Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bureaucrats place the blame on scientists for tsunami and meltdown : Nature News Blog

From Nature News this week:
Japan’s ministry of science and education was supposed to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first annual White Paper on Science and Technology with the 2011 edition. Instead of a long spread of great achievements by Japanese scientists over the past five decades, however, the document, which was approved by the government yesterday, became the latest mea culpa for the poor handling of last March’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident. The document puts the spotlight on the responsibility of the countries’ scientists and engineers. [...] scientists lacked “fundamental knowledge about the mechanism of ocean trench earthquakes” and didn’t predict the possibility of a mega-earthquake. They underestimated the height of the tsunami and produced a hazard map with a large gap between estimated and actual inundation. Risk-communication efforts failed to prepare citizens for the unexpected.
I think it's amazing chutzpah for the ministry to pretend it's the fault of the scientists for failing to predict the earthquake and tsunami, rather than the inadequate management and governance (particularly in the case of TEPCO and Fukushima, but the tsunami issue goes wider than that).

To give credit where it's due, NN does raise this point lower down:
And the greater scientific community can hardly be called upon to bear the responsibility for the most egregious errors with regards to the nuclear disaster, such as Tokyo Electric Power Company’s failure to ensure that its generators could withstand a tsunami and the government’s withholding of available information about the path of radiation fallout.
Quite.

14 comments:

Carl C said...

Wow, sadly this sort of thing sounds a lot like the insanity of the anti-science Republicans in the US (Inhofe et al).

David B. Benson said...

No siesmologist, worldwide (except one) thought that the Tohoku fault was capable of more than a moment magnitude 8.0 (maybe 8.3) earthquake.

Shouldn't pick on just the Japanese scientists.

Steve Bloom said...

But re the scientific assessment of the potential tsunami inundation zone, the thing that really counted here, I seem to recall TEPCO having major involvement.

James Annan said...

I think/hope it might have been more along the lines of the bureaucrats in the science ministry feeling the need to apologise on behalf of the possible/perceived failures of their area, rather than really making the scientists scapegoats. But it still rankles.

yea-mon said...

There's a very bad taste to the way science has been represented in the whole question of Fukushima Daiichi, and who should/shouldn't have known about it. The newspapers (and I'm primarily thinking the Japan Times here) instead of delving into the scientific background to the event, relies on anecdotal evidence to beat TEPCO - but ignores the implication that if such evidence existed it could have saved over 20,000 lives.

Hank Roberts said...

It seems these bureaucrats are picking 'experts' who give them the answers they wanted. I wonder if this might not be a common occurrence.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/sns-rt-japan-nuclear-correctedl3e8hq43l-20120628,0,981977,full.story

yea-mon said...

The problem with a lot of the debate over here is that it has degenerated into "pick your favourite expert" diatribe-fest.

That article has run over here too, and I question why we have only two "prominent" seismologists commenting, rather than a larger group, or even a professional body。

One of the seismologists has been anti-nuclear for a long time, Katsuhiko Ishibashi, and is extremely concerned about earthquake damage to NPPs - despite the evidence that no significant damage was done to either Fukushima or Kashiwazaki-Kariwa (the latter hit by an earthquake in 2007).

Whilst there may be truth in some of what they say - when we get the biased reporting you get in these issues no real light is going to be shed on the important points. All pro-nuclear experts are dismissed as members of the "nuclear village", all dissenters as saints.

James Annan said...

What yea-mo said. A lot of stuff has subsequently come out about the Jogan tsunami, and old stone tablets with "don't build below this point" indicating the risk of a huge tsunami. But I don't really know how well known/understood this stuff was beforehand. I do recall a seismologist saying at the EGU only a few weeks after the event, saying he didn't know what he was going to teach in the coming term as the established theories had to be thrown away.

yea-mon said...

The key point, I think, is that if there was definite proof of a 1000-year cycle tsunami on the Pacific Coast, then people involved in disaster prevention would have made some effort to bring the matter to the authorities/public.

There's sod all on this in the archives of the Japan Times, one of the few searchable Japanese newspapers, and on the subject of disaster prevention professionals - there was a documentary on NHK a few months after the disaster following one professional around what I think was Rikuzen-Takata - shocked that his professional advice had not been enough to save people who had evacuated to what he had deemed supposedly safe places after the tsunami warning.

So, something new, or maybe he was in cahoots with TEPCO? (the latter being the new Japanese public standard position on things relating to the disaster...).

Steve Bloom said...

What I'm recalling, slightly fuzzily, is an earthquake/tsunami study conducted fairly recently (no more than ten years ago), perhaps required by regulators, that found the fault in that zone to be innocuous (as such things go), and co-authed by a TEPCO employee.

Too lazy to try to find it just now, and perhaps I'm not recalling it accurately.

Steve Bloom said...

Aha, I see there's a new report seemingly trumping this one. Is the timing of the release of the first one relative to the second one perhaps not a coincidence?

James Annan said...

Dunno, it may just be the annual cycle of reporting. Anyway, I never saw the evidence of bad press that Nature News talked about (though that doesn't mean it didn't happen). BTW I just noticed my link was wrong...now fixed.

Steve Bloom said...

Semi-OT: Nukes in the news here in the U.S. Note that these engineering errors are quite recent, although the plants are old. My guess is that this will mean two more nukes down for California, leaving just two (Diablo) to go. While the latter doesn't have steam generator problems, it does have a potentially fatal earthquake fault problem. It seems that past studies, mainly by the utility, may have lowballed the potential for damage. Err, sound familiar?

yea-mon said...

Steve, James.

Came across pieces on both the TEPCO "Tsunami Study" and the unexpected strength of the Tohoku Earthquake/Tsunami.

TEPCO:The Tsunami Study was a safety case study that assumed a massive tsunami hit the plant.

http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/news/topics/1205354_2266.html

The unexpected Tohoku Earthquake:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/332/6032/911.full.pdf

Basically the hypers and the Japanese press are passing fiction as news.