Breathtaking nuclear disaster in Japan, the nation the world has watched struggle with tsunami, then earthquake, then a radioactive cloud of fear, led its leaders to massively intervene.
Historians comb through wreckage and political detritus to discern who knew what when.
But here is what the Japanese and the world has already figured out. Leaders knew a lot more, a lot earlier than they let on to the populace. Why? The usual suspects: denial, fear, ego, saving face, unsubstantiated optimism. Hope as a strategy.
No sooner had the rods melted than the usual swirl of indictment and invective began eddying through the discourse. But something unusual happened even as patriots and heroes working in the nuclear muck prayed to the great reactor in the sky to stop melting down. Japan began an historic retreat.
Before the first rumble at Fukushima, Japan derived about 30% of its power from nuclear energy—proportionally more than America but nowhere near France. Japan is both similar to America and different. It is like America in that the bulk of its energy must be imported, but unlike America in that it has too few natural resources to have a choice in the matter.
Another way the two nations are alike is they share the experience of a long hot summer. The people of the bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka , packed carefully into homes and apartments, business and government offices have grown accustomed to the cool drafts of air conditioning and the near constant availability of power.
The Japanese are like us too in that no one really cared much how the room got cool, so long as it did. That is until now.
So imagine the decision made in the winter months to systematically decommission every one of the 54 nuclear power plants like they decommissioned HAL step by step in Kubrick’s 2001 a Space Odyssey.
Shut them down they did, finishing the process with a final glowing installation far to the north as June made its first bows. Replacing 30% of your power sources in under a year is no humble feat. And no nation in atomic history ever went from glowing in the dark to just being dark before.
The costs of using fossil fuels to replace what has been lost have been significant, but they pale in comparison to the white hot fire that burns among Japanese who aren’t sure the atomic bargain is worth it.
Japan’s reaction puts me in mind of President Obama’s decision to halt all drilling in the Gulf of Mexico immediately following BP’s disastrous oil leak deep below the surface some years back. It reminds me of the old pot boiler movies where inevitably someone in uniform ultimately admonished some perpetrator “ Freeze Slimeball !”
Where does the leadership mode to “stop everything” typically lead? It’s one of those Faustian deals where you know you can’t possibly have a Type I error (another leak or another meltdown) so you can hide from the real leadership question: If this plan worked so well until the disaster, is the right course for leader to stop absolutely everything? I call this “cover your ass” decision making and it always leads to trouble.
Consider Japan. Summer is encroaching on Osaka, Japan’s third largest city—about 2.7 million souls. It sits on the main island of Honshu in the Kansai region and is capital of the prefecture.
The first reactors in line to be recommissioned are in the Oi Power plant operated by Kansai Electric. Management claims they will be dramatically under- resourced if August provides steamy dog days and none of its three nuclear plants including units 3 and 4 comeback on stream by then.
Osaka’s high profile (and gaining) mayor Toru Hashimoto has pushed back on Prime Minister Noda entreating the government not to try and beat the heat but instead install the past due new nuclear regulator promised for early April. The new office is today unfilled by replacements.
The aging industrial city deep in Japan’s heartland faces a heat buildup of both the summer doldrums and rhetoric. Improvements in regulations and safety standards will take years to implement. They always do .And the memory of Fukushima Daiichi hovers over every conversation. It always will too.
As Japan slouches toward summer, what can they do? With every step forward by the Japanese leadership, Hashimoto blossoms with defiance. The current nuclear regulator in Japan has said Kansai Electric has done everything necessary to be cleared for take-off.
So does Noda follow the Obama strategy of blocking most everything in the Gulf, or does he have the courage of his convictions?
These are clearly leadership judgments Noda must find a way to incrementally solve the production problem or face severe brown outs. With no nuclear help, Oi may be up to 15% under resourced. Can you spell brown- out?
Political courage in the Gulf and in the Port of Osaka cannot get lost in translation. Of course there are necessary precautions, but the” shut it all down” defense against massive recent tragedy adds insult to extreme injury. The aggrieved deserve all the support to heal their sick and bury their dead.
Thoughtful balanced return from the depths of national despair never occurs in the blink of an eye. Huge problems with devastating results never get cured overnight.
In the world of new energy and experimentation there is no such thing as a costless choice. Let hearty debate finally give way to someone saying courageously” It’s time to get moving “. Let’s not let our leaders turn tragedy into paralysis. Pursue thoughtful balance review of how best to avoid catastrophe again . Then pick your moment and get back on your horse.
That is leadership and courage under fire.
Osaka start your engines.