Accounting for Power

Recent revelations in Japan suggest just how important an understanding of accounting may be.

In a post in late March, I related that many Japanese were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to TEPCO, the operator of the damaged Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, in the days following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The most common excuse in the language, “Shikata ga nai” (“It can’t be helped”), struck most people as apposite, given the historical rarity of 9.0 earthquakes and 15-meter killer waves.

By now, the situation has almost been integrated into the everyday, at least for those of us far from the reactor. People speculate whether the government nuclear agency’s lead spokesperson is wearing a wig, and a cable news channel has a daily segment, “Kyou no genpatsu kiiwaado” – “Today’s nuke reactor keyword”. Any goodwill toward TEPCO has long since evaporated, thanks to its management’s sloth in apologizing, its spokespersons’ frequent misstatements and evasions in daily press conferences, and sympathy for the thousands displaced from the evacuation zone, their livelihoods derailed (and their pets and livestock reluctantly left behind to starve, an aspect of the story that has mobilized many activists here). But it turns out that even the initial goodwill was probably misplaced.

Last week, word came out that when Fukushima Dai-Ichi was being planned in the 1960s, it was originally proposed to be sited 35 meters above sea level. However, TEPCO reckoned that this would result in unduly high recurring costs during the lifetime of the plant. In particular, it would increase the expense of pulling sea water up to the plant for use as a coolant, and would increase the cost and complexity of conveying fuel, equipment and other items to and from the small seaside port built to service the plant.

TEPCO’s planning whizzes hit on the idea of digging away 25 meters of soil – possibly a bigger up-front fixed expense, but many decades’ worth of reduced recurring expense. Only “possibly”, because the plant’s foundation had to be anchored to bedrock, so the dig made this simpler, too. Those top 25 meters were mudstone and clay, which was felt not to be so stable in a quake if the plant were built on top of it. The story quotes Masatoshi Toyoda, then a TEPCO VP for planning and now age 87, as saying it seemed a matter of “cost efficiency”. He also suggests that there may have been a way to have built much of the plant within the mudstone layer, so that it could have been safe against both earthquake and tsunami. But, he admits sorrowfully, tsunami risk wasn’t considered at all.

The decision to dig left the facility at a 10-meter elevation. In 2011, it was hit by a 15-meter tsunami. The rest is history.

Reaction so far has been muted. The announcement of this 40-year-old bit of history came in the middle of this year’s 10-day “Golden Week” period of national holidays, when fewer people than usual are paying attention to the news. Even more artfully, it was released on a “press holiday,” May 5, which meant that no newspapers were published the next day. It seems to have been carried by very few major media outlets – to my knowledge, only TV Asahi and the Tokyo Shimbun website. (You can find a rather daffy machine translation of the Tokyo Shimbun story into English here, but running the Japanese version yourself through Babel Fish will give you a more coherent read.). Both the English-language Daily Yomiuri and its parent, the conservative and influential Yomiuri Shimbun, entirely omitted to mention it when they resumed publishing. You won’t find it in this week’s edition of Nikkei Weekly, either. If my mother-in-law hadn’t been watching the morning show on TV Asahi that morning and complained about it over lunch, I might never have heard about it.

TV Asahi contrasted Fukushima Dai-ichi with another nuclear plant more than 100 kilometers north, within the city of Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture. At that location, the tsunami reached only 13 meters. The difference is a big one, since the Onagawa plant, run by Tohoku Electric, is situated 15 meters above sea level. According to media reports, it was slightly damaged by the quake per se, but shut down safely. (My wife and I attempted to drive to this plant the next day – its PR center is easy to find on most local road maps – but were prevented by police from getting onto the mountain road that leads to it. What we discovered after our forced U-turn was unforgettable and harrowing; I’ll describe that in a future post.)

In a related development, Prime Minister Kan earned rare praise last week when he ordered the closing of the Hamaoka nuclear power plant, because of its location on a major geological fault. Except that, despite what editors around the world wrote in their headlines, he didn’t order, exactly – he doesn’t have the legal authority to do so. Asked, was more like it.

The plant is located not far from Mount Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture, west of Tokyo — and considerably closer to Tokyo’s 30 million residents than Fukushima is. It’s run by Chubu Electric Power Co., a/k/a ChuDen, whose board of directors was unable to decide at a meeting Saturday whether to grant the Prime Minister’s request. That there is an estimated 87% likelihood of an 8.0 or greater earthquake near the fault within the next 30 years apparently weighed less in their esteem than the loss of around ¥8.3 billion (roughly, $104 million) that was projected to result from a shut-down — though in a move that would make any American PR flack proud, jobs were also gravely mentioned. ChuDen’s board scheduled another meeting for Monday afternoon, leaving the nation to wonder whether the directors would kindly acquiesce. Eventually, they did.

Tokyo has already begun to sweat under what looks to be an early tsuyu – the hot, muggy, rainy season that makes US East Coast summers seem mild. We’re also being told to expect a repeat of last summer, which set the historical record for number of consecutive days above 30°C (86°F). (This is to some extent self-inflicted: not just global warming, but a heat-island effect made worse by the pell-mell construction of high-rise towers near the Shinagawa harbor-front, cutting off breezes from much of the city.) Thanks to the Fukushima situation, available power this summer is expected to fall at least 20% below usual demand. Businesses all over town have voluntarily dimmed their lights, turned off their escalators and set their air conditioning to 27°C (a bit more than 80°F) – including in crowded rush-hour subways and at the gym where I (occasionally) work out.

Should we also have to sweat out the decisions of boards of private companies on matters of public safety? The Tokyo region’s current predicament suggests that a world with insufficient power to regulate business is much closer to an inferno than to a paradise.

Picture credit: Tokyo Shimbun.

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Bruce Boyden says:

    It was made 25 meters *lower*? Wow.

  2. Frank says:

    Thanks for this post. There are many broader lessons here. The authorities’ attitudes remind me of the Jamie Dimon’s offhand remark that financial catastrophes “just happen” every 5 to 7 years, and there’s no real way to prevent them.

    I am a bit surprised to hear about this, though, because my impression was that the Fukushima (and other nuke industry) salaries were not particularly high, so the Amakudari (“descent from heaven”) effect could not be that strong. I suppose that a hierarchical or clubbish elite culture can do the “work” that big money accomplishes in the US.