Book Review: Fresh Currents

[Fresh Currents: Japan's flow from a nuclear past to a renewable future can be downloaded for free and quickly here. It is also available from good bookstores, priced ¥2,000.]

“In short, Fresh Currents is more than a book: It is a piece of living history that crystallizes the threshold upon which we stand today.”
 Japan Times book review by Chuo University Law Professor Stephen Hesse

“That’s the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always!”
Judging Books by Their Covers, in Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!, Richard Feynman

Hop on the haunted house of horrors ride at the funfair, and the moment when you enter that parallel, fictive world of ghoulies and ghosties, and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night comes when the trolley hurtles forward and the swing doors open to consume you; with Fresh Currents, that entry to a parallel world, one in which nuclear power is Evil and all renewables are Saintly, one where the emotional tail wags the rational dog, one tailor-made for the most acerbic put-down of psychologist Daniel Kahneman—“good technologies have few costs in the imaginary world in which we inhabit, bad technologies have no benefits, and all decisions are easy”—comes early on, in the introduction by editor Eric Johnston, where he doffs his hat to thank The Japan Times, “one of the world’s finest newspapers”, seemingly with nary a sliver of tongue in cheek. No disrespect to the toilers at the august organ, some of whom are fine writers and all of whom, I’m sure, are underpaid, but this sounds like an alternative punchline to the hoary expat one-liner, “You know you’ve been in Japan too long when…you start bowing on the telephone.” You really have been in Japan too long if you believe that The Japan Times, with its uber-pompous editorials, “Paraguay-Japan ties strong, getting stronger” propaganda guff, embarrassing Readers in Council letters to the editor page, and content largely filched from wire services and real newspapers around the globe, is one of the world’s finest newspapers.

Parochialism of this sort infests the book—not a literal, geographic parochialism, but a more insidious sort, one in which standards and expectations are diminished by isolation and an uncritical audience. Among the lows of the many lowlights are the following: a long, rambling essay by journalist David McNeil, Tohoku Damashii (“The soul of Tohoku”), much of which, irrelevant to the title on the tin of the book, is about the tsunami in general, an essay with academic pretentions but one in which footnotes come and go randomly, footnotes with suspiciously clustered dates that make it read like a cut-and-shut job pasted together from previously published material, a suspicion underscored by the appearance early in the course of the essay of a mysterious character named “Kai Watanabe”, of whom all we learn that her home is in Okuma and then, many pages on, that her parents have abandoned hope of going back to Okuma, an essay that threatens to flay the bark of the tree of the English language to within the sap of its life (“fickle weather and incessant taxation also produced periods of terrible famine”); a jejune travelogue, Fear & Loathing, Deception & Denial in Nuclear Cloud Cuckoo Land, (when the talk turns serious, people, can we ditch the spurious Hunter S. Thompson references, please) by “award-winning photographer and writer” John Ashburne, in which it is imperative for understanding in the last third of the piece that the reader knows where the action takes place, but is offered no clue, although in the superannuated tradition of New Journalism, we are told the time and date with exquisite precision (“at 6.30pm on the evening of 8th August, 2012, I wandered back into the dining room of my humble hotel”); a wholly disingenuous piece by Eric Johnston, Can Nuclear Power Help Fight Global Warming?, in which he—rightly—lays out what a formidable ramp-up of nuclear capacity would be needed to replace fossil-fuel power plants globally by 2050, but then conveniently fails to lay out the even more formidable challenges replacing them with wind, water, and sun pose; an ostensibly muckraking article wholly mistitled Fukushima Workers and the Yakuza, by freelance journalist Tomohiko Suzuki, in which only one paragraph in three pages even mentions organized crime; and The Promise of Alternative Energy, by “well-known landscape artist” Brian Williams (et al), who appear to think that Flying Electric Generators tethered from up in the troposphere to earth and harnessing the trade winds will solve the world’s energy problems sometime soon. Why not extract sunlight from cucumbers while we’re about it?

The relative highlights are hard to come by, but in a book this diverse there have to be a few: journalist Winifred Bird provides two, one on how to “grow your own energy” (although on efficiency grounds I don’t share her optimism on locally sourced and consumed energy) and one on energy efficiency (where she is bloodhound-right on the scent of waste). The other is from “political maverick” Taro Kono, on the inanities and impossibilities of the nuclear reprocessing cycle, who manages—just—to crack the only joke in an otherwise humorless tome.

But what really exercise me are the errors. If there were an Olympics of Error for books, Fresh Currents would sweep podium after podium and stand proudly at the top of the medal rankings. The humble bronze for error goes to the endless typos, solecisms, and other editorial foul-ups: we are told, for instance, that Japan’s hydro plants (good) generated 76.9GW in 2009, when we’ve been told two pages before that the installed nuclear (bad) capacity is 46.15GW. So hydro has twice the “power” of nukes! What’s wrong, you ask? Well, output is measured in MW h or GW h, not MW or GW, and hydro mustered only 76.9mn Mw h of output in 2009, versus c280mn MW h for nukes. Some fool confused gigawatts with megawatts/hour. Then there’s the map (on p131) that purports to show “54 municipalities that have from 5% to 100% of their electricity supply produced by renewable energy”—but even a colorblind and barely numerate dunce would be able to count out nearly 50 municipalities on Hokkaido alone.

But for Fresh Currents these are minor SNAFUs. Silver goes to the map that claims to show The Seismic Threat to Japan’s Nuclear Network (on p20-21), on whose two pages I laboriously counted at least 37 mistakes (and I don’t have access to all of the underlying data), ranging from the trivial (asterisked footnotes with no asterisk above them, for instance) to the laughable—how could *anyone* with pretentions to anti-nuclear authority get the names of two of Japan’s 17 nuclear power plants wrong?

Gold, the undisputed gold, though, goes to a chart (on p46) that purports to delineate the contemporary Connections between Media & The Nuclear Industry. It begins like this:

NHK [Japan’s BBC]
Management Issue Committee, Gaishi Hiraiwa
(is also President of Tokyo Electric Power Co., Inc.)
and then moves on to the most powerful private-sector TV station:
NTV
Owner of Yomiuri Newspaper, Matsutaro Shoriki
(is also Chairman of Japan Atomic Energy Commission)

“That’s odd,” I thought, “I don’t remember any Hiraiwa serving as president of Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) in recent years. What’s the source for this chart?” It turned out to be an URL, which turned out to be a BBS, Expat Café (“A home for displaced souls”). You can see the original post here. “Hmm,” I thought, “Should books with ambitions to stake a place in a serious debate stoop to sourcing material from unsourced posts on bulletin boards? And where did this chart come from originally?” A moment rootling around the Interwebs turns up the book that looks to be the source, Dangerous Talk by Takashi Hirose, published in…1987. But it gets worse, for even back in 1987 this was a *historical* chart, as while Gaishi Hiraiwa (1914-2007) served as chairman of TEPCO (the above “president” is a mistranslation on the part of the Fresh Currents folks) from 1984 to 1993, Matsutaro Shoriki (1885-1969) was chair of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission for less than a year, that year being…1956. If wrong were a star, this chart would be a red supergiant.

“Details, schmetails,” you might say, “Enough with the captious pedant shtick,” but I would beg to disagree. Errors on this scale pulverize to smithereens the relationship of trust that must exist between reader and writer in a fact-dependent non-fiction work on an issue, the future of energy, that has to be thought through and debated in as dispassionate and an informed way as possible.

Dejected, I came to doubt more intensely a couple of dubious passages I’d ringed elsewhere, and went back to check on them. The first was this, by Eric Johnson in Can Nuclear Power Help Fight Global Warming?:

Some may argue that nuclear power plants will be built by major greenhouse gas emitters like China, which can afford to construct massive nuclear plants. Yet wind power, not nuclear, is growing by leaps and bounds in China. Chinese authorities, for all their pronouncements, have a long way to go to actually constructing the hundreds of nuclear plants they claim are on the drawing board.

On closer inspection, that last assertion, about “hundreds of nuclear plants” being on the Chinese drawing board, is obviously hyperbole, and I suspect the author knows it—and knew it even as he was writing it. This is the very essence of bullshit, as beautifully delineated by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, in On Bullshit:

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets [on truth and falsehood] are off: he is neither on the side of the true or the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.

Sourcing World Nuclear Association and China Electric Power News data, I find just 10 *new* nuclear plants under construction between 2010 and 2015 and eight more *new* ones planned for 2015-2020. Even at the reactor level, there are only 42 planned for 2015-2020. And what of this “long way” to construction? In spite of Fukushima, construction is proceeding much as planned (not that we should necessarily be rejoicing at that, but equally we shouldn’t let anti-nuclear hysteria blind us to what is actually happening). And is it wind, not nuclear, that’s growing by “leaps and bounds” in China? I resent having to get up off my fat arse (alright, stay on my fat arse) to research this, but I can tell you (not that you should be surprised), courtesy of the China Electricity Council, that what’s really growing in China is good old bronchitis-inducing coal, with 25.8GW of thermal capacity added in January-September 2012 versus 5.9GW for wind (down 10.6% on the year). Oh, and by the way, wind attracted RMB82.9bn in investment in 2011, down 7% on the year, only slightly more than nuclear, at RMB74.0bn, up 18%. What’s growing by leaps and bounds again?

The second was this, in Fear & Loathing, blah blah, about the still to be activated spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Rokkasho:

Like all the nuclear installations on the [Shimokita] peninsula, the Rokkasho plant lost electrical power after last year’s quake—the entire grid north of the town of Miyagi is wired in series, just like the proverbial fairy lights—and was forced to run on back-up generators never intended for extended use, until power was restored on March 22, 11 harrowing days later.

Really? My recollection was that power was restored to almost all of northern Japan within three or four days. A little rootle, and what did I find? A press release here (J) from Rokkasho operator Japan Nuclear Fuels Limited (JNFL) stating that power was restored on March 13, at 22:22, two days and eight hours after the earthquake. Once, in my criminal lawyering days, I met two men in different London police stations who both claimed to be Jesus, and as I noted later over drinks, at least one of them had to be wrong. In this case, wrong is not, I suspect, with JNFL. [And where is this “town” of Miyagi? Last time I looked, it was a prefecture (although there once was a town called Miyagi, absorbed into Sendai in…1987).]

