Why American Officials Have Been Criticizing the Japanese Nuclear Containment Efforts

Some bloggers as well as readers in comments have been very surprised at and unhappy with the spectacle of American officials taking issue with the Japanese response to the crisis at the Fukushima reactor. For instance, the US recommended evacuation for a 50 mile radius from the facility, as opposed to the 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, established by the Japanese.

The disparity in reporting appears to continue today. Bloomberg’s latest story on the nuclear disaster, which looks to rely on Japanese sources, take a “the worst is over” posture, noting that Tokyo Power hopes (stress on the hope part) to have a new power line out to the plant operational by early PM Tokyo time, which should enable some services, most important some of the water pumps, to be restored. By contrast, the New York Times, which appears to reflect the reading of American experts, is still pretty gloomy. The article perversely starts by conceding that so far, the Japanese are right and the hazardous area appears to be just shy of their cordon. This is a representative bit from the cheerily titled “Radiation Spread Seen; Frantic Repairs Go On“:

….another day of frantic efforts to cool nuclear fuel in the troubled reactors and in the plant’s spent-fuel pools resulted in little or no progress, according to United States government officials.

Japanese officials said they would continue those efforts, but were also racing to restore electric power to the site to get equipment going again, leaving open the question of why that effort did not begin days ago, at the first signs that the critical backup cooling systems for the reactors had failed.

The data was collected by the Aerial Measuring System, among the most sophisticated devices rushed to Japan by the Obama administration in an effort to help contain a nuclear crisis that a top American nuclear official said Thursday could go on for weeks.

Strapped onto a plane and a helicopter that the United States flew over the site, with Japanese permission, the equipment took measurements that showed harmful radiation in the immediate vicinity of the plant — a much heavier dose than the trace levels of radioactive particles that make up the atmospheric plume covering a much wider area.

While the findings were reassuring in the short term, the United States declined to back away from its warning to Americans there to stay at least 50 miles from the plant, setting up a far larger perimeter than the Japanese government had established.

Our Richard Smith, who has among his many talents knowing a bit about reactors (he wrote code for some systems for them) has been gobsmacked by the lack of remotely adequate information coming from the Fukushima site. Having worked with the Japanese (I was the first gaijin hired into the Japanese hierarchy at Sumitomo Bank when it was a leading player), let me hazard some informed guesses:

1. Japan is military protectorate of the US, so we are used to throwing our weight around when conditions warrant. But why is this unseemly display warranted?

2. Japan is not a high disclosure society. Being explicit is considered rude (it’s seen as self absorbed, talking for the sake of hearing your own voice). So not telling the public very much, sadly, is pretty normal.

3. Japanese are also not very good in organizing on the fly group responses. When working with foreigners or independently, Japanese are just as adaptable as any other people. But their group/power dynamics impede taking prompt corrective measures when circumstances move outside anticipated scenarios.

So far, this may seem like tired cultural cliches. But now consider the role of TEPCO. Even allowing for the sluggishness of Japanese decision making in crisis settings, TEPCO looks to be over its head. And the Japanese government is stuck. It doesn’t have a ready source of independent expertise; the plants are TEPCO’s, after all. The authorities really need staff who know the facilities to handle most of the disaster containment measures.

So why the ugly American noisemaking? It called gaijin pressure, and it has a proud tradition in Japan. Gaijin pressure has often served as the excuse for Japan to push through politically contentious measures that were clearly necessary but opposed by a well placed minority.

So in this case, the unusually public US expression of doubts were likely necessary to allow the US to monitor the plant and prod TEPCO to consider other plans of action. It would have been problematic in Japan for the government to do so; it might have been seen as undermining TEPCO (and now the self defense forces working with TEPCO). But foreigners, particularly Americans, can act like bulls in the china shop and get away with it. Note this section from the Times (boldface ours):

“What you are seeing are desperate efforts — just throwing everything at it in hopes something will work,” said one American official with long nuclear experience who would not speak for attribution. “Right now this is more prayer than plan.”…

After a day in which American and Japanese officials gave radically different assessments of the danger from the nuclear plant, the two governments tried on Thursday to join forces.

Experts met in Tokyo to compare notes. The United States, with Japanese permission, began to put the intelligence-collection aircraft over the site, in hopes of gaining a view for Washington as well as its allies in Tokyo that did not rely on the announcements of officials from the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which operates Fukushima Daiichi.

I read that as saying that there is a minority in the officialdom that believes that TEPCO is way out of its depth and bullshitting too, and further recognizes that the normal Japanese timetable for reaching a consensus that TEPCO is a part of the problem is dangerously slow given the magnitude of the problem. The Americans have thus been invited in but are not exactly welcome.

Originally published at naked capitalism and reproduced here with permission.

One Response to "Why American Officials Have Been Criticizing the Japanese Nuclear Containment Efforts"

  1. Aygul Ozkaragoz   March 25, 2011 at 9:25 am

    The “gaijin pressure” has a proud tradition also in the U.S.It took a physicist of Richard Feynman fame to disclose the state of the faulty O-rings, which the NASA engineers knew all along, before and after the accident, as the cause of the Challenger accident.See Wikipedia, Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, especially the Introduction and the section on the Rogers Commission.