August 30, 2012
Mandarins and meltdowns
In the second of the two articles referenced in my post about real estate tomfoolery in central Japan, Spike Japan mentions an absurd but ominous harbinger of much worse things to come.
The 2007 Chuetsu earthquake (magnitude 6.6) caused a minor accident at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, a (non-radioactive) fire in a transformer,
the reaction to which laid bare naked Keystone Coppery on the part of TEPCO: the chief operations manager happened to pass the transformer in his car, noticed the smoke, concluded that the fire wouldn't burn long, and left the task of quelling it to subordinates . . . [who] found that the fire hydrants near the transformer had been knocked out by the earthquake and yielded up no more than a trickle of water. Plant officials tried to notify the local fire brigade by phone, but they had no hotline and couldn't get through; five off-duty firemen were corralled and they finally doused the blaze, two hours after the earthquake.
The meltdown four years later at TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was less the product of such "Keystone Coppery" than it was the result of years of incompetence baked into the bureaucracy by the time the disaster struck.
Because Fukushima Daiichi was based on a General Electric design that has an almost exact twin in the U.S., NHK has done a series of documentaries comparing and contrasting the one with the other. The stark conclusion is that everything that Fukushima Daiichi should have done, the U.S. plant had already done.
To greatly oversimplify, following the earthquake, three failures led to the meltdown: the diesel generators, all located on the ground floor, were wiped out by the tsunami; the backup batteries couldn't be swapped out once they ran low; the passive cooling system didn't have manual overrides.
At Fukushima Daiichi's American counterpart, the generators were long ago placed at staggered elevations; battery backups are available from a "Nuclear Parts 'R' Us" repository ("Any time, anyway you want 'em delivered"); and the passive cooling system has big, hand-cranked valves.
"The first thing we're trained to do in the case of a total power failure," the plant supervisor explained to the NHK reporter, "is climb up there and open those valves."
I'm the last one to praise government a bureaucracy, but the NRC is doing its job. Looking beyond the agency itself, it can do its job because it belongs to a political system tasked with making constitutional principles work in the real world: separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism.
As George Will likes to point out, the overriding objective of constitutional government is not to "get things done." It is to not get things done, to create a constant friction that keeps the Leviathan from steamrolling over individuals and localities.
In many respects, Japan's prefectures are less autonomous now than they were during the Edo period. The mayor of Osaka formed a new political party advocating for "local control," but for now it's only advocacy. Tokyo's mandarins continue to micromanage public works everywhere, down to the placement of telephone poles.
This centralized control is further plagued by the widespread practice of amakudari, according to which retiring regulators "descend from heaven" to serve on the boards of the companies they once regulated. As Wikipedia explains,
Over 50 years ending in 2010, 68 high-level government bureaucrats have taken jobs with electricity suppliers after retirement from their government positions. In 2011, 13 retired government bureaucrats were employed in senior positions in Japan's electric utilities.
Beyond the considerable influence U.S. state governors have on nuclear plant placement (zoning, licensing, and the like), NHK was surprised to find that in the U.S., the local fire department and first responders are trained to deal with nuclear accidents (Hazmat), and have immediate access to the plant.
This is the essence of good and proper governance: those with the most at stake and the most to lose are given the resources to do something about it, not just desperately bend an ear in a distant federal government, but put their own "boots on the ground."
If a bunch of batteries is what it'd take to keep a chunk of their prefecture from being turned into a wasteland, and they had the tools available to do something about it, no one doubts that the governor and mayors of Fukushima would have gotten them there by car, boat, bike, or rickshaw, come hell or high water.
Build it and they won't come