Wednesday, March 16, 2011

TEPCO and Transparency

The lesson of Fukushima isn't what you think it is.

It's not about nuclear power, or at least not really. Fukushima is almost certainly not going to be like Chernobyl, because it's not designed like Chernobyl. It doesn't use graphite as a moderator, and it was the explosive graphite that turned Chernobyl into a de facto dirty bomb. There is some danger from melting of the cores, but two of the cores are cooling normally and the other appears to be settling down after some issues with the hydrogen buildup.

Even a "meltdown" would only mean that the core would melt into the thick concrete beneath it. That would still protect the environment from the core until it could be cleaned up. Modern reactors aren't even be prey to that much danger. A pebble reactor in this situation would, I believe, simply cool down and stop normally.  The frothing panic over this is completely unwarranted.

It's not about the media, either. Not that they haven't acted execrably during this crisis. They seem to have completely ignored the massive toll of lives and property that was inflicted in Japan to focus on the sexy possibility of another Chernobyl. In doing so, they have failed two peoples: the Japanese people, whose real needs and real tragedies are being ignored; and the American people, who are being whipped up into such a panic that they are now in fear of mortal peril if they can't buy potassium iodide. The job of the media should be to tell them that they need not worry, that the Pacific is a big place and that they will be fine. But they aren't.  They're acting like savages and beneath contempt. But I still don't think it's really about them.

No,I think the real story here is about Tokyo Electric Power Company. Their press conferences are just about the only source of real information we have, and they have been TERRIBLE. They've been evasive and vague, and it's been like pulling teeth finding out what's really going on. 

That's fueling the destructive speculation, because this vagueness is serving as fertile ground for people to assume the worst. Whenever somebody who actually knows about this sort of thing tries to mollify the public, we find out something ELSE that TEPCO hasn't told us. The water level issues in reactor #2, the spent fuel storage issue in reactor #4, all of those things have been fueling destructive speculation about what they may not be telling people.  If people feel like TEPCO can't be trusted, they'll turn to other "experts", who will only fuel the rampant speculation with guesswork of their own. TEPCO needs to step up and be clear about what's going on, what they're doing, what is happening, and what ISN'T happening. Leave no room for speculation, and be transparent enough so that people will believe you.

This sort of vagueness and evasiveness fits the classical Japanese stereotype, of course. But I do wonder if it will remain so. Already, a lot of younger Japanese seem to have little time for it, especially with the old certainties having faded away over the last few years. After the way that this disaster has been compounded by the Old Way Of Thinking, is there any doubt that there will be an appetite for something new? We may see a serious cultural shift in the wake of this incident.

And while it's part-and-parcel with Japan's business culture, I can't imagine that "acting like TEPCO" is going to endear Japanese businesses to anybody either within or outside of Japan any time soon. This may, finally, be impetus for the real reform of business-government relationships that Japan so desperately needed.

Of course, all of this pales in importance compared to the quake and tsunami themselves. I honestly and urgently hope that the Fukushima issues can be speedily and safely resolved, so that the Japanese people can return to the business of taking stock of the damage, helping their countrymen, and rebuilding their shattered country. I also still urge you to donate to the Red Cross.

I definitely urge you to take everything you read about this with a huge grain of salt, and stop panicking about a singular, one-in-a-million disaster that pales in comparison to the devastation wreaked by hydrocarbons to the environment and human health each and every day.

Stay calm, stay skeptical, stop freaking out about potassium iodide, and be ready to support the Japanese as they rebuild their country and, perhaps, rethink their assumptions. And maybe, just maybe, you should do the same.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:10 AM

    Before you bag tepco, check this out...

    Live stream from their 24hour cricis management room... And you say they are not being transparent...

    Also, their twitter page: