You may be thinking, “But it wasn’t the earthquake that caused plant failure, it was the tsunami!” You are a clever soul. Nuclear power plants are designed to shut down in the event of an emergency, and Fukushima did. However the fuel in a nuclear reactor does not stop emitting radiation after a reactor is shut down. They need coolant to prevent a chain reaction which can result in great damage.
Cooling Nuclear Plants
This coolant is usually water, which is why nuclear plants are usually near a major water source (ocean, lake, river.) The coolant needs to circulate through the fuel, and it does so through electric-powered pumps. Should electricity fail, the pumps stop working.
Of course, power plants have backup systems for this, and so did Fukushima. When the severe earthquake interrupted power service, backup generators kicked into operation. They would have been sufficient to keep coolant flowing. But the tsunami which followed, ruined most of these backup generators.
The plant had a seawall, which was at the legal height mandated by Japanese regulatory agencies. And the tsunami completely overran the wall. The power company was eventually found liable for insufficient emergency protocols. However, a tsunami wave higher than ever seen before can’t be predicted, right?
North of Fukushima (closer to the quake’s epicenter) was the Oanagawa nuclear plant, operated by a different power company. It faced a similar tsunami wave; its sea walls held, and the plant was not dangerously harmed. In fact, several nearby residents whose homes had been destroyed by the tsunami stayed at the plant site as a refugee center.
The hero who saved that plant was a long-dead man named Yanosuke Hirai.
Hirai was a senior engineer with the power company. As a boy, he visited the town of his birth, and in this town was an ancient Shinto shrine. Legend had it that the shrine was affected by tsunami flooding in a terrifying 869 CE earthquake. Supposedly, Yanosuke Hirai never stopped thinking about that visit.
Demanding More Than the Minimum
When the Oanagawa plant was built, Yanosuke Hirai insisted on a higher elevation and higher seawall than other engineers thought necessary. The design team at Fukushima actually lowered the plant’s elevation during construction, for the logical reason that closer to the ocean meant less cost pumping the water uphill.
After the 2011 disaster, a Portland Oregonian reporter who’d lived in Japan for years, read about the Oanagawa plant, and tracked down Tatsuji Oshima, Yanosuke Hirai’s former underling. Oshima said Hirai’s obsession with safety was always a huge battle he fought against institutional inertia, and Hirai considered bureaucrats to be “human trash.”
The reporter, Richard Read, wrote that this would be almost unheard-of in Japan, a “society known for pounding the nail that sticks up.” And Read has lived among our friends on those lovely islands, so I defer to his judgement.
But I’d be surprised if it’s a Japanese issue. As Oshima said to Read, “In your country, too, there are probably bureaucrats or officials who never take final responsibility.” What a gentleman! “Probably” is quite the polite understatement.
Going Along, Getting Along, Catastrophe
Humans are tribal, and I believe it to be a flaw of confirmation bias. We are learning creatures by nature. When an infant finds that some shiny thing hurts (a candle flame), they try it another time or two, then tell themselves a story: “candles hurt.” These stories, by which we identify patterns and try to rationalize them, are how we avoid unpleasant experiences in the future. And some patterns are well worth identifying. (This is how science works.)
But it can lead us into confirmation bias. We tell ourselves a story about what we experienced — a unexpectedly rude stranger, a bad coworker, a toxic relationship, whatever. And we look for a pattern which confirms our story about why that experience happened. When you look for examples that confirm your suspicions, you will find them!
Perhaps the oldest trick in magic is the “cups and balls” routine. Most magicians do it and everyone has their own version. Penn & Teller’s version involves doing the trick “straight” and then using clear plastic cups and having Penn explain exactly what they are doing as they are doing it. The trick still works because we look where it is natural to look. We look at the big man juggling the little balls, not the the little man placing a big ball under a cup.
People see what they expect to see.
Dangers of Confirmation Bias
In institutions, confirmation bias tends to create environments where the “right sort” of people are welcomed and given enormous leeway. The “wrong sort” are seen as untrustworthy, scrutinized for examples of “not being a good fit.” Which naturally confirms the bias! The “wrong sort” leave that unpleasant work environment, the “right sort” stay where they’ve found a place. This is largely why a problematic institution — say, a hospital with a history of patient neglect, or an energy company that pooh-poohs safety concerns — can be exceedingly difficult to change.
Clearly, Yanosuke Hirai was the “wrong sort.” He was unquestionably brilliant, but a pain in everyone’s neck. He was not a “team player.” And yet the company hiring him got someone who would ultimately save them billions of dollars. And the company without him is now liable for billions in damages.
There’s an inherent problem with capitalism here. The company which tolerated Yanosuke Hirai’s squeaky wheel didn’t see benefit from the decision until decades after his death. And I don’t know how to solve that problem. Companies always claim to want “outside the box” thinking, currently fashionable corporate gibberish. What they want is someone who’s creative, without being really creative — disruptive without actually disrupting anything.
So let’s salute a man who never quite belonged, who considered the closed-minded to be “human trash,” and who took heroic stands ultimately benefiting thousands of lives. Thank you, Yanosuke Hirai!