1 Introduction

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident was extremely shocking, but what is even more shocking in the eyes of the present writer is the devastating failure in transmitting critical information on the accident to the people when the Japanese government faced unexpected and serious events after March 11, 2011. Secrecy toward outsiders seems to have caused this failure: secrecy to the people who were forced to evacuate from their birthplaces, to the people who wanted to evacuate their children, to the people who have been suffering from tremendous opportunity loss such as giving up entering college, and others. It is virtually impossible to enumerate individual instances of suffering and aggregate them in an ordinarily calculable manner. Despite such expected incalculable damage, critical information was restricted to government insiders. This state of affairs seems to show similar tendencies to the state of prewar Japanese mobilization in which all information was controlled under the name of supreme governmental authority [1].

One might consider such a comparison to be merely rhetorical. This chapter argues that we can take the comparison more seriously as far as the patterns of behavior of the agents involved are concerned. It is true that the prewar Japanese military regime was oriented toward mobilization for war while the postwar regime has been prohibited from mobilization for war purposes of any kind by the constitution. In this respect there is a large discrepancy between the prewar and postwar regimes as to their purpose. However, the surprising but telling similarity of the patterns of behavior embedded in the regimes is evident if we look into the details of a hidden accident that took place just before the outbreak of World War II (abbreviated to WWII hereafter).

This chapter attempts to shed fresh light on the structural causes of the Fukushima Daiichi accident by illuminating the patterns of behavior of the agents involved in the little-known but serious accident involving naval vessels that occurred immediately before WWII with a particular focus on the subtle relationship between success and failure in the complex science-technology-society interface. The chapter will then contextualize the similarity and draw its sociological implications for all of us who face the post-Fukushima situation. The conceptual tool that is employed here to that end is the “structural disaster” of the science-technology-society interface.

2 The “Structural Disaster” of the Science-Technology-Society Interface

The “structural disaster” of the science-technology-society interface is the concept developed to give a sociological account of the repeated occurrence of failures of a similar type [2]. In particular, it is developed to clarify a situation where novel and undesirable events happen but there is no single agent to blame and no place to allocate responsibility for the events and to prescribe remedies. The reason for denominating this failure as the failure of the science-technology-society interface rather than that of science, or of technology, or of society is worthy of attention to understand the development of my argument. For example, if nuclear physics is completely successful in understanding a chain reaction, technology such as nuclear engineering could fail in controlling the reaction as in the case of Chernobyl.Footnote 1 Or if nuclear engineering is almost completely successful in containing radioactive materials within reactors, social decision-making could fail as in the case of Three Mile Island (TMI).Footnote 2 Or if society is completely successful in setting goals for the development of renewable energy technologies, science and/or technology could fail as in the case of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC).Footnote 3

In a word, the success or failure of science, of technology, and of society cannot be overlapped automatically [9, 10]. In particular, there seems to be something missing in-between, which has unique characteristics of its own. The concept of “structural disaster” is intended to explore this state. What is in-between could be institutional arrangements, organizational routines, tacit interpretations of a formal code of ethics, invisible customs, or the networks of interests of different organizations. The “structural disaster” consists of one or more of the following elements [11]:

  1. 1.

    Adherence to erroneous precedents causes problems to be carried over and reproduced.

  2. 2.

    The complexity of a system under consideration and the interdependence of its units aggravate problems.

  3. 3.

    The invisible norms of informal groups essentially hollow out formal norms.

  4. 4.

    Quick fixes for problems at hand lead to further such fixes for temporary counter measures.

  5. 5.

    Secrecy develops across different sectors and blurs the locus of agents responsible for the problems to be addressed.

This chapter focuses on, among other things, the interdependence of heterogeneous agents, which come into play in the science-technology-society interface and give rise to secrecy in a specific social condition. This chapter will make clear the interdependence by tracing it back to the hidden prewar accident, which will give us an important clue to the understanding of the Fukushima Daiichi accident from the perspective of “structural disaster” as defined above. To understand the social context of this hidden prewar accident, it is necessary to move away from the current social condition of the post-Fukushima situation to the prewar wartime mobilization of science and technology, within which the clarification of this hidden accident can be properly pursued. After the clarification, we will move back to the current situation surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi accident, to present the sociological implications of the hidden accident for the Fukushima Daiichi accident and for potential future extreme events.

3 The Basic Points About the Fukushima Daiichi Accident from the Perspective of “Structural Disaster”

To elucidate the problem of secrecy in the Fukushima Daiichi accident, several basic points can be noted from the perspective of “structural disaster,” which should be kept in mind in approaching the hidden accident that happened much earlier than the Fukushima Daiichi accident. First, there seems to have arisen a repeated occurrence of similar patterns of behavior that have run through various different instances and in the end have given rise to secrecy. It is true that the emergency situation during and after such an extreme event as the Fukushima Daiichi accident can provide a good reason to expect confusion and delay in transmitting information. But the degree and range of confusion and delay went far beyond those to be expected from an emergency situation alone.

