Eamon: Japan’s political dynamics after the Tohuku earthquake

A fascinating post by Japan-resident Eamon on Brave New Climate. It seems that even in Japan politicians “Never pass up a good crisis…” to seek political advantage.

Note the brief outline of “Amakudari”, the Japanese term for revolving door from regulator-to-industry. If this practice is permitted the resulting incentives ensure regulatory capture. In the US it is common for regulators to retire on a nice pension, move a few blocks to “K Street” into a cushy job lobbying their former officemates. You can make this transition without having to change car pools.

Roger Clifton, on 17 January 2012 at 6:40 PM said:

@Eamon — more questions. I’ve done some homework for you already — perhaps you could, as a Japan resident, prepare a short summary for us here on the political dynamics after the Tohuku earthquake?

No problem Roger, though my call for info was because the people on this forum would likely be able to point me in the direction of scientific studies, rather than the dross that abounds on the Web these days.

The political dynamics are shaped by two factors: a deeply entrenched bureaucracy that is used to shaping policy-making, and the political-class that appreciates the figurehead position that this creates.

After the earthquake people expected quick movement on generating and approving finances to help rebuild the Tohoku area. This got dragged out immeasurably by political sniping (some from inside the ruling party) by those wishing to be the next at the reins of power. Also, many minor parties, often needed to form ruling coalitions, have become firmly anti-nuclear, which will complicate things in the future.

One of the consequences of the powerful bureaucracy is that it is used to sharing knowledge sparingly within its myriad departments, and there has been little need for the public or politicians to challenge this given the Confucian ethos that, until recently, permeated Japan.

This gave rise to some of the most damaging revelations during the disaster, though typically, an increasing anti-nuclear media is portraying this as an nuclear industry issue, rather than a bureaucracy issue. The revelations include:

* The Nuclear Safety Commission ignoring information from the SPEEDI System (System for Prediction of Environment Emergency Dose Information, Department of Trade, Industry and Education). This lead to evacuees staying in an area of high radiation, which could have been avoided by consulting SPEEDI.

* The Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency asking TEPCO to assess the risk of Tsunamis to its Fukushima Plants. TEPCO reported back a few days before the tsunami that there was a risk of a 9-metre tsunami.

* The Agriculture Ministry banning the feeding of livestock with hay, as it could be contaminated by fallout. They forgot that Japanese farmers also use rice straw to feed livestock. Result – contaminated meat.

* Bureaucrats forgetting that gravel and other aggregates are stored outdoors. Contaminated gravel was widely used in construction in Fukushima Prefecture after the disaster, one condominium’s ground floor having two orders of magnitude more radiation than the local background.

* Prime Minister Kan ordering the halting of seawater injection into the damaged cores due to NRC quavering on its pros and cons. Luckily the site manager requested that his staff ignore the order and they did.

Please note I’m referring to public perceptions here – contaminated meat in small amounts will not have a noticeable effect (if at all) on a person’s health, though there is argument on the sensitive of young children to radiation doses. Also note that an increasing distrust of the bureaucracy (and with good reason) leads people to question what they hear from them – especially with regards to food safety these days.

One of the lessons learnt from the evacuation in Ukraine was how it damaged the health of hundreds and the quality of life of thousands of evacuees. Assuming the lesson had reached his advisers, why then did PM Kan order an evacuation from a 20 km radius of the damaged power station? Did competent authorities get excluded from the advice?

I will say first, that I agree with his decision, as a precautionary measure – though I think it should have also been bounded by probable contaminated areas (Using data from SPEEDI) rather than a simple radius. Until a good picture of the actual dangers on the ground are it seems sensible, and moreover, was a political necessity given the public pressures on the administration. There was also the additional factor of having to deal with the tsunami and earthquake damage across Tohoku

I will add at this juncture that my knowledge of that time is spotty – we were without electricity, kerosine and petrol, and low on supplies. We got general emergency updates over a battery powered radio. So apologies if this seems a broad summary.

As for competent authorities, it’s very hard to judge, given the bureaucracy’s secrecy and industrial ties (Amadukari#), but when we got our power back the experts consulted on NHK News seemed to be non-activist academics, though that changed as bureaucratic bungling came to light.

Alternatively, the Japanese Cabinet may have been misled by other advice, that more deaths would result if these people were left rebuilding after the tsunami than if they were evacuated. If so, he would have quoted an estimate of the net number of deaths averted. Please advise us of any official estimates of the consequences of action and inaction.

That kind of information is not available, as far as I know, and given the lack of solid information at the time of the evacuation order it might not have been reliable enough to accurately weight scenarios.

Or could it be that the order to evacuate was just a placation of a public made needlessly frightened ?

Given the advance to INES Level 7 (we really need a 6.5 here!) it probably was the right choice, solidly from a public relations viewpoint, and generally from a precautionary viewpoint. The partial melt-downs that occurred back up the latter, especially given that fact that jury-rigged systems were needed, fed by an erratic power supply, to fight to stabilize the plant in the days and weeks ahead.

Finally, sorry for the delay in my response. Family, work, and the need to combat anti-nuclear hype in the various fora I’m a part of in Japan kept me from it.

#Amakudari – the system where bureaucrats retire to cushy jobs in the industries they previously supervised. Serving bureaucrats must ensure they do not affect bureaucracy-industry links so much that they find themselves without a lucrative post-retirement position. This makes for ineffective oversight, and often out-and-out corruption.