I have been doing business in Japan for 20 years, consulting for big and small companies, speaking at conferences, writing for Japanese publications, and helping both American and Japanese companies do business with each other. For years I flew to Tokyo once a month, generally in my role as giver of bad news, which I could get away with as an American. Throughout those 20 years I have been astounded by the energy and discipline of Japanese industry, and by its turgid impenetrability. For a country known for advanced technology, Japan is astoundingly resistant to outside ideas, as the current earthquake and nuclear crisis show yet again.
You’d think they’d want our help, and they do to a certain degree. But it’s like those people I meet on airplanes who find out what I do for a living and tell me they would really like to write a book: what they mean is that they would like to have written a book. The Japanese would like for us to have helped them — to gain the benefits of our assistance without the embarrassment of admitting they need help or the complications of arranging to accept it.
This lesson was learned to some extent during the Kobe earthquake of 1995 when Japan waited several days before even responding to international offers of assistance — days during which Japanese citizens were still dying under rubble. In Kobe what was on offer were mainly trained dog teams to sniff-out survivors. That part of the lesson was learned: when this earthquake happened, Japan was quick to accept such assistance and thousands of lives were probably saved as a result. But the Fukushima nuclear accident is a very different story.
In this nuclear accident the situation is complicated by an extra party — Tokyo Electric Power Company — with its corporate personality and internal agendas. TEPCO is embarrassed by this accident. Embarrassment, either corporate or personal, is a huge deal in Japan. It’s not like they can just give up their corporate face for a few weeks or months while necessary things get done. I saw a similar unwillingness to squarely face reality at General Public Utilities back at Three Mile Island in 1979. In both corporate cultures there was too much emphasis on political damage control — emphasis that often comes at the expense of good engineering.
If a nuclear plant manager is worried too much about his job he isn’t worried enough about his reactor.
TEPCO just this morning announced that four of the six Daiichi reactors can never be repaired. I wrote that right here less than 24 hours after the earthquake and tsunami before the emergency batteries had even run out. It was instantly obvious to even a moderately informed observer like me, yet why did TEPCO take two weeks to come to the same conclusion? Internal politics, which can only increase public danger.
But wait, there’s more! Now we have reports of water contaminated with plutonium at the plant and possible plutonium ground water contamination. Radioactive cesium and iodine are bad enough, though that water can be stored in pools for a few months while the radiation decays then carefully diluted for disposal. But plutonium contamination is forever — at least 10,000 years.
There are right now two plutonium remediation technologies on offer to the Japanese government and TEPCO that I know about — one from Russia and one from the USA. One approach uses nanotech and the other uses biotech but both are novel and unique. Both have been offered to the Japanese through government channels and in both cases the Japanese government or TEPCO have yet to respond.
I know about these technologies because the Russian one is represented by a friend of mine and the American one comes from a Startup America company so I took it straight to the White House myself.
I think it would be smart for TEPCO to adopt both technologies in case one works better than the other. But my sense is that if an answer ever comes from Japan it will be months from now and will probably be “no thanks.”
Think about this as you read about that plutonium-contaminated water, because it is going to be in the news for years to come. If only there had been a technology available to clean up that stuff early in the crisis, the pundits will say, lives could have been saved. There was such a technology available — two of them in fact.
Who’s embarrassed now?