For example, the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (abbreviated to SPEEDI hereafter) was developed with the assistance of more than ten billion yen to make the early evacuation of the people affected smoother and safer. The first recommendation from the Japanese government for evacuation was made on March 12. The prediction obtained from SPEEDI was made public for the first time on April 26, despite the fact that its prediction had been made shortly after the accident. As a result of this secrecy, the affected residents were advised by the government to evacuate without reliable information at the critical initial phase when they were exposed to a high level dose. All they could do was to trust the government or not. SPEEDI had been awarded the first nuclear history award by the Atomic Energy Society of Japan in 2009 [12], but its prediction was never made public when it was needed.

A similar behavior pattern of the government and the resulting secrecy and serious suffering can be observed in various other cases in the accident, such as the delayed venting of the nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, the deregulation for recycling decontaminated mud for concrete production, and the rise and fall of dose levels allowed for children in primary school and for workers in the station. In light of structural causes implied in the “structural disaster”, organizational errors seem to have intervened behind this state of affairs: TEPCO’s disobedience of the directive by the prime minister, the malfunction of the so-called “double check” system within Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), miscommunication between nuclear engineers of the makers of the reactors and TEPCO officials, and others. If we look into the details of the Fukushima Daiichi accident as embodying “structural disaster,” organizational errors of this kind should be scrutinized, elaborated on, and extended as one of the crucial causes of “structural disaster.” This is the first point to be noted in approaching the hidden accident that happened much earlier than the Fukushima Daiichi accident and in obtaining a broader perspective.

Second, we need to carefully place the specifications of six nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power station in a technological trajectory, within which we might be able to properly understand what “structural disaster” implies (see Table 10.1).

Table 10.1 Specifications of the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power station

There are two reasons for paying attention to the technological trajectory to understand the Fukushima Daiichi accident as “structural disaster.” First, every reactor there had a long history of successful operation extending over 30 years since its start in the 1970s, which forces our attention to turn to the possibility of a more “structural” cause of the accident beyond picking up individual ad hoc troubles and errors. Second, as the ratios of domestic production indicate, the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power station embody the turning point leading from licensed production to self-reliant production. For these reasons, there could exist common characteristics throughout the reactors in question at the Fukushima Daiichi power station and it is possible that such characteristics are somehow related to the “structural disaster” of the science-technology-society interface as manifested in the accident.

In a word, the causes of “structural disaster” can be divided into two different categories, organizational errors and technological trajectory, as the first step to explaining the Fukushima Daiichi accident.Footnote 4 If we can substantiate these two elements in understanding other independent cases as “structural disaster,” then we will be able to have a stronger position to learn lessons from the Fukushima Daiichi accident as a “structural disaster” and to extend their implications for potential future extreme events. What follows is an independent substantiation of these two elements by examining the hidden accident happened long before the Fukushima Daiichi accident with a focus on a complex relationship between success and failure in the science-technology-society interface and secrecy in the interface.

The hidden accident long before the Fukushima Daiichi one is a very perplexing accident of the naval turbine developed by the Imperial Japanese Navy, which occurred immediately before the outbreak of WWII. This accident enables us to redefine the complex relationship between success and failure in the science-technology-society interface both in peacetime and wartime. The accident was treated as top secret because of its timing. The suppression of information about the accident means that it has not been seriously considered as an event in the sociology of science and technology up to now. However, the description and analysis of this accident will suggest that technological development can depart significantly from a unidirectional process. This also implies that we need to revise our view of the science-technology-society interface beyond a simplistic dichotomous understanding in terms of success or failure.

The steam turbine was invented, and finally patented in 1884, by British engineer C.A. Parsons, who in 1894 obtained a patent for the marine turbine [19].Footnote 5 After Parsons’ original invention, it was supposed that the marine turbine had become a reliable, mature technology in the prewar period. The hidden accident of the naval turbine that occurred immediately before WWII, however, throws doubt on the validity of a unidirectional and one-dimensional view of such a development trajectory for technology. To confirm this doubt, it is necessary to outline the development trajectory of the Japanese type naval turbine by making clear the locus of the complex relationship between success and failure.

