Between 1975 – 85, several nuclear power plants were built in Japan.
It’s worth comparing two of these: Fukushima and Onagawa.
Fukushima was built by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCo), Onagawa was built by Tohuku Electric.
TEPCo’s focus was on building as efficiently as possible, wasting the least money.
Their only safety concern was earthquakes, so they built on a hard rock base by the sea.
All major equipment would be delivered by ship, but there was a high wall of rock between the plant-site and the sea, so the rock wall was blasted away.
35 miles away, the Onagawa nuclear power plant was to be built.
Similarly, it was built on a hard rock base next to the sea.
But the main difference between the two companies was a man named Yanosuke Harai.
He was Vice President of Tohuku Electric, he remembered a shrine he visited as a child, dedicated to the people killed in a massive tsunami 1,000 years before.
So, because Harai was Vice President, he was able to insist that the site be moved inland to another site of solid rock 50 feet above sea level.
He also insisted a sea-wall be built 50 feet high, even though everyone insisted 30 feet was more than adequate.
And, because he knew that before a tsunami all the sea water recedes, he had emergency systems built to make sure there was always enough water for the cooling system.
Everyone thought it was a ridiculous concern, what a waste of money.
No one could understand his obsession with tsunami’s, any sane person would concentrate on earthquakes.
But, against all objections, Harai insisted and Onagawa was built to be tsunami-proof.
In 2011, it seemed the conventional view was right, there was an earthquake at sea, near both power plants.
Fukushima survived the earthquake, but it didn’t survive what happened next.
The earthquake caused the biggest tsunami in Japan’s history.
The waves that came ashore were up to 100 feet high, 20,000 people died and 160,000 were made homeless.
The Fukushima power plant was destroyed, but the Onagawa power plant was unharmed.
In fact it was the only thing left standing in the area, the local people made homeless by the tsunami sought shelter there.
And this, despite the fact that Onagawa was 35 miles closer to the earthquake than Fukushima, so the tsunami that hit it was bigger.
Kiyoshi Korokawa, the chairman of the NAIIC (the official body investigating the disaster) said the following: “The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly man-made disaster that could, and should, have been foreseen and prevented.”
He blamed “the Japanese mind-set of obedience and reluctance to question authority.”
It’s good to register that.
At one nuclear plant everyone just went along with conventional wisdom, no one wanted to look stupid, and they ended up looking a lot worse.
At the other power plant one man stood alone, no one agreed with him, they mocked him, but In the end he was the only one who didn’t look stupid.
It’s worth remembering that when we’re given a brief we don’t agree with.
We can keep quiet and hope we don’t look stupid.
Or we can question it, knowing that everyone else in the room probably thinks the same but they’re frightened to say anything in case they look stupid.
One way looks stupid, the other way really is stupid.