At this point, I consigned my printout of Fresh Currents to the sharp and unforgiving teeth of the shredder.

The second saddest thing about Fresh Currents is that it is a monumental exercise in what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”, in which, prey to a passion, you argue back from your conclusion and ignore any inconveniences that might get in the way; the single saddest thing about it is that there is ample room, nay even a desperate need, for a book, written by a person (or persons) with a background in the relevant disciplines of maths/physics, civil engineering, economics, and—dare I say—evolutionary psychology (backgrounds that none of the authors of Fresh Currents possess), that lays out how we might just, against all odds, painfully, with much sacrifice, and against all of our hard-wired instincts for laziness, get to a zero-carbon society in Japan and the world in 2050, a book that might look like this. Pompously inflated with falsely righteous and indignant hot air, Fresh Currents so sadly isn’t it.

In praise of…Optimists

The chances that a small business will survive for five years in the United States are about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe that the statistics apply to them. … If you interviewed someone who recently opened an Italian restaurant, you would not expect her to have underestimated her prospects for success or to have a poor view of her ability as a restaurateur. But you must wonder: would she still have invested money and time if she had made a reasonable effort to learn the odds—or, if she did learn the odds (60% of new restaurants are out of business after three years), paid attention to them?

The Engine of Capitalism, in Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

A shaggy dog story

Dusk rolled down the shutters of the day as we were botanizing inland of the Okhotsk Sea on an old dirt-track logging road, Route 1055, in the borderlands between Monbetsu and Okoppe. Our supposed destination that evening, the windy city of Wakkanai at the northernmost tip of mainland Japan, lay still over 200km and at least three hours’ away. As usual, we were running late.

“How about going back to Monbetsu and getting up early to knock off the drive?” optimistically volunteered Dr. T, who in his natural habitat is rarely known to rise before ten.
“Why don’t we try and get halfway up the coast?” I groped on the map for a settlement of any size. “Say to Esashi?”
“Will there be anywhere to stay?”
“There’ll be somewhere,” I replied without conviction.

The Osaki Ryokan had been built not long after the war, volunteered a scion of the extended family who run it, and it showed, in the time-burnished floorboards and the plywood doors to our rooms.

“Are those where they keep the dead relatives?” quipped Dr. T, pointing to the row of chest freezers. To judge from the glimpse I had later of the family drawing room, with its row of severe oil portraits of deceased forebears above the fireplace, hung at an angle so they frowned down on the living, it was a plausible enough hypothesis. Dr T. declared that he needed an hour to process the fruits of the day’s pillaging and made it my mission to scout out somewhere to eat—and, more importantly, drink.

It was Saturday night but the streets of Esashi, famous—if famous for anything—famous for its kegani horsehair crabs, were deathly quiet, as quiet as the graves in which many of its residents already have one foot. You don’t by now, I’m sure, need me to rehearse the demography, but I will anyway: 1970 population 15,800; 2010 population 9,100 (down 42% in 40 years); projected 2035 population 5,900 (down another 36% in 25 years).

“It’s crunch time now for Japanese politics,” bellowed the enigmatic because unsponsored sign above a shop that, the two wall-mounted pillboxes hinted, had just made it into the age of the credit card. Was this a heartfelt cry from a lone individual, sick of petty politicking far to the south? What, if any, thoughts or actions was it intended to provoke? And how soon, exactly, was now?

Plaster and signboards were falling away to reveal the ancient woodwork below: this had once been a ceramic-ware store, but half of the Aegean sailboat sign had vanished. The sake-swilling pot-bellied tanuki badger reminded me of Dr. T—and myself.

There was something starkly heads-and-tails beguiling about the Suntory Bar Toi et Moi.

Back to the quest: spatters of chuckles and cackles filtered out through the cracks in a few red-lantern joints, but these joints I rejected, knowing of Dr T’s intense predilection for the alcohol of the grape over the grain. Almost next door to the ryokan, though, was a restaurant whose name, 4Quattro, betrayed Italian pretensions and the presence of wine. Inside was a revelation: the interior had plainly been very recently and very expensively kitted out in a chorus of chic beiges and blonde woods, with Marcel Breuer cantilevered-steel and cane-backed Cesca chairs from the heyday of Modernism (yes, I confess to a chair fetish), expansive tables with immaculate white tablecloths and dun under-tablecloths, and sensitive spot and recessed ceiling lighting. The assemblage would not for a moment have looked out of place in one of the world’s major metropolises—indeed, it would put many restaurants in many of them to shame.

4Quattro was run by a young local couple, perhaps on the cusp of their thirties, with gender roles entrenched: he manned the counter and cooked, she, baby strapped to breasts, flitted around the dining area, toting the near-unreadable moveable feast of the day’s handwritten blackboard specials. In the depraved lands from which Dr. T and I hail, she would be filed as a “yummy mummy” or more crudely as a MILF. The Esashi Tourism Board (yes, such a body exists), does 4Quattro no favors and underscores the highly gendered nature of the Japanese dining experience by making reference to a “chic interior perfect for women”. For a while, we had the restaurant to ourselves, but maybe a dozen diners had come and mostly gone, all but a couple of them female, by the time we drunk-tumbled out.

We were more interested in matters oenological than gastronomical, and the wine list—red or white, glass or bottle—was a let-down, but Dr. T, more of a globe-trotting gourmand than I, declared the grilled sea bream to be as fine as anything routinely rustled up in the better kitchens of London or New York. How long, I asked mummy, had they been open? About eighteen months. I didn’t have the heart to ask her to estimate her chances of surviving the next eighteen.

Subsequent investigation, courtesy of the Food Business Research Institute and other luminaries, suggest that the Japan bar and restaurant bankruptcy rate is only half that of the US, with a fifth of those founded in the three years previous to 1999 (but a quarter of rameneries and the like) having gone out of business. This might, paradoxically, be due to the greater caution of the Japanese entrepreneur. Still, the industry is contracting, with the number of bars and restaurants peaking at a scarcely credible 846,000 in 1991 (one for every 150 or so people) and falling to a still staggering 673,000 in 2009 (down 21%) and the market value peaking in 1997 at Y29.0trn and falling to Y23.6trn in 2010 (down 19%), a decline in both nominal and real terms, and 4Quattro is a very unlikely restaurant (in 2006, only about a tenth of all restaurants were classified as Western) with very high overheads in a very unlikely place, from whose already threadbare catchment area we can exclude the old, the young, the poor, the fisherfolk, and most men. I wouldn’t want to wager on 4Quattro’s chances of long-term survival but I am selfishly grateful for the optimistic bias of its instigators, even though that bias may ultimately come at great personal cost.

Furiously botanizing, toward Hamatonbetsu up the Okhotsk coast we trundled, as backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.

**********

Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they really are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We also tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters optimistic overconfidence. In terms of its consequences for decisions, the optimistic bias may well be the most significant of the cognitive biases.

Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Wake Wakkanai, or Cinema Paradiso, Hokkaido style

Although Wakkanai (from the Ainu yamu wakka nai, the swamp with the cold drinking water) features in all the best guidebooks, few Westerners ever make it there for the night. How few? In the year to end-March 2012, 30 Britons, 18 Germans, 123 Americans, 25 Canadians, and 46 Australians (ever the adventurers), that’s how few, according to the city’s preposterously comprehensive website.

“Everything’s brand new!” exclaimed Dr. T, gesturing with an arc of the arm at the 12-storey ANA Hotel (1994) and the sparkling station complex, which had been razed and rebuilt since my last visit three years before. “I’m beginning to suspect that Spike has been spouting guff all this time about the decay of rural Japan.”

Dr. T claims to be a depressive realist, usually prefacing references to optimists with an Anglo-Saxon expletive, but I was beginning to suspect that he had an unacknowledged streak of optimism buried deep within. Or that he was falling under the spell of the Potemkin Village bias that is one of Kahneman’s profoundest insights: What You See Is All There Is, or WYSIATI to its friends. Or that he simply delights in winding me up.

As Dr. T sieved fruit and catalogued the day’s plunder, I moseyed around the glossy new station.

Tell me what’s wrong with this picture. Give up? Allow me. Where do I start? First off, there’s noone on the bus. Not too surprising, you might think—it was a seven on a Sunday evening after all, and this could be taken as a sign of prosperity. Fair enough, let’s move on. Second, there’s only one taxi in the ranks; that there is one at all is a triumph of hope over experience, as the next—and last—train is not due in until 22:47, nigh on four hours’ maudlin wait away. Third, there is absolutely noone about, in vehicle or on foot. Fourth, and most intriguing, is that little neon-orange sign that blares out the single, magical word “CINEMA”. No, I tried to wrestle-reason with myself, no, no, noooo, surely nobody, however beholden to the opiate of optimism, could have… But they had.

I bought a platform ticket and eyed the timetable. Eight arrivals a day, eight departures a day, the last of which, the 19:24 to Horonobe, 60km to the south and with a 2010 population of 2,700, was idling away its last moments of leisure before chugging off. There were no passengers.

Later I was to discover that in fiscal 2009 Wakkanai station served just 266 train embarkers and disembarkers a day, that this number was down by a quarter in five years, that the platform count was reduced to one from two in the 2010 remodeling, and that the station, home to massive marshalling yards as late as the seventies, cannot now muster even a single set of points. To channel my imaginary potty-mouthed Jewish grandma superhero: and on this facelift you spent exactly how much?

About $50mn. Sorry grandma, I just couldn’t help it. B-b-b-but, I didn’t spend much of my money, please understand, most of the construction was financed by bonds and subsidies, so the bill will fall on future generations. “Putz!” Thwack! “Owww!”

Before I talk you (and myself) through the minutiae of the economics of movie theaters in Japan, let me take you by the hand and lead you through the (other) streets of Wakkanai, the ones that Catherine the Great—and Dr. T—didn’t see. Let’s start with a couple of aerial views, looking north from downtown.

