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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”.

spaghetti-os atomic

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.

Spaghetti-os, anyone?

10 thoughts on “TEPCO, Nuclear Disaster & Spaghetti-Os: Bad Deeds Get Rewarded”
  1. The other possibility here is that they’ve been quietly letting stuff leak into the Pacific on purpose, or at least not been interested in stopping it. If you imagine their situation:
    – They’re pumping vast quantities of water to keep things cool, and obviously going to leak, and most of it will end up in the Pacific no matter what they do, so the bay is going to be poisoned no matter what.
    – They’re also capturing water from processes that they’re nominally in control of, which they’re not allowed to release into the Pacific.
    – There’s no conceivable way they can store all the water they’ll be capturing for the next 30 years or however long they’ll need to carry on doing this.

    If your main priority is stopping things above ground from going boom, the leaks are a feature, not a bug. Likewise monitoring equipment that doesn’t actually tell you about the problem, because once you know about it you may be under pressure to fix it, which makes your problems worse.

    1. Yes, controlled ignorance at its finest. You can’t fix a problem if you pretend you don’t know you have it. We need to enroll the entire company in nuclear addicts anonymous.

  2. Brilliant analysis. Seems TEPCO can’t solve this problem, they know they can’t solve it, and they aren’t going to really try to solve it, other than appearing to try to solve it. What if nobody can solve it? Is this the worst case scenario? More likely, it’s the most realistic scenario. TEPCO has Spagetti-O’d this mess for 2.5 years now, so there’s no reason to expect they’ll suddenly grow competent now. Think about this: the flunkies who can’t build proper water tanks or measuring sticks are soon going to try to remove hundreds of nuclear fuel rods from a damaged building — which has never been done. What are the chances of them pulling off this amazing feat without a fire or explosion?

  3. I can’t help but remember one night in 1989 sitting in a rotenburo somewhere in Atami. A young, drunk, Japanese manager regaled me with his vision of how only TEPCO (his employer) had never suffered the shame of a major blackout. Consider, he said, that all other major utilities around the world, and especially my hometown, New York, had dropped the ball at one time or another. It was clearly a great source of pride to this young man that TEPCO had kept the grid online though thick and thin. Well, having lived through the great New York blackout of ’65, I have to tell you that I was impressed at his words. Like many in the 80’s and 90’s, it was easy for me to be impressed with Japan’s ability to regularly execute plans with the highest degree of technological precision.

    I can’t help but reflect on that young man. Where is he today? Probably among the top echelons at TEPCO. (It was a pricy onsen.) I suspect that TEPCO inculcated that sort of hubris, pride, or whatever you want to call it, in all their young ‘elite’ pathway future leaders. Was it that sort of blind faith in TEPCO’s excellence that blinded them and left them vulnerable. No doubt. And let’s not forget that the CEO at the time was a guy who came up through the accounting department (read that as the cost cutting department.) Safety equipment? We’ve already got that. Lifespan exceeded? But it’s still running. It would be a shame to lose all that potential revenue.

    Corporate culture gone bad.

    1. That is very well put. So well put, that I’d love for you to write a mini-essay on the topic. We can pay our usual honest but low honorarium.
      Yes, the CEO at the time was known as “the razor.” And he managed to slice the throat of Japan with his cost-cutting efforts. Human life is cheap, so it seems.

  4. Credit where it’s due, TEPCO are actually seriously good at their core job of providing reliable power supply. I’ve been running a bunch of servers in Shibuya and we have never had an unplanned outage in ten years. During the 2011 earthquake power to my house in the Tokyo suburbs never dropped. They are very, very good at keeping the lights on.

    I guess their problem is that they then have no idea what to do in the otherwise unheard-of event that grid power actually goes out…

  5. this nuclear disaster is affecting not only Japan, it affects all the world and TEPCO didn’t take it seriously at first and the they tried to cover it up!!!haber

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