4 The Development Trajectory of the Kanpon Type and Its Pitfalls

The technology taken up here is the Kanpon type turbine, Kanpon being the Technical Headquarters of the Navy. The Kanpon type turbine was developed by the Imperial Japanese Navy about 1920 to substitute entirely self-reliant technologies for imported ones. This naval turbine provides the key to understanding the connection between success and failure. The reason is that the Kanpon type was the standard turbine for Japanese naval vessels from 1920 to 1945, and as regards its blades a serious but almost inexplicable and little-known accident occurred immediately before WWII.Footnote 6 The first question to approach the core of the connection between success and failure lies in the background against which the Kanpon type turbine was developed.Footnote 7

From the time of the first adoption of the marine turbine in the early twentieth century (1905) after intensive investigations and license contracts, the Imperial Japanese Navy accumulated experience in the domestic production of marine turbines. Throughout this process, the Navy carefully monitored the quality of British, American, and various other Western type turbines and evaluated them.Footnote 8 As a result, a reduction gearing adopted by the Navy for the first time in 1918 contributed greatly to the total efficiency of the main turbines.

However, quite unexpectedly, the introduction of reduction gearing caused one failure after another from 1918 (see Table 10.2).

Table 10.2 Synopsis of geared turbine failures of naval vessels from 1918

What was most important to the Navy was the fact that all the geared turbines causing failures and breakdowns were Western types as shown in Table 10.2. And the license contracts with the makers of the two leading turbines, the Curtis and the Parsons types, were due to expire in June 1923 and in August 1928, respectively. Considering the failures and breakdowns in light of this situation, the Navy started to take official steps to develop its own type.Footnote 9 For the purpose of replacing imported turbines, the new Kanpon type turbine was developed, and achieved standardization in design, materials, and production method “that is independent of foreign patents” ([26, pp. 133–134]. The Kanpon type turbine was also expected to achieve cost reduction and flexible usage for a wide range of purposes, which would be made possible by standardization.

Thus the Kanpon type turbine was developed and established as the standard turbine for Japanese naval vessels due to the failures and breakdowns of imported turbines experienced by the Navy. The first Kanpon type turbine was installed in destroyers built in 1924 (see Fig. 10.1).Footnote 10

Fig. 10.1
figure 1

Plane view of the first Kanpon type turbine (Source [28])

All Japanese naval vessels continued to adopt this Kanpon type turbine until 1945. Everyone regarded it as a landmark that showed the beginning of adoption of self-reliant technologies. This is because, as the Shipbuilding Society of Japan wrote in its official history of naval architecture and marine engineering, “there had been no serious trouble with the turbine for more than ten years since the early 1920s, and the Navy continued to have strong confidence in their reliability.” [29, Vol. 1, p. 668].

What follows is an important counterargument to this account, by calling attention to the missing failure linking success and failure, a pitfall inherent in the trajectory. The detailed description and analysis of the hidden but serious incident of the established Kanpon type turbine that occurred immediately before WWII will show how important and meaningful this pitfall is for the trajectory of Japan’s technological development, its organizational errors, and its science-technology-society interface. This is particularly because, as will be clarified below, the pitfall was profoundly related to the functional disintegration of the military-industrial-university complex caused by an unbalanced secrecy, one of the key factors leading to “structural disaster.” The military-industrial-university complex hereafter means an institutional structure made up of the governmental sector, particularly the military, the private industrial sector, and universities—mutually autonomous in their behavior but in combination expected to contribute to national goals.Footnote 11

5 The Accident Kept Secret

In December 1937, a newly built destroyer encountered an unexpected turbine blade breakage accident. Since the accident involved the engine of standard design, it caused great alarm. A special examination committee was set up in January 1938 to investigate the accident. The committee was called Rinkichō in Japanese. This chapter will refer to the accident as the Rinkichō accident hereafter. Today, there are five non in-house books containing references to the Rinkichō accident. The first reference to the accident appeared in 1952, and the last in 1981.Footnote 12 The publication dates and the authors/editors of the references are all different, but all were written by parties connected with the Imperial Japanese Navy (see Table 10.3).

Table 10.3 References to the Rinkichō accident

The accounts given in these references agree for the most part on their main points that the cause was soon identified, resulting in no serious consequence. These references make up a kind of success story. And it is extremely difficult to look into further details of the failure because little evidence is provided to prove what is stated by these references. It appears that the accident was kept secret because it occurred during wartime mobilization.

To confirm this, an examination of government documents from around the time of the accident is in order. The government documents consulted here are the minutes of Imperial Diet sessions regarding the Navy. The minutes of the 57th Imperial Diet session (held in January 1930) to the 75th Imperial Diet session (held in March 1940) contain no less than 7,000 pages about Navy-related discussions. These discussions include ten naval vessel incidents summarized in Table 10.4.