The gaps that make the chessboard, now gone to grass or gravel, many being hawked as pay-by-the-month parking spaces, are empty lots filled with the specters of torn-down buildings—central Wakkanai was sardine-packed tight in the sixties—and give the district the air of a scaled-down rustbelt inner city in the US, although without the gun-toting, crack-peddling hoodlums. Level the many disused or underused buildings and the chessboard would open up further.

This grotty gem of a multi-tenanted zakkyo building, where we dined at the appropriately named Karaku (“Flower Pleasure”) on sashimi, is more representative of the architectural jewels of downtown Wakkanai than the new station complex.

Two very drunk men from the suburbs of Tokyo, celebrating their liberation from salaryman serfdom at sixty with a whistle-stop road-trip circuit of Hokkaido, discussed past and future routes with a passion I would not have been able to predict it was possible to possess. On noticing us, the more voluble of the pair established our native place and raised a wobbly glass.

“Aaah, Igirisu, totemo ii kuni da! Ōshitsu ga aru kara! Japan, ōshitsu! England, ōshitsu! Very good!”
“What’s he saying?”
“He’s saying that England and Japan must be united in friendship because of their royal family and imperial household.”
“Why on earth does he think that?”
I was tempted to offer a republican toast, “Up the ōshitsu!”, but restrained myself.

Suddenly, the man’s face grew serious. He uttered a guttural growl and fell off his barstool.

To the right of Karaku is a bar emblazoned with declarations of fan fervor for four of Hokkaido’s pro and semi-pro sport teams: the Nippon Ham Fighters (baseball), Consadole Sapporo (soccer), Levanga Hokkaido (basketball), and Espolada Hokkaido (futsal). Sport fans are prey to the most optimistic of biases—the blind conviction, in the face of often onrushing lava streams of evidence to the contrary, that this season the pennant will come to its rightful home—but aside from the Ham (or the Meat Packers, as their sponsors unromantically call themselves in English), who are a regular presence in the Japan Series, the performances of this quartet must test the sunniest of dispositions. Consadole Sapporo oscillate between the first and second divisions, have never won anything other than promotion, and are about to be demoted to the second, demotion determined more swiftly than it has been for any J-League team, on a current record of played 29, won four, drawn two, lost 23, and a -49 goal difference. Levanga Hokkaido have only once tasted more victories than defeats in the five seasons since they were formed, have finished last twice and second-to-last twice in the eight-team Japan Basketball League, and started the 2012-2013 season with five straight losses. That the team features a guard who is 42 years old does not inspire confidence for their prospects. Espolada Hokkaido finished last season in ninth place in the ten-team Futsal League. Testosterone levels in the bar must be semi-permanently depressed.  

Out-of-the-way spots like Wakkanai are the last bastions of that endangered species, the unchained coffee shop. The intense slab-serif font is for me a madeleine ticket back to childhood.

Fancifully, I like to kid myself that the blue-bonneted woman waiting for the bus in Wakkanai, 2012, is the child in this photo, waiting for the bus in Wakkanai half a century before, and that the bus, like Godot, never came—and never will.

It’s the contrast between public-sector affluence and private-sector squalor, precisely the opposite of what prevails in the West, that’s so mesmerizing. To drape this trio with a negligee of statistics, the number of shops in Wakkanai fell by a quarter between 1999 and 2007, the number of people they employed fell by close to a fifth, and their aggregate annual sales fell by a sixth.

Historically, the Wakkanai economy rested on three planks: the fisheries, farming, and tourism. The fisheries were the first to be hit, with the Soviet Union’s 1977 imposition of a 200 nautical mile exclusive fishing zone; the catch fell by four-fifths between 1976 and 2008 and its value by two-thirds. The implosion of the fisheries coincided with the population peak in 1975, at 55,500. By 2010, the population had fallen by close to 30%, to 39,600, due mainly to an exodus of young people in search of work. If you are going to run a successful cinema, young people are what you need, and Wakkanai does not have many of those, or at least not nearly as many as it once did: the population of 15-29 year olds more than halved in the three decades between 1975 and 2005 and fell by more than a quarter in the decade between 1995 and 2005 alone. As measured by production value, farming—mostly dairy cattle—peaked in 1985 and has been gently ebbing ever since, with the number of farm households falling by a third between 1990 and 2005. Fickle tourism stepped in to fill the breach.

That this ghastly 1952 trawler owner’s residence has been turned into a museum should be enough to convince that Wakkanai itself is bereft of tourist charm: its appeal lies chiefly as a portal to the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, and in particular the volcanic-dramatic  island of Rishiri, seen here at dusk.

Wakkanai then fell prostrate victim to one of the cruelest and oddest of boomlets, the remote island boom (離島ブーム) of 1998-2002. The total tourist count, including day-trippers, peaked in 2002 at 818,000 and fell 43% to 456,600 in 2011, while the total number of nights spent in Wakkanai accommodation peaked in the same year at 473,700 and fell 25% to 356,500 in 2011, as tourists were lured away by whatever the TV wide-shows told them was hot that season. In 2002, Wakkanai was declared a kaso chiiki, a district of underpopulation, and by 2007, according to an admittedly unsourced comment at the Wakkanai Wikipage, 29.9% of Wakkanaikers were telling municipal pollsters they either wanted to move out of the city or were actually planning to do so.

“And into this you built not just a cinema, but a miniplex with three screens and 250 seats?”

On the day after I returned to Tokyo, an optimistic article in the Nikkei—and the Nikkei, which sees its primary responsibility as being to rustle those pom-poms as a cheerleader for corporate Japan, always likes to look on the bright side of life—enthused about how entrepreneurs are endeavoring to infuse fresh life into smaller cinemas, defined here as ones having fewer than five screens (a category into which T-Joy Wakkanai most definitely falls) by making them more distinctive, but even the optimism of the Nikkei could not disguise the bleakness of the outlook for smaller cinemas, whose nationwide screen-count, it reported, had fallen by 60% in the last decade, from around 1,250 to 500. Another Nikkei article I unearthed revealed that annual ticket sales had been pancake flat at 160mn-170mn last decade, before cratering to 145mn in the crisis year of 2011. As go ticket sales, so go box office revenues, which held steady at around Y200bn for a decade before slumping to Y180bn last year.

“And into this you built a miniplex and have the temerity to charge Y1,800 ($22.50) a ticket, when incomes in Wakkanai are half those of Tokyo, where tickets cost the same?”

My rule-of-thumb—whence it came I know not—has always been that no cinema, either miniplex or multiplex, is viable in a Japanese city with fewer than 100,000 potential cineastes. Was I right, though? Anoraks on and away we go! There are only three places on Hokkaido with fewer than 90,000 people that have cinemas: Wakkanai, Nayoro (31,000), home to a magnificent 1973 single-screen flea-pit, the Nayoro Daiichi Denkikan (the Nayoro Number One Electric Pavilion, 名寄第一電気館), named in tribute to the first cinema in Japan, and Urakawa (14,000), home to the 93-year old, 48-seat Daikokuza (Big Black Theater, 大黒座), both of which are firmly on my next Hokkaido itinerary. In contrast, everywhere with more than 90,000 people has at least one multi-screen movie house.

Anorak aglow with excitement, I expanded my unscientific analysis to 10 randomishly chosen ruralish prefectures and found just four cinemas in places smaller than Wakkanai: two were in the suburb-shadows of biggish cities, one was a 96-seater relic in the Tochigi town of Motegi (14,000), and one a true mystery. (If anyone can explain why there is an eight-screen, 1,494-seat multiplex in the Ishikawa city of Kahoku [34,000], do please get in touch). Between them, these 10 prefectures have 46 cities with populations between 40,000 and 90,000, but just six have commercial cinemas. However, there are only five cities with more than 120,000 folk that are cinema-less, the largest being Ashikaga (152,000) in Tochigi. My rule-of-thumb, it turns out, was more or less on the money.

There are two ways of forensically examining the viability of a cinema: from the inside and from the outside. Not having access to the books of T-Joy Wakkanai, which is owned by a subsidiary of one of the old Golden Age Big Six movie studios, Toei, we’ll have to go for the outside approach. Time to brush up that kindergarten maths… T-Joy manages to squeeze 20 showings out of its three Wakkanai screens (wring that asset dry!)

Theater 1: 66 seats, seven showings = 462 people/day
Theater 2: 86 seats, six showings = 516 people/day
Theater 3: 98 seats, seven showings = 686 people/day
Total: 1,664 people/day

At the 2010 census population of 39,600, it would take just 24 days for whole of Wakkanai to go to the cinema once. Assume 1.33 cinema visits a year, the national average of late, and it would take 32 days for the whole of Wakkanai to complete the ritual of its annual movie excursions. What happens in the other 11 months of the year?

Alternatively, look at it like this: 1,664 seats/day x 365 days a year = 607,360 people/year capacity; with 52,669 visits @ 1.33/year = seat occupancy rate of 8.7%.

So now you know: if you turn up one icy February day in Wakkanai, when the wind chill makes it feel like twenty below, and fancy catching a matinee, you probably won’t need to book ahead. Whoever said that Spike serves no practical purpose?

Eight point seven percent. That is a vanishingly low occupancy rate for a bums-on-seats operation: hoteliers, railway operators, and airlines only stop sweating and start smiling when their occupancy rates hit 60%-70%. As it turned out though, I had more to learn about the business model of the movie world, and learn it I did, from Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis, by Harold L. Vogel, writing here of the US:

It can be determined that in 2009, the maximum theoretical annual gross, based on 39,717 screens, was about $286 million per day or about $104 billion per year. The industry obviously operated well below its theoretical capacity, because there are many parts of the week and many weeks of the year during which people do not have the time or inclination to fill empty theater seats: in 2009, the industry’s average occupancy rate per seat per week was roughly 2.3 times, and box office receipts of around $10.6 billion in 2009 were thus only around 10.2% of theoretical capacity.

