TOKYO Nikkei–With no end in sight to the contaminated water problem at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, there is a growing sense that the cleanup efforts are failing because of Tepco’s insistence on using its own technology and not looking for help outside its tight circle of corporate and government allies.

via 2013/10/26 19:07 – ANALYSIS: Has Tepco’s Go-It-Alone Approach Reached Its Limits?.

The article gives a couple of frightening examples. The first concerns “the advanced liquid processing system (ALPS), which is capable of removing 62 different types of radioactive substances from contaminated water.”

ALPS was initially scheduled to go operational last autumn, but trial runs did not begin until this March… Just three months later, one of the ALPS tanks was found to be leaking radioactive water and the entire system was shut down.

When will it be operational again? Tepco cannot say.Who built this troubled system? Toshiba.

So the government solicited bids for a new water treatment system. Guess who won the bid? Toshiba!

On Oct. 10, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry awarded the project to Tepco, Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy Ltd. and Toshiba Corp.

Have other companies developed similar and more successful water treatment systems? I’m glad you asked. Yes, they have. One of them is French company Areva. They also made a bid, but lost.

The problem is not just that Japan wants to keep this cleanup work to Japanese companies. The companies involved in nuclear power plants form a tightly connected network, nicknamed the “nuclear village”.

The Nikkei comments:

Japan’s plant engineering firms and manufacturers have a global edge in developing water-treatment and groundwater control systems. Why the members of the nuclear village do not harness those firms’ technological expertise is a mystery.

“It’s a mystery” is a euphemism, something Japanese are very good at. It’s a veiled criticism, a form of criticism that is socially and politically acceptable when dealing with sensitive matters.

Mike “in Tokyo” Rogers reported earlier in October on what happened to a prominent TV news personality who was less euphemistic in his criticism of the government budgeting more for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics than for cleaning up Fukushima (and see more details in the comments of that post) And even his comments were typically indirect*. When criticising others (and especially others in power), Japanese are instinctively careful.

There are, I think, several reasons for this and cowardice is not among them. I’ll get to these later, but for now, let’s get back to Tepco’s never-ending sad story.

The Nikkei continues its criticism of Tepco and the government by pointing out that other private companies, including some abroad, have already developed technologies to deal with some of the problems Tepco is facing in Fukushima.

One high-profile example of a nuclear power operator refusing to accept help from the outside can be found at Japan Nuclear Fuel Ltd.’s reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture. The plant — which plays a critical role in Japan’s nuclear policy — is still running on an experimental basis due to a series of problems despite being 18 years behind schedule.

France put its reprocessing method to commercial use in the 1970s. But Japan rejected the French know-how, adamant about developing its own technology.

Then, using a typical Japanese rhetorical style of putting the punchline in the conclusion, rather than at the beginning of the article, the Nikkei writer delivers the main point of his article: the problem of removing the fuel rods from the reactors. This is the second, frightening example:

Decommissioning the Fukushima plant, which will probably take several decades, involves the dangerous work of removing melted fuel rods from the furnace — a task with which Japan has zero experience. The government has ordered the Japan Atomic Energy Agency to begin basic research on the subject.

But the technology, developed by the private sector, is already available in other countries. The U.S. has removed all the fuel rods from a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania that suffered a meltdown in 1979. In another example, Russia handled the removal work at the Paks nuclear plant in Hungary.

Japan does not have the luxury of spending time needed to develop original technology. Limiting all the work to the members of the nuclear village will only lead to more problems down the road.

In my experience, Japanese people tend to be hypersensitive to criticism, partly as a result of the feedback loop: criticism is often veiled and indirect, leading to people suspecting criticism is intended when it might not be.To avoid misunderstandings, people tend to be hyper careful when speaking, especially to superiors (and superiors exist in every social network, not just at work).

Another reason for Japanese speakers using veiled forms of criticism is that direct forms of criticism are often ineffective, leading to passionate denials and outbursts and possibly violence. Or it may simply be ignored. I sometimes chaff an irregular student of mine, and urge him to attend my classes, warning him of possible failure and other horrors. He always roundly insists that he is not slacking and will certainly attend the next class. He is invariably absent the following week.  I still have not learned to be effectively indirect with him.

A further reason is that, just as Japanese speakers often search behind the words for hidden meanings, so they tend to search behind criticisms for hidden agendas. E.g. “Aha! You’re criticizing my plan, not because you think it’s flawed but because secretly you want to replace me in my position of power! Gotcha!”

Haruchika Noguchi, a famous healer, tended to be rather blunt with his patients when he started off (at the age of 13). Later, he found that being indirect was often more effective. For example, a couple brought their teenage child to him for consultation because the boy was still wetting his bed when sleeping alone and often insisted on sleeping with his parents. Noguchi looked at him and said, “Boys of your age are usually running after girls, but you remain loyal to your parents**. That’s admirable!” The boy’s behaviour changed soon after.
*After stating the two figures, Monta said, “People of the world, what do you think of that?”

**Loyalty to one’s parents, a Confucian principle, has traditionally been highly valued in Japanese society, as illustrated by the expression “oya koukou” 親孝行 being a devoted son”, to describe filial behaviour.