The Sociological Implications for the Fukushima Daiichi Accident: Beyond Success or Failure

The sociological implications of this Rinkichoaccident that happened much earlier than the Fukushima Daiichi accident are closely related to the reasons why we can call it a little-known “structural disaster.” One of the reasons is that it was much more serious and complex than expected and therefore kept secret from outsiders. This fact requires us to reconsider the development trajectory of technology beyond the simplistic dichotomy of success or failure throughout peacetime and wartime. According to a standard view of the history of technology in general, Japan proceeded to a self-reliant phase with the establishment of the Kanpon type turbine in the 1920s, after improvements made to deal with various problems and failure incidents. In short, a successful self-reliant phase followed subsequent to improvements after various failures.

And it has been assumed up to now that this trajectory enabled Japan to go to war in 1941. According to the description and analysis of the Rinkichoacci-

dent given above, however, the trajectory becomes much more complex than the conventional “success story” account suggests, since there was a serious but little known missing phase, one of “self-reliant failure,” which the Navy was unable to completely solve by the outbreak of the war. Considering this in association with the similarity in terms of technological trajectory such that the reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi power station embody the turning point leading from licensed production to self-reliant production, there is the possibility that the Fukushima Daiichi accident was a “self-reliant failure” in the sense mentioned above.

There is another reason why we can describe the Rinkichoaccident as a littleknown “structural disaster.” The reason is that the recognition of binodal turbine blade vibration as the true cause was beyond the knowledge of the usual turbine designer of the day. This type of problem is supposed to have been unrecognized until the postwar period. In the postwar period, avoiding turbine blade vibration caused by various resonances still provided one of the most critical topics for research on turbine design.[1] The Imperial Japanese Navy certainly managed, after the serious technological and organizational errors of the Rinkichoaccident that was kept secret from outsiders, eventually to detect the universal true cause during the war. But its complete solution seems not to have been found after the detection of the true cause.[2]

In short, the problem was detected in the prewar period, but its final solution was left until after the war.[3] Far beyond the simplistic dichotomy of success or failure throughout peacetime and wartime, this hidden and little known “structural disaster”, an important snapshot of a serious failure of Japan's self-reliant prewar technology, gives a significant confirmation of the functional disintegration of the network of the relationships linking the military and industrial sectors. That is to say, the incident enables us to look at a secret military problem-finding and investigation, and pioneering but partial diagnosis without a well-informed industrial problem-solving process. This was the end state of the military-industrial-university complex in the prewar period in which a pitfall was present within the success in technological development, from which the postwar industrial reconstruction in Japan started.

This will provide an important guideline for characterizing and understanding the Fukushima Daiichi accident beyond the simplistic dichotomy of success or failure. This is because the kind of fresh account exemplified here, which goes beyond a dichotomous narration, has tended to be unduly neglected up to now in the sociology of science and technology and particularly in relation to the sociological studies on extreme events such as the Fukushima Daiichi accident. As a matter of fact, the Rinkichoaccident that occurred after a long history of successful technological development reminds us of its structural similarity to the Fukushima Daiichi accident that happened after a long successful operation of nuclear reactors closely associated with the myth of safety.

Another sociological implication that could be obtained from this hidden accident pertains to the social context of organizational errors involved in “structural disaster.” As mentioned earlier, the social context of the Rinkichoaccident is the wartime mobilization of science and technology, which was authorized by the Wartime Mobilization Law in 1938 and the Research Mobilization Ordinance in the next year. This formal legal foundation gave rise to one of the salient features of the wartime mobilization of science and technology, namely the structural interdependence of the military-industrial-university complex under the control of the military sector. The military sector controlled the overall mobilization, in which the industrial sector and universities had to obey orders given by the military. This was associated with an extremely secretive attitude of the military toward outsiders. According to Hidetsugu Yagi who invented the pioneering Yagi antenna, a crucial component technology of radars, and in 1944 became the president of the Board of Technology, the central governmental authority specially set up for the wartime mobilization of science and technology, the military “treated civilian scientists as if they were foreigners.”[4]

Thus, even at the central governmental authority specially set up to integrate every effort for the wartime mobilization of science and technology, cooperation, not to speak of coordination, with the military sector was very limited and the military-industrial-university complex began to lose its overall integration. Particularly in terms of the relationship between the military and industrial sectors, functional disintegration went further. What is important here is the fact that this functional disintegration of the network of relationships linking the military and industrial sectors was taking place just at the time the strong structural integration of the complex was formally being reinforced by the Wartime Mobilization Law and the Research Mobilization Ordinance.

And this coupling of structural integration and functional disintegration during wartime mobilization provides a suitable background for redefi success and failure not only in prewar Japan's context but in the current context of the Fukushima Daiichi accident. The reason for this is that the social context of organizational errors

involved in the Rinkichoaccident provides us with an important insight such that if

the Fukushima Daiichi accident is a “structural disaster” it could have some characteristics similar to the coupling of structural integration and functional disintegration. For example, functional disintegration of the network of relationships linking the government, TEPCO offi and the relevant reactor designers of makers might be taking place just at the time the strong structural integration of the governmentindustrial-university complex was formally reinforced by the seemingly well-organized ordinances and laws revolving around the “double-check” system within a single ministry in the past and that between two ministries now, between METI and the Ministry of the Environment, ministry-bounded in either case.

  • [1] Cf., [54–59]. An article on the QE2's turbine reported that a similar failure occurred even in 1969. See [60].
  • [2] The same type of turbine blade breakage still occurred in the same class of destroyer more than one year after the final report of the special examination committee had been submitted. A destroyer of the same class was found to have had the same type of turbine blade breakage around “one-third of the blade from the tip” on July 21, 1944, an incident even less known than the Rinkichoaccident [25, pp. 158–159]. Also see [61].
  • [3] Postwar industrial development, and the development of the steam turbine for commercial purposes, among other things, started from a careful re-examination of the binodal vibration problem left unsolved by the prewar/wartime military sector. For example, in 1953 Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. invited three technical advisers to help develop an independent turbine technology for the future: Yoshitada Amari (ex-Engineering Rear Admiral of the Navy), and Kanji Toshima and Sho-ichi Yasugi (both ex-Engineering Captains of the Navy). They were all in the Technical Headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Navy at some stage of their prewar careers and were also concerned with the Rinkichoaccident. And every detail of prewar turbine failures including the Rinkichoaccident was inputted into an IBM computer and reanalyzed, from which the company obtained an exact normal tolerance for the strength of turbine blades and a design to avoid binodal vibration. Based on [62] and a letter from Yasuo Takeda, Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. to Kanji Toshima, IHI. (n.d.). For a detailed description and analysis of the Rinkichoaccident, see [24, pp. 159–172].
  • [4] The statements by Yagi are based on [63]. These are Yagi's words on September 11, 1945, when interrogated by General Headquarters of U.S. Army Forces, Pacific Scientific and Technical Advisory Section.
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