Note: This article was originally published Monday, September 2nd 2013 at 7:54 pm as a dark joke about the nuclear industrial complex in Japan. On September 3rd, the Japanese government basically provided the punchline by announcing plans to spend 47 billion yen to clean up the water crisis at Fukushima. The whole thing has an artificial aftertaste that makes Campbell’s pasta in a can taste delicious in comparison. If you would like to know what I’m talking about, read on.
Tokyo Electric Power Company, TEPCO, is getting a lot of criticism for its inept clean-up attempts of the Fukushima nuclear power plant site, which had triple-meltdowns in March of 2011—after the company had failed to take precautions which might have prevented the meltdown in the first place. There is also a 4th reactor where spent fuel rods are waiting to be extracted, and if mishandled they have the potential to release huge amounts of radiation into the air. TEPCO, like the Central Intelligence Agency, has a wonderful legacy of failure, and now it literally has “a legacy of ashes”.
There is already close to 300 tons of contaminated water leaking from the plant into the ocean. The Nuclear Regulation Agency of Japan on September 2nd noted that an even more serious concern was large amounts of radioactive materials leaking into the ground water as well. On September 1st, it was reported that at one of the 1000 water tanks on the site, radiation levels were 18 times higher than previously measured–a whopping 1800 millisieverts. The reason the high levels hadn’t been detected earlier was that the devices near the leaking water tank maxed out at 100 millisieverts.
You can’t detect what you can’t measure.
In other words, it’s as if TEPCO measured the height of Jeremy Lin with only a 12 inch school ruler and proclaimed, “Mr. Lin is the world’s shortest basketball player.”
On September 9th, Shunichi Tanaka, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency said at a press conference, “I’m quite baffled by TEPCO’S total lack of any sense of crisis (at the site). It’s unfathomable.”
So I thought about it. And thought about it. And then I realized what the answer is. It has to do with spaghetti-os. I’ll explain later but the essence of what they’re doing is very simple. TEPCO is doing the worst possible job possible because every yen spent cleaning up the site cuts into their profits and the more they show themselves to be incapable, the greater the chance that the government (which already is their de facto owner) will take up the slack. It’s a brilliant plan.
TEPCO is in the wonderful position of being able to say: “Well, we know how to make a huge mess and run power plants but we don’t know how to clean up the mess. If you can do better, please do so. Heh.” (Bows deeply, shuffling, walking backwards.)
When the Japanese government steps up, they can step down and get back to business: selling energy and making money. The Government of Japan will essentially reward them for their incompetence.
I call this the Spaghetti-Os principle: the best way to avoid doing work you don’t like is do it just badly enough that no one will ever trust you to do it again, but not so badly that you get punished (or spanked) for it.
My little sister was the first to discover this principle, when she was about 10 and I was 13. During that time period, my parents had decided to institute a cooking night for each of us children, to teach us responsibility. One night per week, we were expected to cook dinner for everyone.
I cooked Barbecue Ramen Surprise and other fusion cuisine delights. I liked to cook. But my sister, Jacky—she was not into it. So after a few weeks of this, she managed to end the whole fiasco with one amazingly awful meal. She bought an industrial size can of Spaghetti-0s, a sort of processed pasta dish that tasted awful and looked worse, and she heated it up and served it to us. That was it. The whole meal was Spaghetti-os slopped into five bowls with a side of burnt Wonder bread toast, mangled with cold butter.
It was so inedible and disappointing that we all agreed to end “cook dinner for everyone night” that very night. After that, Dad cooked most of the meals. After all, it was crazy to ask Jacky to be a chef.
We just assumed that at 10, she just didn’t know how to cook. It was only years later that it dawned on me that she had deliberately made the worst meal she could within limits—not because she didn’t know how to cook, but because she didn’t like cooking. She preferred to play with her Barbie dolls or read books or watch TV.
Every time TEPCO screws up at Fukushima, they’re loading a spoonful of tangy inedible Spaghetti-os on our plate. Sooner or later, when we can’t take it anymore, Dad or Mom, is going to take the spatula away and TEPCO will be free to go back outside to play.
Because TEPCO knows that judicious incompetence is its own reward. It’s not that they are unproductive or lazy—they like to make messes, but like any spoiled little kid, they just don’t like to clean them up. That’s no fun. Cleaning up after the birthday party, that’s what parents are for.