Long-standing collusion between Japan's regulators and industry set the stage for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, a tragedy that could and should have been avoided, according to an independent commission investigating the accident.
In a report released yesterday, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) identifies a long list of technical failures that contributed to the disaster, laying blame squarely on the shoulders of the energy utilities, regulators and the government.
Those parties "effectively betrayed the nation's right to be safe from nuclear accidents," the report says. "Therefore, we conclude that the accident was clearly 'manmade.'"
The inquiry also raises concerns that a magnitude-9.0 earthquake may have damaged the Fukushima plant more profoundly than had been previously acknowledged. A previous in-house report by the plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), downplayed the significance of the earthquake, focusing instead on the tsunami that wiped out backup generators and impeded crews' access to the site.
The NAIIC's findings come at a moment of high tensions and deep divisions within Japan's political and civic bodies. Opponents have staged huge protests in recent weeks against the restart of the No. 3 reactor at the country's Ohi nuclear power plant.
The report will likely fuel those calls and may also bolster the demands of some citizen groups that TEPCO officials be held legally responsible for the disaster.
The country has been closing its nuclear plants gradually since the accident occurred in March 2011, and it shuttered its last and largest plant in May. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda restarted the Ohi reactor July 2, however, due to concerns over energy supply.
Need for cultural and institutional reform
The report lays blame at the highest levels of both government and industry, calling former Prime Minister Naoto Kan's response to the disaster "confusing" and claiming that both TEPCO and nuclear regulators ignored legal mandates to implement safety regulations.
Those parties "were aware of the need for structural reinforcement in order to conform to new guidelines, but rather than demanding their implementation, [regulators] stated that action should be taken autonomously by the operator," the report says.
Yet the report does not reserve its blame only for those in authority. In a curiously abstract introductory note, NAIIC Commission Chairman Kiyoshi Kurokawa said the regulatory failings leading up to Fukushima were a direct product of "cultural characteristics" specific to Japan.
Kurokawa cited ingrained conventions of Japanese culture such as "reflexive obedience" and "reluctance to question authority" as direct contributors to the overly cozy relationship that persisted for decades between operators and regulators.
"Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same," he wrote.
Trouble in the 'descent from heaven'
That is not a very satisfying answer to the ultimate question of what went wrong in Fukushima, said Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor at Purdue University who studies post-disaster recovery.
"It's true that there's always been motion and movement between regulators and the industry in Japan," he said. "The Japanese call this amakudari, but it's not specific to Japan." Amakudari, translated as "descent from heaven," refers to the custom of bureaucrats retiring to high-profile positions in the public or private sector.
The custom is common in societies with large, complicated bureaucracies, he said.