So T-Joy Wakkanai might after all be only a percentage point or two from normality—and, presumably, profitability! Don’t get too optimistic. This begs the question of why small-city Japan isn’t stuffed to the gills with miniplexes, to which my best, uninformed, answer is that the economies of scale only kick in at above, say, a 500-seat, five-screen level: much of what little money there is to be made from showing movies comes from the food and beverage (F&B) concession, with its 80% (my guess) cola and popcorn margins, which can be run by one uneconomically for 100 punters or economically for 500. (Should you be interested, by the way, T-Joy Wakkanai is hiring for its F&B concession, although at the low end of the Y680-Y850 hourly wage range, it will take you more than two-and-a-half hours to coin the dough to watch a flick). And what of the future? The projected 2035 population of 26,700, which may need to be cut given recent rates of outflow, and only one cinema visit a year yields a seat occupancy rate of 4.4%, at which point, presumably, T-Joy would pull the plug—although subsidies (and parent earnings) can soothe the sting of failure for so long…

Back in the sixties, Wakkanai had four cinemas—here you can see the Wakkanai Nippon Gekijo in all its tatty glory, showing a 1961 Michael “play it, Sam” Curtiz/John Wayne oater, The Comancheros (no wonder so many with a shred of sense gave up on the movies)—but the last one closed its doors in 1988, done in by the usual suspects.

All that was left, then, was to track down the optimists behind the cinema revival. They had, I figured, to be local, and they had to be dreamers.

Yukihiro Fujita, chair of the company, Saihoku Cinema (a consortium of eight local construction companies), that administers the nuts and bolts of the miniplex, and Ippei Takahashi, the president, first meet in 1992 when Takahashi, who was running a video rental store, calls on Fujita, the boss of a construction company, Fuji Kensetsu, to expand his store. Takahashi had long been hurt by criticism that he and his ilk had killed the cinema, while Fujita was shocked when his young son misidentified the local culture center as a movie theater. In 2001, the pair take undubbed anime movies without subtitles to Sakhalin, where they receive a rapturous reception from the local children, and they awaken to the presence of cinemas everywhere on the island. What exactly happens next is glossed over in the sole interview with them I was able to dig up, but with Fujita the chair of the Wakkanai Construction Association and thus a pillar of the community, it’s not hard to imagine. Fujita claims that breakeven comes at 60,000 bums-on-seats a year (so I was, gratifyingly, not at all far off in my guesstimate), which would require 1.5 cinema visits/year from the good burghers of Wakkanai, but he defines the catchment area as anywhere within a 90km radius of Wakkanai, in which 78,000 live, and aims for annual attendance of 100,000. Much as I sympathize with the aspirations of the optimist, I struggle to conceive of anyone in, say, Esashi making a 180km round-trip on roads treacherous with ice half the year for the disposable visual and auditory pleasures of—what’s on this week?—The Bourne Legacy, The Hunger Games, or Bayside Shakedown: The Final.

Yet on they dream, the optimists, and on they build.

**********

The evidence suggests that an optimistic bias plays a role—sometimes the dominant role—whenever individuals or institutions voluntarily take on significant risks. More often than not, risk takers underestimate the odds they face, and do not invest sufficient effort to find out what the odds are. Because they misread the risks, optimistic entrepreneurs often believe they are prudent, even when they are not.

Thinking, Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman

Bitter oranges

“There’s a place just over the road that’s calling itself a bistro and looks like it’ll have a decent enough supply of Chateau Chunder.”
Dr T’s Aomori City hotel room floor was strewn with scores of seed-filled Manila envelopes, while the bathroom floor had sprouted a muddy volcano of soil, leaf-litter, and amorphous forest detritus. Had the room been fitted with ceiling-embedded surveillance cameras, he would have faced instant arrest as a one-man mobile drug laboratory.
“With you in ten!”

Bistro Daidai, we learned at the end of yet another wine-trodden evening, was named after the bitter orange (aka 橙, “the climbing tree”, Citrus aurantium var. daidai, Seville orange, sour orange, bigarade orange, and marmalade orange). Why, I never got so far as to ask. It had three tables seating four and half-a-dozen seats at the counter. We were the first customers that Friday night. There were three twentysomethings behind the counter, a woman and two men, one of whom cackhandedly spilt wine all over the table—and me. The table was mopped clean and toweled dry but I was left with bruise-blotched trousers. How long had they been open? About four months, came the reply.

Dr. T grew glum. “You know, we don’t do these micro-restaurants in the UK.” Dr. T likes to claim that sauce-soaked years of depression have dulled his sense of empathy, but as a former junk-bond analyst well versed in the ways and woes of troubled enterprises, a man who once described himself in an essay titled On Optimism as “Mozart to the Salieri of really bad decisions”, a twice married (“the triumph of hope over experience”) part-owner of a London trattoria, and a (necessarily optimistic) nursery entrepreneur who flirts with failure the way a lothario flirts with the ladies, I could tell that, as we wolfed down pâté de campagne that would not have disgraced a prix fixe menu in the Dordogne, he was sizing up the bistro’s chances of survival—and was pained at the message the mental spreadsheet sent.

Conversation turned to the contrasting approaches to bankruptcy in the US, the UK, and Japan, with Dr T sagely concluding that the UK offers the worst of all worlds: in the US the banks are quick to call in loans but there is little stigma attached to bankruptcy, in Japan there is stigma but the banks are infinitely forbearing, while in the UK the banks are brutes and the stigma remains acute.

Later, alone, I cradled a glass of red up to one of the city’s busiest intersections and loitered awhile, tallying up the percentage of taxis with passengers this Friday night—about one in ten. It was hard, I felt keenly, to be optimistic about the fate of Bistro Daidai. 

To the outsider, Japan, with its stratospheric suicide rate and sober demeanor, is not obviously a hotbed of optimism, and indeed the Japanese delight in telling pollsters that they will cede to noone in their pessimism about their nation’s prospects, but I would invite you to take the three case studies above, and the optimism embedded in the sundry acts of creation, as evidence, albeit fragmentary and partial, to the contrary. This should come as no great surprise, though, as psychologists and neuroscientists have made great strides in recent decades in the study of the enigma of optimism, and the evidence is mounting that we have been hard-wired by evolution to be genetically (more or less) optimistic. Here’s Tali Sharot, neuroscientist and author of The Optimism Bias: Why We’re Wired to Look on the Bright Side, on our ingrained propensity for optimism:

How is it that people maintain this rosy bias even when information challenging our upbeat forecasts is so readily available? Only recently have we been able to decipher this mystery, by scanning the brains of people as they process both positive and negative information about the future. The findings are striking: when people learn, their neurons faithfully encode desirable information that can enhance optimism but fail at incorporating unexpectedly undesirable information. When we hear a success story like Mark Zuckerberg’s, our brains take note of the possibility that we too may become immensely rich one day. But hearing that the odds of divorce are almost one in two tends not to make us think that our own marriages may be destined to fail.

Why would our brains be wired in this way? It is tempting to speculate that optimism was selected by evolution precisely because, on balance, positive expectations enhance the odds of survival. Research findings that optimists live longer and are healthier, plus the fact that most humans display optimistic biases—and emerging data that optimism is linked to specific genes—all strongly support this hypothesis.

Perhaps you’re an optimist—or at least some of your best friends are optimists (likely). Perhaps you think that tomorrow really will be better than today, and the day after tomorrow will be better still (unlikely), or that, like Charlie Brown, this time Lucy really won’t take away the football at the last moment (very unlikely), or that the Japanese stock market really will one day recapture its Bubble luster (still more unlikely). [Finance industry wisecrack: “What’s the definition of an optimist?” “A Japanese equity portfolio manager who irons five shirts on a Sunday night.”] Perhaps even I, guilty as I am of entrepreneurial acts, perhaps even I am an optimist. If you are an optimist, then I wouldn’t want you on my team if I were planning something novel and resource-intensive—bring me the morose and misanthropic. But praise be heaped on the shoulders of those who sacrifice their wealth, if not their health, to bring us, however fleetingly, eateries where none, in a world of depressive realists, would be, and on the shoulders of those who conspired to restore the simple magic of projector, screen, and dark expectant hush to a struggling city at the end of the world.

In praise of…The Oma-Hakodate ferry

I too board the ferryboat alone.
Staring at the freezing seagulls, I cry.
Oh, Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene…
Farewell my love, I’m going home.
The wind shakes my heart, just brings tears.
Oh, Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene.

Tsugaru Straits, a winter scene, Sayuri Ishikawa, 1977

“Nostalgic sea route” says the nostalgic black-and-white poster in the ferry corridor, opting for the English word for “nostalgic”, rendered in katakana, over the Japanese one. It chronicles how services started on the Oma-Hakodate run in 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics, with the redoubtably named Daikan Maru. Another boat was added in 1965, another in 1968, another in 1969, another in 1970, and another in 1971, the year of the Nixon shock. A former ferry crewman tells on the poster of a dozen round-trip sailings a day on the then two hour, now a hundred minute, voyage back in the Showa Forties (1965-1975); later, on a 1971 timetable at the ferry operator’s website, I count 15 sailings, many deep in the night.

Then something goes awry: no more new ferries join the route and the older ones are pensioned off, I believe, in the seventies and eighties. In 1988 the ferry to whose walls this poster is pinned, the bafflingly named Vayu, is commissioned, and these days she is the only one left on the Oma-Hakodate run, which is down to two sailings a day—and she was not even a third full on the off-season weekday I found myself poring over this poster. What went wrong? It can only be speculation, but I would wager that growing affluence and falling airfares robbed the ferries first of their foot traffic and then the spread of the rental car and the cult of convenience robbed them of their vehicle traffic. No trains or planes link tiny Oma with the rest of Japan; the only passage in is a crawl along the top of Honshu, three hours and a hundred miles north of an expressway.

White squares of paper inscribed in nautical blue with our destination—not that there are ferries out of Oma to anywhere other than Hakodate—placed on our dashboards, we clang up the gangramp and—“Fold your mirrors!” shout the orange jump-suited ferrymen over the thrum—clamber up the steep steel staircases to the passenger deck. At the stern, exposed to the elements, are rows of backward-facing plastic molded bucket seats bolted to steel bars, and into one I slump as the gritty tang of diesel fumes, so foreign to these antiseptic shores and so welcome, begins to bite, as a storm brews over the mountains behind Oma to the south and the sun from the east illuminates a wheel-handle of what if any consequence I know not, dripping with white paint-icicles that foretell this autumn morning of the winter ahead.

