Dissecting Disaster

Article excerpt

TOKYO

IT WAS WEEKS AFTER the March 11 disaster. Tens of thousands were in homeless shelters. Radiation continued to leak from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Public faith in government had hit a nadir. After dissembling about the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, Japanese officials realized the recovery had to start with a brutally honest reckoning, from investigators beholden to neither the powerful nuclear industry nor its increasingly vocal foes.

So instead of nuclear specialists, they recruited a Fukushima town mayor, a few lawyers, even a novelist. For the chairman's post, the choice was obvious. As Japan had so many times in the past after a horrendous disaster or accident, it summoned a man with a passion for dispassionately unraveling the chain of mistakes. Whether food contamination or crashing elevators, train derailments or collapsing tunnels, Yotaro Hatamura is Japan's Mr. Accident, a mechanical engineer who has devoted his life to revealing how and why things go awry.

"There's probably no other person who could do a good job," says Kenji lino, a colleague at the elite University of Tokyo and cofounder, with Hatamura, of the nonprofit Association for the Study of Failure. "There are a lot of other professors who have experience in nuclear engineering. But they would probably lose the big picture."

BLAME IS NOT THE POINT

HATAMURA, 70, created the niche science of shippaigaku, or "learning from failure," dissecting disasters for clues to guard against their recurrence. If this sounds like a CSI procedural, the similarities are superficial. In Hatamura's book, looking for culprits in a disaster is the worst way to get at the cause.

In an address to the Japan National Press Club in June 2011, Hatamura explained his ground rules: "Blaming individuals leads us to the conclusion that without those people in charge, the nuclear accident wouldn't have happened. But I believe that even with different actors, the result would have been the same."

Not everyone is enamored of Hatamura's take-no-culprits ethos. The Japanese Diet, or parliament, commissioned a separate inquiry that is the antithesis of the Hatamura approach, led by another Tokyo University emeritus scholar, physician Kiyoshi Kurokawa. His panel is openly partisan, with antinuclear and technically experienced members. Unlike Hatamura's closed sessions, Kurokawa's interviews are public, and the panel has subpoena power. The group has revealed that the government's system for predicting radiation contamination, known as SPEEDI, was made available to the U.S. military shortly after the accident but not until much later to local residents, who could have been guided away from toxic areas to safety.

While public naming and shaming are probably inevitable in the face of such immense suffering, Hatamura argues that intimidation doesn't yield the best results and that even without coercion, the truth will out.

"We point to where technical failure happened," says lino simply. "It's not our role to say who was responsible."

Hatamura, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is now retired but was literally a larger-than-life presence on the leafy and idyllic downtown campus of Tokyo University. Built like a linebacker, with a no-nonsense temperament to match, he had a knack for terrifying undergraduates in the engineering department. His sense of personal ethics became legendary one day, when he got wind that a corporate recruiter was trying to woo his students with a free meal. Hatamura burst into the room. "WHO'S GOING TO LUNCH?" he yelled. Needless to say, no one did.

And yet, Hatamura was a popular professor who quickly grasped that the most engrossing part of his lectures wasn't dry sermons on what to do right - but sometimes painful, true-life tales of what went wrong. The centerpiece of his courses was a unique and engrossing 10-hour section that taught safety by recalling dozens of case studies, complete with names, where upperclassmen had goofed up in spectacular fashion. …