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.

Related posts

Fukushima fallout
Build it and they won't come

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
8/30/2012 5:30 PM   
The big question is why people in representative democracies tolerate such poor outcomes from their governments. Sure institutional programming is a factor. So is the belief that one can get more from government than what one puts in (deficit spending actually allows this to be true which is one reason limits on borrowing should have been imposed in the Constitution). But at the end there is only one explanation. People get a thrill by pulling for losers if, for no other reason, seeing others fail elevates one's place in society. This is why there are Cubs fans. This is why people love their government despite its inability to succeed.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
8/31/2012 11:15 AM   
I think it's also an indication of how easily civilization falls back into feudalism, and why feudal regimes can last so long despite their ruthless incompetence. This longing for a paternalistic force to rule over our lives run so deep that the members of each feudal class will, with little external encouragement, vigorously enforce its structure and strictures, even against their own interests.
# posted by Blogger Joe
9/01/2012 10:38 AM   
Actually, Dan, there is a better explanation; as Gene said, most people like being told what to do. This is certainly true of most engineers, who sit around on their collective butts waiting for orders and get genuinely upset when the minority isn't content in doing so.

I'm continually amazed at how upset people get when someone declares that the emperor has no clothes.

Those people who do care, including myself, often realize that government corruption is inevitable and simply accept it as part of life. One goal of constitutional government is to limit the damage of this corruption. It's failing, but that's also inevitable.
# posted by Anonymous Dan
9/03/2012 8:37 AM   
I agree with both of you that the desire of most people to be a follower, or to simply not get in the way of the alpha-dogs, is the overriding factor. My contribution is the idea that one reason people accept the outcome they get is they enjoy the pitfalls of those in charge. They find it cathartic to see congress fail at accomplishing the most basic functions.

Of course inefficient government would not be so bad if it didn't seem to always slide towards ever worse worse legislation. It is sad that good legislation seems to be the result of luck and not planning.