In their world of drab industrial greens, a world no stranger to the ship will ever know, the ferrymen winch in their python ropes that tie us to land and the Vayu shudders and judders into awful life.

Departure is a process of shedding, of casting away, the sloughing off of the skeins that tangle us on land, an escape into a purer, elemental world of sea and sun and sky, a world bereft of pachinko parlors and home improvement centers and Y100 thrift stores—although we carry with us the grubby landlubber crimes (no seafarer would doubt our guilt) of instant noodles and ancient coffee.

Flitting from port to starboard, starboard to port, leaning on the low balustrades with their topmost rail the texture and color of teak, I marvel at the guts of the ferry, the slathered coats and recoats of paint, the hooks and eyes, the stencils and hoops, the lifeboat gantries and the modern crows’ nest and the icy lights, drinking in every last clasp and bolt.

The Vayu is in her last seasons of life in this incarnation: after a quarter of a century plying the Tsugaru Straits, she is to be replaced by a new Daikan Maru in spring next year. Will she see another quarter of a century of service in some poor, watery nation like the Phillipines or Bangladesh, I wonder, or is she destined to head straight for the scrapyard? Allusive press releases on the ferry operator’s website speak of a ferocious tussle fought by Oma to keep the route alive against the operator’s will, of compensation for losses incurred in recent years, and of promises by Oma to shoulder the entire cost of the new ferry in return for a pledge by the operator not to downsize. So the new ferry will be longer, heavier, and able to carry more passengers (478 versus 470, to be precise) than the Vayu. Not that a sparkling new ferry, regrettably, will make the route viable again without lashings of subsidies, subsidies that Oma may be gambling that it can afford with its half-finished and now hugely controversial nuclear power plant.

Half-way out, half-way home, somewhere on the roiling, oily-black waters of the Tsugaru Straits—where it matters not—current tugging the boat east into the Pacific, engine and propeller fighting back, we cross the invisible Blakiston Line, the silent marker of a biogeographic discontinuity much less familiar than the Wallace Line that seperates Southeast Asia and Australia, named after the Victorian gentleman of leisure and adventure Thomas Wright Blakiston (1832-1891), he of the largest and rarest Fish Owl, a man once described as having an acute “sensitization to the strange”, who first hypothesized—correctly, as it turns out—that the deep Tsugaru Straits, unlike the shallower La Pérouse Straits that separate Hokkaido and Sakhalin, never permitted a land-bridge to form between Hokkaido and Honshu during the last glacial maximum, which explains elegantly, among many other natural phenomena, why there are grizzlies on Hokkaido and black bears on Honshu and macaques on Honshu but not on Hokkaido. It’s this, the Blakiston Line, I come to appreciate after ten days of botanizing with Dr. T, as much as any human intervention, which renders Hokkaido and its birch-white forests so other-worldly to a visitor from the south.

My fellow passengers are listless; for them ferry time is a caesura in the prosody of their lives. A lanky lad, encrusted with barnacles of silver jewelry, yaps animatedly into a mobile then crumples into a heap. Most sprawl and splay, sleep or read, chat or stare idly into space on their little shoeless islands.

Port side, another ferry, this one steaming up from Aomori, appears on the mirage of the horizon first as a trio of grey grain elevators, then as a gunmetal battleship jacked up out of the water as if on hydrofoils, as shearwaters skate across the polite whitecaps and the lipstick slit of a Korean VLCC (very large crude carrier) sidles westward into view.

Up looms Mount Hakodate, atop which a statue of Blakiston watches over us; soon I can pick out to the west the Kami’iso cement works, with its monstrous marine centipede of a loading jetty marching out a couple of kilometers into the ocean.

Interminable announcements presage arrival and send us scurrying down into the bowels to our cars and campervans, past tires strung up as improvised cushions and inscrutable numeric runes, impatient for the giant yellow and green gape of the ferry’s jaws to slack open, and as we wait, I reflect back on how, gazing from the starboard balustrade at the great sweep of the straits out into the Pacific, it felt as if the Vayu was the sister of every boat, from coracle to catamaran, that had ever sailed, just a boat, like all boats, in sea and sun and sky, a naked bridge between two worlds.

Spike is on holiday

Spike is off on holiday with his mad botanist and evolutionary biologist amigo, Dr. T, to the wettest, boggiest, squelchiest bits of Hokkaido, in search of highly toxic Veratrum sp. herbs. It could all go a bit Hunter S. If I live, you’ll hear more in November. In the meantime, I leave you with this (I think) guilessly lovely snippet from the now almost forgotten UK poet and writer James Kirkup, on Tokyo in 1959–how times change–or do not:

Everywhere people were walking, trotting, running, cycling, driving along helter-skelter on tiny three-wheeled trucks; there was a lorry load of blue-bloomered, apple-cheeked working women with white cloths draped round their heads, smiling and waving at me; there were sturdy blue-jeaned boys with white towels knotted round their shaven pates and riding rickety bicycles, holding the handlebars with only one muscular brown hand, while the other bore aloft above the right shoulder a tall pile of trays and dishes and bowls full of noodles and steaming soup. Farther on there were women in kimono and wooden pattens, pattering along, carrying rosy-faced babies on their backs, wrapped in padded, quilted, flowery capes. I glimpsed a jovial granny dandling a baby by jigging up and down with it on her back. Vans decorated with banners and balloons and flags and streamers for the New Year whizzed passed our sedate limousine in a mad flurry of vermilions, blues, greens and a frenzy of flickering black characters on rattling cloth pennants. Everything was sharp, quick, keen, a little too hectic. It was like looking at a speeded-up film. And the noise was deafening.

Idiot Wind: Thomas Pascoe

Idiot wind, blowing every time your move your mouth,
Blowing down the backroads heading south,
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You’re an idiot babe,
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Idiot Wind, Bob Dylan

Sometimes I get tired of doing all the heavy lifting. So welcome to an occasional feature in which you get to do it for me! Here’s an “article” from The Telegraph, which I believe once used to be a semi-serious, if comically Conservative, newspaper (remember them) in the UK. Tell me what’s wrong, after the bio, with the following (link to the full article at the headline). Or you could tell Mr Pascoe directly at his contact details below:

Thomas Pascoe worked in both the Lloyd’s of London insurance market and in corporate finance before joining the Telegraph. He writes about the financial markets. His email is thomas.pascoe@telegraph.co.uk and his Twitter address is @PascoeTelegraph

At last, Japan may be about to abandon its disastrous Keynesian consensus

The world’s third largest economy is in crisis. That, in itself is not news. The world’s largest economy is also in crisis, as is its second, as is…

What is newsworthy is that, having tried and failed with every other option, the Japanese government may be taking a remarkably novel approach. It appears as though they are going to try to spend close to what they receive in taxation. The Keynesian consensus is coming to an end in Japan, although not before it has wrought enormous damage to one of the world’s great economies.

“The government running out of money is not a story made up. It’s a real threat,” said Japan’s finance minister Jun Azumi on Friday. Opposition parties in Japan are blocking a deficit financing bill which would allow the government to continue to drive its debt levels above 200pc of GDP. If the opposition holds firm, the government has threatened the unthinkable – it will spend less. Tax rises are also on the table, although the doubling of sales tax to 10pc will not come fully into force until 2015.

(abridged)

However, Japan’s horizons have been blighted by cloud for much of the past two decades. If anything, those clouds are now blackening. The long-term impact of the Fukushima explosion, in terms of public health, is anyone’s guess. The clean-up work undertaken in and around the plant since the explosion has been exceptional. However, there is every chance that the generation coming to maturity in the next two decades may be blighted by significant levels of incapacity, hampering the economy and requiring even greater state spending.

The Japanese may have arrived at the idea of moving towards a balanced budget both 20 years late and by accident, but it offers them a chance to consolidate and restore order to the public finances. At a time when public appetite for government debt has fallen to a seven-year low, reducing borrowing is not just the sensible option, it’s the only one left.

Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the Psychology of Nuclear Power

Part Three

Good technologies have few costs in the imaginary world in which we inhabit, bad technologies have no benefits, and all decisions are easy.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (TF&S)

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic.

David J. C. MacKay, Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air

 My interest in K-K and the psychology of nuclear power was first piqued by a fruitless search of the world’s favorite online bookseller for something, anything, in English and worthy of a read on the debacle of Fukushima Daiichi. Granted, it has only been 18 months since the events of 3/11 and the topic is a monstrous challenge, but what has been written is nothing but bilge. I’m going to pick on one book, Silence Deafening—Fukushima Fallout … A Mother’s Response, by one Kimberly Roberson. No, I haven’t read it, beyond what is available for free at the bookseller, but as the old saw has it, you don’t have to eat an addled egg to know it’s rotten. Here’s the beginning of the blurb on the back cover:

A CALL TO ACTION: Nuclear disasters and lessons learned. Facts are facts. There have been at least three major nuclear power disasters to date: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima Daiichi’s unprecedented three nuclear meltdowns in 2011, the worst in history. … Do we wait for another life threatening catastrophic event, or do we act now?

So facts are facts, are they? What I adore about this pronouncement is that it is immediately followed up by a “fact” that is not a “fact”, but a highly contentious assertion, to put it mildly, that the meltdowns at Daiichi were “the worst in history”. The author’s “logic” appears to be that as there was only one meltdown at Chernobyl and three at Daiichi, Daiichi must therefore have been the world’s worst nuclear accident. It’s a matter of simple maths, you see. “Facts are facts” is one of my most beloved nonsensical expressions, right up there with “common sense”: it seems to obey the law of identity, that A is A, the first of the three classic laws of thought, known since at least the time of Aristotle; indeed it appears to be a tautology, but if your “facts” are not “facts” but “dubious assertions” or “downright lies”, you’re left with a very different pair of tautologies—and we haven’t even touched on the epistemological and historiographical slipperiness of facts. That “facts” might not be facts can be gleaned from the wondrous facts-are-facts.com, where we can learn from one Ursula Seiler that:

Jellyfish are essentially chiming bells that swim in the sea. Large jellyfish consist of entire melodies; small jellyfish individual notes … The increasing numbers of jellyfish appearing for example in the Baltic Sea is … a direct result of the ever-present music pumped out of our radios, department stores, etc. that makes up the soundtrack to our everyday life; this active music-making is chiefly what generates the existence of these creatures. Evidently, then, jellyfish epidemics are chiefly the result of mass-produced music.

