Japan meets Energy and Environment

Now, that is a pretty bold statement… yet basically a reformulation of a quote in one of my favorite movies of all time: “Proportionality should be a guideline in war” (R.S. McNamara, 4mins on YouTube).

The point though, is that application of such guideline shouldn’t be a privilege of war times, but a truly universal practice in life. However, it is for sure during hard times, emergencies, when “proportionality” becomes an imperious need to prevent problems growing into catastrophes.

That is why proportionality is one of the key ideas in clinical medicine, and why proportionality is the key principle behind the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) guidelines. With nearly a century of history, which includes the experience from both Japanese population atomic bombings and nuclear power plant accidents such as Chernobyl, the ICRP is the undisputed global reference in the field. When applied to radiological protection, the basic idea of proportionality in ICRP wording is divided into:

  • The principle of Justification: the benefits of limiting radiation exposure shall outweigh the risks associated with it.
  • The principle of Optimization: doses are to be kept as low as reasonably achievable, taking into account economic and societal factors.

Al that can sure be written in very complicate terms and standards but, in the end, it is plain common sense to say that “a good solution should never be worse than the problem it aims to solve”.

Proportionality though, it’s easier said than done, because it does require understanding the big picture. When problems are analyzed individually, with no context or reference, without balancing the impact of the available responses, it is impossible to decide an adequate therapy, one that is “proportional to the objectives we are trying to achieve”. Proportionality starts with a precise definition of the objective, but requires a deep understanding of both:

  1. the actual magnitude of the problem, and
  2. the socioeconomic efficacy, cost, and side-effects of all possible solutions

What about the Fukushima NPP Accident?

Concerning Fukushima NPP accident, there are many factors that make “proportionality” a very ambitious goal, some universal, some rather specific to the Japanese people. Here are in short what I consider to be the main ones:

  • Radioactivity health impact is a complex subject, and usually well beyond the reach of common scientific background. Like any complex matter, answers are never black-and-white but gray, and I know no education system where people learn to understand the gray-scale. In a desperate effort to reach the masses, some try therefore to explain it in simple terms, pretending that standards and limits separate good from evil, embracing a monochromatic vision of the world for the practical need of broader comprehension. By doing so, they leave the door opened to the skeptics and fear-mongers, who know little but the fact that the world is plenty colorful. They then turn the simplified model into a lie, and the backdoor that was left opened because it led nowhere suddenly becomes a freeway to an endless seam of fear and mistrust.
  • Radioactivity can’t be seen nor felt but, despite its complex effects, nowadays it can be measured relatively easy and cheaply. That, together with the availability of the simplest of all models (Linear Non-Threshold, LNT = twice more is twice worst, starting from zero), provides the tools skeptics need to spread fear.
  • 危ない (abunai = dangerous), or Japanese people limitless aversion to risk. One of the first things any foreigner notice when in Japan is how absolutely safe this country is. Those that stay longer understand that, actually, Japanese people do not feel it that safe. Instead, they keep warning each other of a myriad of “perils” that hunt them anytime anywhere, and words like abunai certainly rank high in the list of Japanese language commonplaces.
  • 不安 (fuan= insecurity), or the Japanese right to fear. Where I came from, one tends to relativize danger, answer to “I’m afraid” by “fear not”. In Japan though, the only socially accepted answer to insecurity seems to be compassion, and no-one dares to express in public that “sometimes fear is simply not acceptable”.
  • During normal times, the combination of limitless aversion to risk with the ultimate right to feel insecure has the benefit of driving the Japanese reckless quest for an ever safer society.  During hard times, however, both factors convene into preventing Japan to adequately tackle a crisis like the one we have. Indeed, the usual risk scale saturates too early for people to emotionally differentiate among alternatives, none of which can fit below their usually accepted infinitesimal risk level. At the same time, the few able to rationally make the difference are unable to speak out loud, in order to preserve everyone’s ultimate right to feel insecure.
  • The Japanese passion for detail, or microscopic vision. If there is a Japanese characteristic recognized worldwide, that must be their passion for quality and precision. The reliability we have all come to expect from Japanese products is surely linked to their ability to analyze Microscopethe slightest problem in the most exquisite detail, be never satisfied until the result is, well, perfect. However, complex crisis, like the one we face, cannot be solved by tackling one by one every single problem analyzed with the microscope; it requires instead being able to zoom out to see the big picture, understanding there are not one but many problems linked together, the solution of one having large impacts on the others.

Now, I believe it is not difficult to guess how the combination of these 5 factors affect the ability of the Japanese people to find a proportional, and therefore optimal, answer to the Fukushima NPP accident. Every single one of them hampers their ability to both understand the magnitude of the problem and evaluate the possible solutions.

In upcoming posts I will get into details with precise examples of the negative impact of some (if not all) of these barriers, and hopefully help to re-focus the debate into what really matters, which is not solving one particular problem, but getting everyone through the crisis in the best possible shape. A crisis that is far from being limited to the effects of radiation exposure, but that has become an energy, economic, political and, ultimately, a societal crisis. After all, crisis are never what they are, but what we make them be.

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Comments on: "Proportionality should be a guideline in life (I)" (1)

  1. [...] (節水, sessui), but not for energy as a whole. To me, that is yet another example of what I call the Japanese microscopic vision, where problems are always analyzed separately and the big picture often ignored. Yet if Japan is [...]

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