In the grueling hot Japanese summer, the heat this year was particularly scorching for Japanese around the nation. A year and a half after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, triggered one of the worst nuclear catastrophes in recorded history, the country is now in full energy conservation mode. With the standard temperature in buildings set to 82 degrees, the island nation is reminded of the dire energy crisis it continues to face. For many, it is also a reminder of the quandary that looms large in Japan’s energy policy future: The shaky “Revolutionary Energy and Environment Strategy” announced this month has left the people and even the protesters confused. The new policy does not have the vision required to be perceived as a tangible long-term energy plan, it is a “pass the buck” political plan to kick the can down the road.
But how did it even come to this? How could such an epic catastrophe—killing close to 16,000 people, wiping out entire communities and bringing the nuclear reactors to meltdowns—have been triggered by natural disasters that were not new to the country, especially in that quake and tsunami-prone coastal region? The combination of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami made it so deadly, but even then, how could this have happened in Japan, considered by experts to be one of the most disaster-prepared nations and globally known for its technological advancements?
A parliamentary inquiry report, released this past July, tries to answer this question. Submitted by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, the first independent commission established in the history of Japan’s constitutional government, the report takes a hard look at the regulatory failures and industry negligence that led to the crisis. One resounding conclusion is the critical importance of accountability and transparency in a national project as important as making nuclear power a major source of the country’s energy, requiring the commitment of both the public and private sectors. After the oil shocks of the 1970s, which exposed the vulnerability of oil import-dependent countries around the world, including Japan, nuclear power became a cornerstone of Japan’s energy security policy. Nuclear power development became a national strategic priority, and with the full backing of the government, the nuclear industry enjoyed a privileged position.
As the Fukushima report puts it, nuclear power development was “embraced as a policy goal by government and business alike, and pursued with the same single-minded determination that drove Japan’s postwar economic miracle.” In 2006, then ruling Liberal Democratic Party called for the acceleration of nuclear reactor development, proposing increased budget and better coordination for implementation of the reactors. In the following year, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was selected to develop a new generation of reactors. In the words of the commission, “With such a powerful mandate, nuclear power became an unstoppable force, immune to scrutiny by civil society.”
Against this backdrop, the commission identifies as the root cause of the Fukushima catastrophe the so-called “regulatory capture,” where the organizational, institutional and legal frameworks prevent accountability and transparency by creating a web of key players in the public and private sectors entangled in self-interests. The very government regulatory agencies entrusted with the monitoring of the companies operating the nuclear power plants came to develop a relationship with the nuclear industry that has been called inappropriately close, jeopardizing public safety.
In their article, “Preventing Nuclear Meltdown: Assessing Regulatory Failure in Japan and the United States,” Brookings Institution researchers Daniel Kaufmann and Veronika Penciakova point out that Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, responsible for regulating the nuclear industry, consistently turned a blind eye to negligent behavior by the nuclear industry, writing that the agency “remained passive in addressing the nuclear industry’s long history of deception and cover-ups by different private operators.” Kaufmann and Penciakova give as one reason for the government officials’ inclination to be “deferential to private sector counterparts” the practice in Japan known as amakudari, in which government officials retire to occupy high-ranking positions within the private sector, in this case specifically the nuclear industry. Industry actors also participated in shaping regulations: “When the government convened a panel to revise nuclear regulatory standards in 2005, 11 of the 19 members on the panel were from the nuclear industry,” Kaufmann and Penciakova write.
The chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, declares in the independent report: “Although triggered by [the] cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly man-made disaster—that could and should have been foreseen and prevented. And its effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response.” What we see here at play in the Fukushima disaster, then, is the dangerous mix of disregard for accountability and transparency for the sake of self or organizational interests. This mix characterized the mindset of the key pre-Fukushima public and private sector players, ultimately undermining severely the very goal of prosperity and security that the Japanese government and private sector were coming together to achieve.
In recent years, the role of public-private partnerships has come to be increasingly recognized as a promising model for providing essential public services effectively and cost-efficiently. But what Japan’s tragedy last year reminds us is that without accountability and transparency, the complex dynamics of public and private collaboration could lead to catastrophic results.
The sheer magnitude of devastation brought on by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan last year shocked the whole world. Countries such as Germany and Switzerland responded by halting their plans for nuclear power development. With a “zero-nuclear” dream but a lot of wiggle room, who will be responsible for any possible future disasters? But one lesson for all countries around the world is that when it comes to public-private collaboration, accountability and transparency are ingredients that cannot be spared—without them, the result could be explosive.
David J. Maurrasse is the director of the Program on Strategic Partnerships and Innovation at the Earth Institute. He is the president and founder of Marga Inc., a consulting firm providing advice and research to strengthen philanthropy and innovative cross-sector partnerships to address some of today’s most pressing social concerns. His book, “Strategic Public Private Partnerships: Innovation and Development,” is due early 2013.