Evidently. Or why not try this on for size:
Evidently, then, mass-produced music is chiefly the result of jellyfish epidemics.
It’s about as logical back-to-front as front-to-back. But to revisit the blurb:

There have been at least three major nuclear power disasters to date: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima Daiichi’s unprecedented three nuclear meltdowns in 2011, the worst in history.

One of the fascinating consequences of Daiichi, and one that has gone wholly unremarked, is that it gave the world not one but two triptychs of calamity. To deal with this one first: notice how the word “three” recurs thrice in the sentence above—three disasters, one of which was Three Mile Island, and three reactor meltdowns at Daiichi. The triptych of calamity even embeds the word “three” within it: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. This is as fine an example as you’ll come across of the Rule of Three at work, a rule to which I ascribe an almost mystical power—take the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, and the world’s three monotheistic religions, for instance, or the three states of matter, gas, solid, and liquid, the three states of time, past, present, and future, the three primary colors, red, blue, and green, and the abundance of triumvirates, trilogies, and triunes, triads, troikas, and trinities, triplicities, tricoleurs, and hendiatris in our languages. The Rule of Three is, aside from my awful affection for alliteration (and a fondness for parenthetical asides), the only artifice I consciously employ in what I write, and if you’ve read this trio (so far) of posts from the start, you’ll have come across the Rule of Three at its merrily silent work, ooh, somewhere between 33 and 333 times already—although I’ll give you 3,333-to-one against that you’ll have noticed.

So, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima—these are the Big Three nuclear calamities, then, this is a true triptych, yes? Ah, no, at least not if we accept the validity of the inevitably subjective International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) of the IAEA, with the caveat that the IAEA is incorrigibly pro-nuclear. Chernobyl and Fukushima are rated “level seven: major accident”, the highest rating, but Three Mile Island is rated only “level five: accident with wider consequences”, a rating it shares with four other incidents, most of which will be unfamiliar to you in a way that Three Mile Island is not. But there’s a solitary “level six: serious accident”—the Kyshtym disaster in the (then) Soviet Union, on 29 September, 1957—so the true triptych should read Kyshtym, Chernobyl, Fukushima. Why don’t you—in all likelihood—know anything about Kyshtym? Well, first and foremost because the Soviet Union in the 1950s was not the most open—or safety conscious—of societies. Indeed, the accident is only known as Kyshtym because the east Ural city where it actually occurred, Ozyorsk (aka Chelyabinsk-40), was a closed city not on any maps, and while it now has a cartographical presence, it remains a closed city to this day, and it took some six months for news of the accident to filter out. Second, because 1957 is such an awfully long time ago, and because of the recency bias, our evolved human psychology is inclined to overweight the significance of recent events and underweight remote ones. And third, because unless you are a Russian speaker, you can’t pronounce “Kyshtym” (I believe it’s close to “Kuishtoim”), and words you can’t pronounce you can’t easily remember. Incidentally, you probably can’t pronounce “Chernobyl” either, but you think you can, and that’s good enough, whereas the unfamiliar Kyshtym, with its wall of consonants, looks unpronounceable, and that’s enough to intimidate.

So let’s compare the false triptych and the true:
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima
Kyshtym, Chernobyl, Fukushima

Do you notice anything? In the false, the accidents are spread geographically across three continents, the Americas, Europe, and Asia, and occur in two of the world’s three largest economies and (what was then part of) its largest country. In the true, two out of the three occur in the chronically closed and safety-contemptuous Soviet Union. Perceptions shift. These are, loosely and laterally, what Kahneman calls framing effects: put simply, the great difference in your reaction immediately before an operation you are about to undergo on being told either that that the survival rate is 90% or the mortality rate is 10%.

What if we add in the dates?
Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), Fukushima (2011)
Kyshtym (1957), Chernobyl (1986), Fukushima (2011)

Perceptions shift again: while the false triptych suggests a run-rate of a “serious” or “major” accident once a decade, as recency bias blocks out the nuclear quarter-century before 1979, the true suggests a run-rate of every couple of decades. This doesn’t mean that we should necessarily expect any run-rate, given the paucity of the denominator in the equation “cumulative years of safe global nuclear power plant operation divided by serious or major accident”, simply that this is how we psychologically perceive a run-rate.

An admittedly crude way of looking at historical accident rates is to assign the 25 INES level four to seven nuclear accidents that have involved far-field radiation releases since the dawn of the nuclear age a point score—say 5pts for a level four accident, 10pts for a level five, 15pts for a level six, and 25pts for a level seven—and break them out over the decades. Then we multiply by a thousand and divide by total net installed nuclear electrical capacity at end-decade to get a very rough metric of accident severity per megawatt, decade by decade.

1940s: 5pts (no commercial reactors in operation in 1949)
1950s: 50pts = 50,000 ÷ 548MW = 91.2
1960s: 40pts = 40,000 ÷ 14,121MW = 2.8
1970s: 40pts = 40,000 ÷ 117,814MW = 0.34
1980s: 40pts = 40,000 ÷ 311,942MW = 0.13
1990s: 5pts = 5,000 ÷ 347,368MW = 0.0144
2000s: 0pts  NA
2010s (to date): 25pts = 25,000 ÷ 370,705MW (end-2009) = 0.0674

You don’t have to be Sherlock to notice a trend. However, if you don’t want to have any truck with the pro-nuclear IAEA’s INES, there’s an alternative: the nuclear accident magnitude scale (NAMS) developed by nuclear-skeptic David Smythe, professor of geophysics at Glasgow University. Here I add up the cumulative magnitudes, decade by decade, of the 17 INES level four to seven nuclear accidents for which he has been able to calculate a NAMS magnitude of severity and again multiply by a thousand and divide by total net installed nuclear electrical capacity at end-decade.

1940s: 3.8 (no commercial reactors in operation in 1949)
1950s: 21.4 = 21,400 ÷ 548MW = 39.1
1960s: 23.1 = 23,100 ÷ 14,121MW = 1.64
1970s: 16.9 = 16,900 ÷ 117,814MW = 0.143
1980s: 8.0 = 8,000 ÷ 311,942MW = 0.026
1990s: 4.8 = 4,800 ÷ 347,368MW = 0.0138
2000s: 0  NA
2010s (to date): 7.5 = 7,500 ÷ 370,705MW (end-2009) = 0.0202

The trend remains unchanged. (We might also observe here that there has never been an INES level four to level seven accident involving any reactor that started commercial operations after 1980 and only one that started after 1975 [Fukushima Daiichi No. 4].)

Let’s turn to the other triptych of calamity, this one wholly home-grown: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima. Note the sibilant smoothness, punctuated by the repeated “shima”, with which the trio of four-syllable words trip off the tongue. This triptych is having a hugely potent effect on the Japanese psyche, with mayors from Daiichi-afflicted towns being invited last summer and this to address memorial services at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here’s an excerpt from a Japan Times article (August 28) by one Michael Hoffman, preposterously titled Complacency perished in the Fukushima nuclear disaster (as if the dirt of complacency had been simply wiped clean from the Japanese or human mind):

Neither the victims of Fukushima Prefecture’s triple meltdown in March 2011 nor the aging survivors of the world’s only two wartime atom bombings are letting that [the issue of nuclear devastation in peacetime] pass.
“In terms of being nuclear victims, we are the same,” Hiroshima survivor Sunao Tsuboi, 87, told the AFP news agency.
“In my mind, Fukushima is like a third nuclear victim, following Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” added Fukushima evacuee Sachiko Sato.
Nuclear devastation in peace is war, a 90-year-old Buddhist nun named Jakucho Setouchi goes so far as to say. Setouchi is a writer of considerable reputation whose collected works, published in 2002, run to 20 volumes. Speaking to Shukan Asahi magazine, she said, “The earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters, but (TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant) was a manmade disaster, and therefore the same as war.”
War happens when it is allowed to happen; ditto nuclear disasters. “The atmosphere today,” says Setouchi, “is exactly like 1941, ’42.” Back then, the public and mass media bought the official line that Japan’s victory was assured. In our own time, the public and mass media bought the official line that the safety of nuclear power was assured.

Leaving aside the grotesque syllogistic lapses (to say that all wars are manmade disasters, Fukushima was a manmade disaster, and therefore Fukushima was war is no different, (il)logically, from claiming that all cats are mammals, a cow is a mammal, and therefore a cow is a cat—this is the fallacy of the undistributed middle), it must seem the height of fatuity to the pro-nuclear power brigade—as it does to this more disinterested observer—to dare to mention Fukushima in the same breath as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is not for a moment to gloss over or belittle the very real torment, fear, and anxiety suffered by the 150,000 or so people whose lives and livelihoods were disrupted by Fukushima Daiichi, but this disruption lies at the far, far end of the wide, wide spectrum of human suffering from instant and involuntary vaporization. It just does. Nevertheless, instead of whining about this new triptych, it might be more productive to do some explaining of it. A useful pointer, I think, can be found in Stephen Pinker’s epic and hard to refute The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, whose counterintuitive thesis is that we live in the most peaceful epoch of the history of our species.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the culmination of the very interstate-violent short century of the Empire of Japan (1868-1945). It’s worth reviewing, briefly, that violence with some rough tallies of mortality. Killing kicks off with the civil strife of the Boshin War, (1868-1869, 3,000 deaths). A lull ensues until the First Sino-Japanese War and annexation of Taiwan (1894-1895, 50,000 deaths), followed by the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905, 140,000 deaths) and the annexation of Korea (1910, deaths unknown). Then comes the Japanese involvement in World War I, 1914-1915, the seizure of German New Guinea, and the Siberian Expedition (1918-1922, 5,000 deaths). In the depths of the Great Depression come the invasion of Manchuria and establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo, 1932. Then there are the two almost forgotten but history-changing confrontations with the Soviet Union, the Battle of Lake Khasan, 1938, and Battle of Khalkhin Gol/Nomonhan Incident, 1939, a “four-month long small war that … cost no fewer than 30,000 and perhaps as many as 65,000 casualties on both sides” (Alvin D. Coox, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939). The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) bleeds into Pacific Theater in World War II (1941-1945), with around 18mn civilian and 6mn military deaths, of which Japan accounted for perhaps a million civilian and two million military deaths. So Imperial Japan was at war for 22 of the 52 years between 1894 and 1945 and preparing for, or recovering from war, for many of the rest, with a combined home islands death toll of maybe four million. And the death toll in interstate violence in the 66—and counting—years of peace between 1946 and the present? Zero. Very few major states have witnessed such a precipitous decline in interstate violence, and were we to investigate the plethora of forms of intrastate violence, from assassination as a political tool and state-sanctioned capital punishment to humdrum murder, rape, and robbery, we’d find similar pictures of precipitous decline.

