In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, there has been a renewed fear of fission power and a retrenchment of efforts1 to build new plants. This followed a renewed interest in nuclear power as one of the few realistic alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels; this fresh interest in new fission plants was encouraged by safer modern designs that make “meltdowns” and other accidents impossible or extremely unlikely2 .
Now a scathing report3 resulting from a Japanese legislative inquiry calls the Fukushima disaster “manmade” and claims that it was “preventable”.
By “manmade”, the investigators mean not that the damage to the reactors was done deliberately, but that it could and should have been prevented, had it not been for a “multitude of errors and willful negligence”. Further, the report states that “It was a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented,” and that the accident “was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and Tepco.”
The report is astonishing not merely for these conclusions, but for the depth of its cultural introspection: the disaster’s “fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” There are few societies that are capable of this degree of searching self-criticism in an official context. I certainly can not imagine an investigative report emanating from the U.S. Congress that blamed a domestic disaster on the fundamental character of American society.
The next few years will reveal whether the lessons of this investigation are absorbed widely and deeply enough to allay some of the resurgent irrational fear of modern fission power, and reassure those entrusted with formulating energy policy that the nuclear option need not be permanently off the table.