FuKuSHiMa: CoRRuPTioN, SySTeMiC FaiLuRe oR BoTH?




[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.



Before I get started, I want to make two initial points:

First, if you go and look at Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published last October, Japan was ranked 17 and the United States was ranked 22 (a ranking of one being least corrupt). For this purpose, corruption is defined as "the abuse of entrusted power for economic gain." We all know there are many shades and gradations of "corruption."

No matter how you cut it, the United States is hardly in a position to call the Japanese kettle black, particularly when you examine the sorry state of our captive/revolving door regulatory system. This is one of many reasons why I find the Fukushima catastrophe particularly relevant at this time. This is not just about the viability of nuclear power, it is about the way government institutions assess risks and hazards, how policies are framed and how those policies are then enforced vis a vis the private sector. We have more than a little to be concerned about given recent events.

Second, as I have said in other posts, there is a tremendous human tragedy unfolding in Northern Japan. That tragedy has by and large dropped off the front pages of the MSM. As a matter of our common decency and humanity, we should remember this and strive to do whatever each of us can do to help. Help, does not necessarily mean sending money. I for one do not believe money or the lack thereof is what is causing the suffering going on at this time. 

I don't mean to preach here. I merely want to point out that one can focus attention on the unfolding nuclear crisis without necessarily debasing the importance of the human tragedy. Indeed, the former is having a huge impact on the Japanese government's ability to deal effectively with the latter. Moreover, thousands of evacuees are unable to get on with recovering their personal lives because of the the unfolding nuclear crisis.

Known Knowns

I am not an engineer or scientist. But I am a student of human nature and the interaction of government and private sector. There are a number of "known knowns" at this point. I will hit upon two that jump out at me.

First, the nuclear power industry in Japan, of which TEPCO is the leading private sector player, has a long and storied history of lying and falsifying data. It is very easy to research this point. Look for the Articles written by Mark Johnston. I will only say that forcing a change of management at the top of TEPCO is not a panacea for curing an embedded culture of deception in the name of the mother ship and the attendant forms of information opacity. CEO Shimizu, who is apparently vacationing with King Abdullah, was clearly not the guy to remediate the problem.

On the other hand, I am not certain that the opacity we are now seeing is primarily caused by coordinated management deception, "face saving" or good old Yankee C.Y.A.S. (cover your ass syndrome). TEPCO is under siege and events are spinning rapidly and skirting the edge. They are "frantically" trying to regain control or "stabilize the situation." I suspect what we are seeing is the inability of the Japanese "collective" style of management and government oversight to decisively keep up with a crisis event of this complexity and magnitude. Almost two weeks ago, TEPCO proposed handing the whole thing over the the government. Why? 

Meanwhile, every day brings a new question. Yesterday I was wondering how is it that nobody started planning around the need to bring in fresh water 2 weeks ago? Did someone just have a eureka moment before the weekend? Yikes, we better switch to fresh water or the reactor will fill with sea salt! Call the US Navy barge crew.

Today I am wondering why everyone is surprised that the sea is so contaminated. They have been spraying tons of sea water on the thing for over a week. Where else is the run off going to go. Now they suddenly realized that they have to remove the contaminated water from the reactor buildings and they are "frantically" trying to figure out how to do that. Hey Abbott!!!!! 

The company also apologized for communication problems leading to the injuries on Thursday. To me, ignoring instrument measurements and warnings is a curious communication problem. Perhaps someone was told not to worry?

In the midst of all this, I have lost track of where precisely operation extension chord stands. 

My point here is, the "Japanese way" of managing human endeavors is not ideally suited for dealing with so many turbulent events occurring simultaneously or in quick succession. Remarkably, the government's point man for dealing with the nuclear disaster was appointed only yesterday. He is the former Transportation Minister. I am sure he knows how to keep a schedule.

Conversely, what do you think the government's calculus of information flow is given the paramount objective of maintaining public order in the most orderly country in the world behind Switzerland? How many disaster movies of recent vintage have exhausted that imponderable?

Second known, known. This one is very simple. The management of TEPCO was warned of the very real possibility that a tsunami exceeding the design parameters of the site could strike. Even if they listened to the warning, it is unclear that they could have taken preventive measures in time to avert the disaster. But the point is they refused to accept a very real scenario given other recent events in the region such as the SE Asian tsunami and its impact on a reactor site in India. According to news reports, the government agencies involved did not overtly object.

Here is my way of looking at these risks. I don't know if Japan could or could not exist without greater Tokyo. What I do know is that a Japan without an inhabitable Tokyo would be a very very different Japan indeed. It's not like everyone could just pick up and move to Montana soon. For that reason alone, one would think that all risk assessment exercises should have been very very very conservatively framed. 

Known Unknowns

Once again, there are many of these flying around. But here are the two that stand out from my layman's perspective.

The pro-nuclear pundits keep telling us this is not the same as Chernobyl. I would agree at face value that this appears not to be Chernobyl.

But the town of Chernobyl is not Tokyo either. I don't know what the tipping point is for telling everyone it's time to leave Dodge City and I doubt anyone knows the answer to that question in Tokyo. All we keep hearing is stay calm please. Exactly how calm would you be if this was your city?  We know what expatriates have been told to do by their governments. For the record, I'm not saying people shouldn't be calm.  They'd better be.

But just think about it, the government announces the crisis is a 6 out of 7 and tells you to please remain calm. Does that mean, as a matter of human nature, you don't start thinking about your plan B?

Second, it is very difficult is it not, to keep up with six chess matches running simultaneously. Particularly when the state of play in each match impacts the ability of the player to properly attend to the other ongoing matches. That is what is happening in real time. If one reactor starts smoking or steaming or leaking or who knows what else, everything else is impacted. This means if one of these things really goes big time, you lose control of the whole site.

BTW, who is the Gary Kasparov running the show? What are his credentials?

This is truly frightening to consider. No wonder the Prime Minster is "gravely concerned." There is no point in trying to spin this.

Just as an aside, I thought I would call attention to the fact that Tokyo, being the center of Japan Inc., has more than its fair share of above average engineering intellects watching the evening news. I wonder what they are all thinking cooly and calmly.

Unknown Unknowns

The one's we don't know we don't know. When we refer to outliers and Black Swans, this is what is being referred to. Things we don't know we don't know. When I read all the technical summaries released on a daily basis and look at the debris strewn multi-reactor site, I think about this.

Right now,  every day that whole site is one big unknown unknown.

Here's an unknown for you: Is the guy that is saying there is nothing to worry about willing to indulge in some Fukushima sushi with a bottle of fresh tap water?




OoPs make it a 6, I'm to tired to get the water bucket again ;-)





Life imitating cartoons.


Happy 80th Birthday Mr Spock...


Jim: Mr Spock are you getting any readings on those instruments?

Spock: Yes, sir. There's a...tiger, tiger burning bright into the forest of the night.