Humbled Japan Vows Improvements on Nukes

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People signal contrition in a lot of ways, and few countries are better at it than the Japanese — a culture rich in the art of social protocols and interpersonal gesturing. It was not for nothing, then, that when Prime Minister Naoto Kan spoke before parliament this week about the country’s ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, he wore a durable, light blue work jacket — the kind bureaucrats all over Tokyo have been wearing since the emergency began. We’re on it, the jacket telegraphs; we’re making things right. One other thing it says too: We’re sorry.

Sorry, of course, is good politics, but it’s also good policy, since a humbled bureaucracy is one that’s also ready to make changes. Japan has been very public about pledging  reforms in its nuclear regulatory sector in the past few days, and the more of the story that comes out, the more it appears there’s reason for just such improvements.

The AP has reported, for example, that TEPCO, the Tokyo power company, had been given no shortage  of scientific studies showing that a massive quake and tsunami of the kind that struck the archipelago on March 11 was statistically likelier than nuclear planners had believed, but officials dismissed or buried the findings. This is exactly the kind of deadly nonchalance that was found to have occurred in the weeks leading up to last year’s BP oil rig explosion — producing exactly the same kind of disastrous result.

As with the BP mess too, the people managing the Fukushima crisis have often appeared to be making up their fixes on the fly. Remember the “top kill,”  the “junk shot,”  the “top hat” and all the other improvised fixes that were tried in the Gulf? The Japanese have been left to rely on the same kind of low-tech solutions with their fire hoses clamped onto the reactors’ pressure relief valves and their flyovers by helicopters dropping water on the periodic fires.

“Our preparedness was not sufficient,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. “When the current crisis is over, we must examine the accident closely and thoroughly review [safety standards].”

That too is something governments in trouble always say, especially in a democracy in which the opposing party is never shy about using a botched emergency to depose the party in power. Few people doubted that Democratic leaders in the U.S. grieved the Katrina disaster as much as anyone else, but few doubted that they licked their chops at the prospect of devouring former President Bush over it either. Already, one member of Japan’s parliamentary minority told Kan directly, “We cannot let you be in charge of Japan’s crisis management.”

Kan’s government may well find itself toppled over Fukushima. But whichever lawmakers are in charge when the reactors finally cool  will be pressed to act fast to prevent a similar crisis in the future. For the good of their country — not to mention their own political necks — they will likely comply.