    So the moral of the story, don’t develop nuclear energy within, or sell uranium to, a country where “money politics” or widespread corruption exists or may develop within the lifetime of radioactive material.

  7. Jolyon Wagg

    [Meanwhile, in Australia it appears that the opponents of nuclear energy are almost beside themselves with delight at the tragedy that is happening in Fukushima.]

    Could the good professor (or anyone else who believes the above) provide some kind of reference for this assertion. I have followed the issue reasonably closely and have not seen any signs of delight at the tragedy in Fukushima.

    On the other hand, I have seem plenty of evidence that proponents of nuclear energy are more concerned about the impact of Fukushima on the nuclear industry than about the well-being of the affected communities.

  8. syzygium

    @ CAM: Precisely. Let that nation that is without sin build the next reactor.

  9. freecountry

    [… beside themselves with delight at the tragedy …]
    No proof required for that point. And no, Syzygium, it’s not below the belt. To me and probably to many others, it’s been self evident in a lot of the media coverage, and nowhere more so than these Crikey blogs.

    The nastiest bit of grave dancing I saw was when someone commented in these forums that the nuclear industry “has been well and truly Fukishima’d.”

    For Patience to point this out is not a “low blow”; it had to be said and I’m grateful someone finally said it in print. I’m not often accused of low blows; I think I have a pretty strong sense of fair play. I say shame on the most radical elements of the anti-nuclear lobby for dancing on the mass graves in such a cheap, sordid way.

  10. Liz45

    As a person who’s been passionately against the whole nuclear industry, I am not delighted over the tragedy in Japan. On the contrary, I feel for all those people who’s lives and health has been put at risk – once again! I’ve listened to many interviews from a variety of people since this horror began, and it seems to be common knowlege in Japan and by observers, that those in charge have a history of lying and falsifying leakages and other problems. This has been one of my concerns all along. Too many people have too much to protect, from those who mine, mill and enrich uranium to those who own, build and operate the reactors – all have a vested interest to lie to the public – and too many of them have done so.

    Today on the World Today, I heard a reporter repeat something a person from this authority in Japan said about the plutonium leaks – that there not enough to be a risk to health???What????
    This is the very nonsense that has been repeated over the 35+ years that I’ve been involved in learning about this subject. There’s no safe level of plutonium – in fact, you don’t need much to make a bomb! It’s the most lethal substance made by humans. Unbelievable!

    What concerns me, is the fact that when they’re “alarmed” I’m terrified! Who knows what the ramifications will be, even for this country. There’s no 3 metre concrete ‘wall’ in the environment that will protect us from pollution via wind etc. I recall the red dust all over my yard from the dust storms – that dust came from the desert in South Australia – Maralinga – I live in the Illawarra???
    I’d like to think that this country’s focus would now be on renewables, which employs people on a permanent basis, improves the air(even for asthmatics etc) and doesn’t pose a threat to the planet, either via polution or terrorism or ‘acts of god’ or incidents and accidents.

    I again pose this question. Why am I the only one who wonders at the alarming increase in the incidence of cancer. The Cancer Council estimates, that one in 2 or 3 people will be diagnosed with cancer. That is a horrific statistic, but nobody seems to give a damn except me – and a few others? Doesn’t anyone wonder if this stat is related to the increasing nuclear industry? I do! I recall 30-40 yrs ago, I hardly even heard of a person with cancer, but these days, I can’t remember the last funeral I went to, where the person died from another cause. And in the last 20 yrs, I could tell you who died from OTHER causes including my sister via a car accident!
    It’s not due to ageing, because kids get cancer in high numbers – even babies? Why is this so?If cancers were found with little ‘tags’ on them, I believe that much of what we manufacture and how we do it would cease! Aren’t those who get filthy rich via filth lucky?

    NO, keep the nuclear industry out of Australia – we don’t need it, and I believe that health wise, we can’t afford to have it. Also, nuclear reactors require lots of water, so the reactors would need to be built along the coast – where most of the population live. How dumb is that? So, we build desalination plants to provide water for reactors – how would they function? Via coal powered electricity? Dumber and dumber!

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