With the gradual disappearance of violence, in all its forms, from Japanese society, there has concomitantly arisen the myth of safety—the myth that complex electromechanical systems such as trains, aircraft, and yes, nuclear power plants can simply never fail, despite being designed, built, and operated by ever-fallible humans. If the nuclear establishment was a willing purveyor of this myth, then the public was a willing buyer of it. Recently there has been a contretemps, with unpleasant nationalist overtones, about the deployment of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor V/STOL aircraft in Japan in general but in Okinawa in particular, and the phrase of reassurance most routinely trotted out by politicians seeking to pave the way for deployment is that the Ospreys will not fly until “safety has been confirmed”. To be sure, the original Japanese expression, anzen wo kakunin, is an elusive one, and “kakunin” could be interpreted as falling just shy of “confirm”, but can there be anyone gullible enough to swallow the proposition that any aircraft could plausibly be declared unambiguously safe?

(to be continued)

(with thanks to A.E. for the Kyshtym tip-off)

Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the psychology of nuclear power

Part Two

The Map App

“Where are we,” she said, voice pock-marked with irritation. “Well,” he replied, projecting The Map, with a couple of fist unclenches, from his handheld onto the savannah below, so The Map was coterminous with the terrain and the terrain was gridded into 100m squares, covered with contour lines, and dotted with flags showing points of interest. “We’re at 4.27S, 34.36E, 71.4km NNW of Singida and 15.2km SE of Lake Kitangiri.”
She crouched down to the path, across which a column of termites marched, identified by The Map as Ancistrotermes latinotus. At least they know where they’re going, she reflected. He pinged the homunculus of The Map up the ridge and donned goggles. “Hey, I can see the lake from here. Maybe there are still fish.” On that The Map was silent. “Face it,” she said, irritation swelling like a welt, “we’re just as lost as we ever were.”
(with apologies to Jorge Luis Borges)

“So this is where Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village once stood, is that right?”
“It was up in the hills,” said the head gardener, jerking a sweaty thumb-palm behind the blocky, nondescript building whose privet hedges and trim flowerbeds he and his gardener team were tending in the already unforgiving early summer heat.
“But you can’t come in. This is private property. Anyway, there’s nothing left now. It’s all been torn down and carted away.”
“But I’ve come all the way from Tokyo today, especially, just to…”
“Can’t help that. Nothing to see, anyway.” He went back to weeding.
I retreated. A signboard on stilts, though, fifty feet behind us, betrayed him, letting slip an alternate narrative of a different, more revealing, entrance, and wonders to behold beyond. I was off.

While the concrete mosque, now used as a storehouse for mini-tractors and bales of who-knows-what, is magnificent, and the insurmountable rust-teared minarets, from which no muezzin—or megaphone, for that matter—could ever have called the faithful or doubtful to prayer, were a treat, nothing gave me more pleasure than to simply see the words “Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village” strung up, faux-brass notched-corner in-memoriam nameplate style, above an empty signpost. So it hadn’t, then, been just a feverish dream, a disturbance of sultry sleep. I felt like an explorer at the portal to the ruins of a lost world, a Hiram Bingham in the undergrowth at Machu Picchu in 1911 or a Howard Carter on the threshold of the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen in 1923.

Leading away from the mosque towards the Sea of Japan East Sea Sea of Japan East Sea sea, with all the frenetic syncretism a theme park can muster, was a replica of the Ionic colonnades of Ephesus. It took a moment to puzzle out, but soon I realized the lopped-off columns hadn’t been earthquake or otherwise toppled—they had been designed this way. The colonnade, then, was the not yet quite real ruin of a fake ruin of a real ruin, a real ruin for which its numberless creators had never had ruination, fake or real, in mind. Post-apocalypse, the archaeologists of centuries hence will—we can only hope—concoct fantastic theories to explain this exotic outpost of the Hellenes and Seleucids on the shores, not of the Mediterranean, but another near-landlocked sea thousands of miles adrift.

Flanking the mosque was an avenue of assorted antiquarian statuary: first up was Alexander the Great, a near carbon-copy in concrete of the statue in the Istanbul Archeological Museum, although the left-hanging bulge in his come-hither toga seems more generous than in the original (perhaps Hephaestion or even Bucephalus was close) and untended concrete has given him a swarthier complexion than the ancient chroniclers claim for him. His empire stretches now not from the Danube to the Indus but to a single keeled ticket turnstile, rot-rusted off its moorings.

The other, anonymous statues, nameplates stolen by the sun or souvenir-hunters, feet eroded and genitals chipped away by the unforgiving chisel of time, were armless, headless, legless. In the museum, these absences evoke veneration; in the theme park, stripped of antiquity, they invite only a chuckle of derision.

Behind the prosthetic-legged youth, a soulless concrete mini-amphitheater, a travesty unfit for Euripides and no doubt with the acoustics of a collapsing barn, had been rammed into the hillside, with a shrunken orchestra and distended, barren proscenium.

The plinth on which the equestrian Ataturk once stood was now home to a pyramidal trellis topped with a pentagonal star, nicely nondenominational—a hexagram might have been another faux-pas—placed there by the wedding people, whose fragrant compound, Le Prier (“The Prayer”), all rings and jings and other fine things, lay at the top of the hill.

The wedding people, though, operate in the teeth of a demographic headwind, for while there are about 4,700 citizens of Kashiwazaki of the eminently marriageable ages of 30-34, there are only 3,200 or so tots and toddlers under five, so the marriage market, if we artificially restrict it to the confines of the city, shrinks by nearly a third in the next three decades, even without allowing for inevitable and irrevocable out-migration to university, and failure may, after all, be an option—as it always is.

Descending, I stumbled on the money shot: the rusty minarets of the mosque perfectly mirrored in the exhaust stacks of the K-K nuclear power plant, some ten kilometers distant.

It was about a decade ago, as I recall, that I first encountered the expression “XXX porn”, where the triple X refers not to the hardness of the core but to another sphere of life entirely. In this case, it was the innocent aside of an American colleague: “The Japanese do food porn really well, don’t they?” (Indeed they do, although they are lamentably poor at property porn.) Since then, the trope has spread like Spanish flu, with “mommy porn” to describe Fifty Shades of Grey seemingly the most fashionable iteration of late. Two examples of the trope concern me in particular here, as I’ve been dubbed both a luster after rust and a pornographer of ruins: “ruin porn” and “rust porn”, the former seemingly more common than the latter, which is after all only a subset of the former. Ruin porn is a realm into which academics, apprentice and actual, have already muscled, with their windily highfalutin talk of Foucaultian temporal heterotopias and other such ill-digested bunkum. Personally, I question the utility of loading up the critical elephant-gun with the porn bullet, to shoot it scattershot at every phenomenon or artifact that is described or photographed with ardor, passion, or admiration: if “ruin porn”, why not “book porn” (nice stacks) or “shoe porn” or “inkwell porn”?

Yikes, it seems as though “book porn” and “shoe porn” are already in frighteningly common parlance; as for “inkwell porn”, well, it can only be a matter of time. Non-porn porn’s biggest failing, though, must be its effacement, inadvertent or otherwise, of the intrinsic top-shelf ickiness of porn-porn—unless you’re gay, when you get to enjoy your porn pleasures guilt-free (or do you?) No-one to my knowledge—though my knowledge here is necessarily limited—routinely creams their pants to a peeling-plaster photo of a disused insane asylum or even to a goat-cheese and walnut soufflé straight from the oven—and if you do know of such people, I’d recommend avoiding them. But, unforgivingly and unforgivably, as so often, I digress.

Ruins’ appeal in part, I think, lies in their offer an escape from the rage to order of (Japanese) society, but mostly because they are symbols of failure, and failure is so much more common, and thus often so much more instructive, than success. Think only of the tens of thousands of aspirant athletes who fail to make the cut for their national Olympics teams, the thousands of Olympians who return home without a medal, and the hundreds who mount the two lower tiers of the winners’ podium, necessarily twice as numerous as the gold-baggers. Tory politician and demagogue Enoch Powell famously wrote that “All political lives…end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and human affairs,” and that sentence would resonate more with its references to politics removed. Yet most people, in their inbred optimism, would rather not hear talk of failure: should you stoop to browse the business or self-help books—nearly indistinguishable genres scarcely a rung above the contemptible travelogue—at your local bookshop, your hand will not dart instinctively out for tomes titled The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective People, Mediocre to Bust: Why Most Companies Fail, or How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, for these books have not, and will not, be written.

I drove through the trim city center towards K-K, past the Atom Museum, more formally known as the Kashiwazaki Nuclear Power Public Relations Center.

