Sociological implications for the Fukushima accident: beyond dichotomous understanding of success or failure

The sociological implications of the Rinkicho accident, which happened approximately 70 years earlier than the Fukushima accident, are closely related to the reasons why it is considered a little-known structural disaster, as it was much more serious and complex than expected and therefore kept undisclosed to outsiders by institutionalized secrecy. As such, the development trajectory of technology' beyond a simplistic dichotomy of success or failure throughout wartime and peacetime must be reconsidered. According to a standard view of its technological history, Japan proceeded toward self-reliance with the establishment of the Kanpon type turbine in the 1920s, after improvements were made to deal with various problems and failure incidents. In short, a successful self-reliant phase followed subsequent to improvements after various failures.

This trajectory toward self-reliance is credited with enabling Japan to go to war in 1941. According to the analysis of the Rinkicho accident given in this chapter, however, the trajectory becomes more complex than a conventional “success story” would suggests, since there was a serious but little-known missing phase - one of “self-reliant failure” that the Navy was unable to completely solve before the outbreak of the war. Considering this with the similarities in terms of technological trajectory, such that the reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant embody the turning point leading from licensed production to self- reliant production, the Fukushima accident could also be considered a self-reliant failure. Because no one is able to inspect the inside of nuclear reactors, there is, unfortunately, no way to confirm this by evidence; accordingly, this remains a hypothesis to be tested in the future. Regardless, the accident contains hints of self-reliant failure, and so there is the possibility that structural disaster is related to the design, manufacture, testing, and operational systems during the shift from licensed production to self-reliant production.

Recognition of binodal turbine blade vibration as the true cause of the Rinkicho accident was beyond the standard knowledge of a turbine designer at that time; as such, this accident is a little-known failure because this type of problem could not have been recognized as obvious until the post-war period. In fact, avoiding turbine blade vibration caused by various resonances is one of the most critical topics for research on turbine design in the post-war period.27 The Imperial Japanese Navy eventually managed to detect the true cause, but not until after serious technological and organizational errors of the Rinkicho accident remained undisclosed to outsiders by legitimate procedures such as institutionalized secrecy. Indeed, a complete solution was not found for years after the detection of the true cause.28 In short, the problem was detected in the pre-war period, but its final solution was not discovered until after the war.29

Far beyond the simplistic dichotomy of success or failure throughout wartime and peacetime, this hidden and little-known accident, an important snapshot of a serious failure of Japan’s self-reliant pre-war technology, provides evidence of the functional disintegration of the relationship network linking the military and other sectors. As such, the incident enables an examination of a military problem finding and investigation techniques, and pioneering but partial diagnosis without a well-informed problem-solving process across the governmental, industrial, and academic sectors. This was the end state of the military-industrial-university complex in the pre-war period, in which a pitfall was present within the success story of technological development, from which the post-war industrial reconstruction in Japan started.

This will provide an important guideline for characterizing and understanding the Fukushima accident beyond a dichotomy of success or failure, a discussion that has been previously neglected in the sociology of science and technology, particularly in sociological studies on extreme events such as the Fukushima accident. The occurrence of the Rinkicho accident after a long history of successful technological development seems to be structurally similar to the Fukushima accident, which also happened after a long period of successful operation of nuclear reactors. Both are closely associated with the myth of safety. The crux of this structural similarity is that a pitfall is present within the success of both technologies, be it a long-term successful operation of naval turbines or that of nuclear reactors. From the viewpoint of structural disaster, there is an important sociological implication to be drawn from this similarity: when the governmental, industrial, and academic sectors are optimized in accordance with a particular type of new technology after having assimilated its domestic production, the failure of that technology necessitates structural reform of the entire science- technology-society interface because it encompasses the governmental, industrial, and academic sectors and their interaction. Since the optimization in the governmental, industrial, and academic sectors in accordance with a particular type of technology means an intensified and complicated interdependence of heterogeneous sectors, the failure of the technology has the potential to cause aggravation across all of those heterogeneous sectors. This state corresponds to an element of structural disaster wherein the complexity of a system and the interdependence of its units can aggravate problems.

Another sociological implication that could be obtained from the little-known Rinkicho accident pertains to its social context, as the accident was harmful not only to the stakeholders of the military sector but also to the general public. When evidence for such an argument is confirmed, the undisclosed state of the Rinkicho accident can be considered institutionalized secrecy as implied by structural disaster. As defined in Chapter 1, institutionalized secrecy denotes a legitimate way to keep public knowledge within the bounds of insiders through institutional designs, often to the detriment of the general public. Previous arguments have shown that the response of the Imperial Japanese Navy to the unexpected Rinkicho accident legitimately kept knowledge within the bound of insiders through institutional designs, such as a series of top secret reports, but how was this pattern of behavior detrimental to the general public?

The social context of the Rinkicho accident is an important consideration here. The social context involves wartime mobilization of science and technolog)', which was authorized by the Wartime Mobilization Law in 1938 and the Research Mobilization Ordinance in the following year. This legal foundation gave rise to the structural interdependence of the military-industrial-university complex under the control of the military sector, one of the unique features of the wartime mobilization of science and technology. The military sector controlled the overall mobilization, under which the industrial and academic sectors had to obey orders. Contrary to the cooperation of heterogeneous sectors on an equal footing through full information sharing, this cooperation was associated with the secretive attitude of the military toward outsiders. According to Hidetsugu Yagi, who became the president of the Board of Technology in 1944 (the central governmental authority specially set up for the wartime mobilization of science and technolog)') the military “treated civilian scientists as if they were foreigners.”30 Even at the central governmental authority, which was specifically set up to integrate wartime mobilization efforts of science and technology, cooperation, not to speak of coordination, with the military sector was thus very limited and the military-industrial-university complex began to lose its overall integration. Particularly in terms of the relationship between the military and other sectors, functional disintegration was exacerbated.

The social context of the wartime mobilization of science and technolog)' reveals that, within the military-industrial-university complex in this mobilization, industrial, academic, and even governmental sectors were perceived by the military sector as outsiders to which critical information should be restricted; as a result, the performance of other sectors was hampered, as eventually was the performance of the social system as a whole. Within the context of such deterioration of the social system’s performance, the Rinkicho accident was hidden to the Imperial Diet and therefore the Japanese government, not to speak of the general public, decided to go to war with the United States and Britain without knowing the crucial impact that the accident could have had on that decision. Considering all of the above, we can observe the four required conditions of institutionalized secrecy as defined in Chapter 1. Therefore, in this sense, the Rinkicho accident can be considered a kind of structural disaster.

This functional disintegration of the relationships linking the military and other sectors due to institutionalized secrecy occurred during a time when the structural integration of the complex was institutionally being reinforced by the Wartime Mobilization Law and the Research Mobilization Ordinance. This coupling of structural integration and functional disintegration through institutionalized secrecy provides grounds for establishing sociological implications of structural disaster not only in the context of pre-war Japan but in the current context of the post-Fukushima situation. Ultimately, if the Fukushima accident is a structural disaster accompanying institutionalized secrecy, it would have similar characteristics to the coupling of structural integration with functional disintegration.

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