Science, Tech & Environment

One lesson of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown is that Japan's culture needs to change

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JAPAN-TSUNAMI/FILM REUTERS/Issei Kato

A sign reading "Nuclear Power — The Energy for a Better Future" hangs over a street in the town of Futaba in 2012, inside the 12-mile exclusion zone around Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

In the days and weeks after a massive tsunami led to a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011, Japan launched many investigations into what went wrong that terrible day.

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But most of those inquiries were linked, in one way or another, to Japan's nuclear industry or its government.

So Yoichi Funabashi, a former journalist who once headed one of Japan's leading news organizations, decided what was needed was a truly independent investigation.

He gathered some of Japan's top scientists and academics and launched what they called the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident.

In its months of interviews and inquiries, the commission found plenty of failures of design and performance behind the meltdowns. But, Funabashi says, the biggest problem the commission identified wasn't with technology — it was with the culture of Japan's "nuclear village."

It was a culture, Funabashi says, in which “regulators pretended to regulate, [and] operators pretended to be regulated.”

Funabashi describes this "nuclear village" as a closed world of nuclear power plant operators and regulators in Japan — impervious to public scrutiny and accountability within Japan, and resistant to innovations and new safety technologies from elsewhere.

Within this bubble, he says, the Japanese nuclear village built up a myth of the absolute safety of the country's plants, and the firm belief that the country’s reactors were the safest and most advanced in the world.

“I think they actually have found themselves caught in their own trap,” says Funabashi.

The last three years have brought some important changes to that culture, he says, most significantly the creation of a new, much more independent Nuclear Regulation Authority, which has in turn set much higher standards for safe operation of the country's nuclear plants.

But the changes fall far short of what Funabashi says is needed. “I wish they would have started to change much more radically and fundamentally," he says.

At their root, Funabashi says, the problems that led to the disaster stem from deep within Japanese culture. To avoid the same kind of mistakes in the future, he argues, Japan has to open itself up much more to the outside world and allow much more diversity and debate within the country.

“Japan really has to make its society much more plural, much more diverse,” he says. “Too much homogeneous, too much conformist society, really has stifled debates and dissenting views."

Still, dissenting views within Japan are starting to change the conversation.

The government has announced a new plan to restore nuclear power to a prominent role in the country's energy supply. Funabashi expects the plan will likely run into significant opposition from a public that harbors “deep suspicion and mistrust with the Japanese government and with the utilities."

Of course, having to do without a lot of nuclear power would be a big challenge for Japan. But Funabashi says economic and demographic changes are already underway in the country, particularly among its young people, that might alter that.

Those changes could reduce usage and mean that 21st-century Japan doesn't need as much energy, of any kind, as it once did.

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