What kind of atoms belong in an atom museum—superannuated atoms, atoms put out to pasture, the odd unwanted radioisotope, Potassium-40 perhaps, with a sufficiently long half-life?
The K-K complex is vast—about three kilometers by one and a half—and modest, hidden from inquisitive eyes behind a deep perimeter forest of pines. To obtain any visual purchase on it, you have to head for its optical Achilles’ heel, the beaches. Access to the beach due south comes through a succession of ugly steel doors set into an ugly steel windbreak that renders the beach invisible from the shore road; no great loss, for this is a joyless betrayal of a beach, a straggle of russet sand strewn with plastic detritus interspersed with the odd wire-throttled and rotting gull, a beach mauled by tetrapodded banks and piers and breakwaters, sprinkled with solitary surf-fishermen of a certain age keeping almost surly distances from each other.

Whatever you may feel about nuclear power, though, there’s no denying that K-K is a mighty, mighty beast—with 8,212MW of installed capacity, it alone can unleash more juice than can the entire electricity grid of Nigeria (population 170mn)—and standing in front of it, I found it hard to stifle a sense of awe, however unprepossessing the surroundings. The main entrance resembles nothing so much as a multilane expressway tollbooth.

To K-K’s immediate north lies the hamlet of Ominato, deserted in the dog-day high-noon heat. I scrambled down to the beach, cleaner now but devoid of life, through the grounds of a rambling minshuku bed & breakfast inn. Trade cannot, you would think, be good.

From here we’re looking south, mostly at reactor No. 5, but also with reactors No. 6 (KK6) and No. 7 (KK7)—the first and the second advanced boiling-water reactors and hence the first and Generation III reactors to be built anywhere in the world—peeking bashfully out behind. “Power plant photography forbidden” said the sign on the electric fence, but I was seized by a spasm of illiteracy and snapped on. What secrets could there have been to steal from such an innocuous distance? In its obsessive secretiveness and almost autistic inability to communicate, the company known as TEPCO (as Bloomberg likes to refer to it, with a nod perhaps to Prince)—the operator of both K-K and Fukushima Daiichi—is surely its own self-injurious worst enemy.

What, then, yokes the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and K-K together, aside from physical proximity? More than you might imagine. Take Kajima Corp., for starters: one of Japan’s Big Four general contractors, and among them primus inter pares. Kajima subsidiary Kajima Design was responsible for the aesthetic horrorshow that was Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village, while Kajima the parent was responsible for its construction. Kajima also had a hand in the civil engineering work for the first three reactors of the seven at K-K (as well as all six of those at Fukushima Daiichi). No wonder, then, that the dome of the mosque bears more than a passing resemblance to the containment domes of old-school US pressurized-water reactors such as those at Indian Point in (not very) upstate New York. If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail; if all you have are steel and concrete and blueprints for a nuclear power plant… With no theme parks and nuclear plants, and few roads and airports and tunnels left to build, Kajima has been a little down on its luck of late: revenues in the year to end-March 2012 were a quarter lower than they were exactly two decades before, at the late Bubble peak.

Then there’s the chronological congruence. While planning for K-K started back in the late 1960s, when Ryutaro Omori, then around 40, was working his way up the dull ranks of his family bank, the orgy of construction of both the Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and of K-K climaxed within a very short timeframe: Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village opened its doors to the public in July 1996, while KK6 reached criticality in December 1995 and started commercial operations in November 1996, with KK7 to follow in July 1997.

The mid-nineties were to prove the last years of growth for Kashiwazaki. K-K had played its atom-splitting part in reversing the fall in the city’s population, which fell from 123,000 in 1947 to 94,000 in 1975, then rose to peak in 1995 at 101,500. It’s now below 90,000, lower than it was in 1920, and falling by up to 1,000 a year. In 1995, there were 16,000 kids under 15 in the city; there are 10,500 now, a third fewer and falling. In 1996, the city’s gross product amounted to Y559bn; a decade later, in 2006, it was Y487bn (down 13%), and it fell by nearly a quarter more in the earthquake year of 2007. This decline was mostly a function of deflation and the shrinking number of people employed, which fell by 14% between 1996 and 2009, with the contractions particularly acute in the primary sector (down 30%), as elderly farmers and foresters and fisherfolk lay down their hoes and axes and rods, and in the secondary sector (down 29%), as industry hollowed out and construction withered. The city’s per capita income remained relatively constant, though, fluctuating between Y2.85mn ($36,000, not PPP adjusted) and Y3.1mn between 1996 and 2007, before falling in crisis-racked 2009, the latest year for which data are available, to Y2.6mn.

The Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake struck at 10:13 on Monday July 16, 2007. While Ataturk was wobbling on his perch, down at K-K, just 19km from the epicenter, there was a whole lotta shakin’ going on, a lot of it in excess of the design specifications of the plant, as amply documented by your on-line encyclopedia of preference. Aside from some spillages of radioactive water, one of which was mopped up with towels (please, for PR’s sake!), the most serious incident was a fire at a KK3 electricity transformer, the reaction to which laid bare naked Keystone Coppery on the part of TEPCO: the chief operations manager happened to pass the transformer in his car, noticed the smoke, concluded that the fire wouldn’t burn long, and left the task of quelling it to subordinates; instead he made his way to the emergency room, whose door, its frame warped by the earthquake, could not be opened, so whiteboards were carried out into a car park, whence the disaster response was coordinated. The subordinates found that the fire hydrants near the transformer had been knocked out by the earthquake and yielded up no more than a trickle of water. Plant officials tried to notify the local fire brigade by phone, but they had no hotline and couldn’t get through; five off-duty firemen were corralled and they finally doused the blaze, two hours after the earthquake.

TEPCO, with peerless optimism that would have done Ryutaro Omori proud, was gung-ho to restart K-K the very next day; it was not to get its way. This was not the first time K-K had fallen silent—it was taken wholly, if briefly, off-line in 2002-2003 as punishment for a TEPCO data falsification scandal—and it wouldn’t be the last. It took nearly two years before K-K was allowed to creep gingerly back to life, with KK7 fired up in May 2009, to be followed by KK6, KK5, and KK1. Meanwhile, KK2, KK3, and KK4 have lain dormant these past five years. Then after Fukushima, one-by-one the four operating reactors reached routine maintenance milestones, as what is now the polite fiction has it, and were idled, not to be restarted, with KK6 the last to shut down, in March 2012. So K-K, for the third time in its brief adult lifespan, finds itself a white elephant—and at non-inflation-adjusted construction costs alone of Y2,571bn (about $32bn at the current Y/$ rate, which underestimates the real dollar cost), a very pricey white elephant.

TEPCO’s government-sanctioned revival plan hinges wholly on a complete K-K restart by April next year. This looks optimistic in the extreme, as newly prominent forces, from the Governor of Niigata Prefecture on down, are resolved to make K-K’s current slumber an eternal one. So are the rust-slashed minarets of Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village a fearsome premonition of its fate, is K-K truly a ruin of the future? If we look far enough out, out say to 2057, when the last of the reactors, KK7, is due to be decommissioned, nigh on a century after the plans for K-K were first hatched, when the ashes of your correspondent will have long joined those of Ryutaro Omori in the grave, when the inhabitants of these islands will number a third fewer than today, and when alternative sources of energy will surely be cheaper and more readily harnessed, the answer must be yes. Before then, anything in this sublunary world we have no choice but to inhabit must be possible.

One of the baleful—if understandable—consequences of the Chuetsu Offshore Earthquake and the incidents at K-K was that it led the nuclear community to assume, for the following four years, that the next menace would come from the ground, whereas we know now, with our perfect clarity of hindsight, that it was to come from the sea. And since Fukushima, power companies, like generals forever fighting the last war, have been furiously erecting breakwaters and seawalls and levees to protect their nuclear plants—against a historical event. You can see TEPCO’s progress report on breakwater building at K-K here—and note the pride with which the red triangle declares that the top of the breakwater is 15m above sea level.

Why 15m? Simply because that is the top end of the range of estimates (13.5m-15m) of the height of the tsunami that inundated Fukushima Daiichi. There is just no conception available to the minds of the planners that the next tsunami might be higher than the last tsunami. This is a near textbook-worthy instance of what psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his magisterial distillation of a lifetime spent probing the rational irrationalities of the human mind, Thinking, Fast and Slow, terms anchoring effects, the most celebrated example of which comes from Kahneman and colleague Amos Tversky’s seminal 1974 Science paper, Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases:

In a demonstration of the anchoring effect, subjects were asked to estimate various quantities, stated in percentages (for example, the percentage of African countries in the United Nations). For each quantity, a number between 0 and 100 was determined by spinning a wheel of fortune in the subjects’ presence. The subjects were instructed to indicate first whether that number was higher or lower than the value of the quantity, and then to estimate the value of the quantity by moving upward or downward from the given number. Different groups were given different numbers for each quantity, and these arbitrary numbers had a marked effect on estimates. For example, the median estimates of the percentage of African countries in the United Nations were 25% and 45% for groups that received 10 and 65, respectively, as starting points. Payoffs for accuracy did not reduce the anchoring effect.

To summarize: your estimate of the percentage of African countries in the UN will be swayed by the randomly generated number of a wheel of fortune, even though your conscious mind—were it awake—must know there is no connection between the two numbers. Once you grow alert to anchoring effects, you begin to notice their ubiquity: take, for instance, a breathless report on the nightly news a month ago, replete with elaborate 3D computer simulations, of the consequences of a future eruption of Mount Fuji that was an exact echo of the last one, the Hoei eruption of 1707-1708. Now I’m no volcanologist, but I’m willing to hazard a small wager that the next eruption of Mount Fuji will resemble the last one not at all. Stress tests, whether of banks or nuclear reactors, must also in most cases be fraught with anchoring effects. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb witheringly notes in his pompous but profound examination of rare events, Black Swan:

It is particularly shocking that people do what are called “stress tests” by taking the worst possible past deviation as an anchor event to project the worst possible future deviation, not thinking that they would have failed to account for that past deviation had they used the same method on the day before the occurrence of that past anchor event.

Anchoring effects, then, are the first in a series of potentially harmful mental tics, heuristics, and biases that we’ll encounter in the third and final part of this series of dispatches, a brief dissection of the psychology of nuclear power.

And just in case you were wondering—the percentage of UN member states that are African countries? I make it 26% (51/193).