Table 10.4 Discussions in the Imperial Diet regarding naval vessel accidents, etc.: January 1930–March 1940

It is noteworthy in these discussions that the Fourth Squadron incident of September 1935, one of the most serious incidents in the history of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was made public and discussed in the Imperial Diet sessions within a year (on May 18, 1936).Footnote 13 The Rinkichō accident occurred on December 29, 1937, and was handed down informally within the Navy and counted as a major incident on a par with the Fourth Squadron incident.Footnote 14

However, more than two years after the Rinkichō accident there is no sign in the documents that it was made public and discussed in Imperial Diet sessions. As will be noted in detail, reports on the accident had already been submitted during the period from March to November 1938 (the final report was submitted on November 2). Nevertheless the Imperial Diet heard nothing about the accident or any detail of measures taken to deal with it. The Rinkichō accident was so serious that it would have influenced the decision on whether to go to war with the U.S. and Britain. The Fourth Squadron incident was also serious enough to influence the decision in that it dramatically disclosed the inadequate strength and stability of the hull of the standard naval vessels designed after the London naval disarmament treaty concluded in 1930.Footnote 15 But it was made public and discussed in Imperial Diet sessions. In this respect, there is a marked difference between the handling of the two incidents. Regarding the Fourth Squadron incident, the Director of the Naval Accounting Bureau, Harukazu Murakami, was forced to give an answer to a question by Kanjirō Fukuda (Democratic Party) at the 69th Imperial Diet session held on May 18, 1936.Footnote 16

Although his answer gave no information regarding the damage to human resources (all members of the crew confined within the bows of the destroyers died), it accurately stated the facts of the incident and the material damage incurred, which amounted to 2.8 million yen in total. Even the damage due to the collision between cruisers about five years earlier in Table 10.4 was only 180,000 yen. The answer from a naval official clearly attested that the Fourth Squadron incident was so extraordinarily serious as to oblige him to disclose this fact to the public.Footnote 17 It should be noted here that remedial measures for the problem of the turbines of all naval vessels disclosed by the Rinkichō accident were expected to cost 40 million yen [38].

Nevertheless, no detailed open report of the Rinkichō accident was presented at the Imperial Diet. This fact strongly indicates that the Rinkichō accident was top secret information, which was not allowed to go beyond the Imperial Japanese Navy. What, then, were the facts? This question will be answered based on documents owned by Ryūtarō Shibuya who was an Engineering Vice Admiral of the Navy and was responsible for the turbine design of naval vessels at the time (these documents will be called the Shibuya archives hereafter).

6 The Hidden Accident and the Outbreak of War with the U.S. and Britain: How Did Japan Deal with the Problem?

The Shibuya archives are enormous, consisting of more than 4,000 materials on various subjects including casualties of the atomic bomb.Footnote 18 Even though we chose only the materials directly concerning the Rinkichō accident, it is impossible to present here a full analysis of all the details gleaned from these voluminous materials. Among these, this chapter focuses on the special examination committee established in January 1938. The purpose of the committee was as follows [39]:

Problems were found with the turbines of Asashio-class destroyers…. It is necessary to work out remedial measures and study the design of the machinery involved and other related matters, so that such studies will help improvements. These research activities must be performed freely without any restrictions imposed by experience and practice in the past. The special examination committee has been established to fulfill this purpose.

Its organization was as follows [40]:

  • General members who did not attend subcommittee meetings

    • Chair: Isoroku Yamamoto, Vice Admiral, Administrative Vice Minister of the Navy

    • Members: Rear Admiral Inoue, Director of the Bureau of Naval Affairs, the Ministry of the Navy and five other members

  • First subcommittee for dealing with engine design and planning

    • Members: Leader: Shipbuilding Vice Admiral Fukuma, Director of the Fifth Department (including the turbine group), the Technical Headquarters of the Navy; and nine other members

  • Second subcommittee for dealing with the maximum engine power and suitable load/volume

    • Members: Leader: Rear Admiral Mikawa, Director of the Second Department, the Naval General Staff; and eleven other members

  • Third subcommittee for dealing with prior studies/experiments/systems and operations

    • Members: Leader: Rear Admiral Iwamura, Director of the General Affairs Department, the Technical Headquarters of the Navy; and ten other members

Ignoring duplication of members belonging to different subcommittees and arranging the net members by section, we obtain the following result (see Table 10.5).

Table 10.5 Members of the special examination committee by section

The accident, as mentioned above, concerned the breakage of turbine blades. Tracing back the history of the development of the marine turbine in Japan since 1918 when the Navy began to adopt geared turbines, we find that various failures occurred with main turbines. When we classify these failures during the period from 1918 to October 1944 by location, failures involving turbine blades account for 60 % of the total (see Table 10.6).Footnote 19

Table 10.6 Turbine failures on naval vessels classified by location: 1918–1944

The Imperial Japanese Navy had thus had many problems with turbine blades for many years and accumulated experience in handling them. Accordingly, it is unsurprising that the special examination committee took the accident as merely a routine problem from the outset based upon such a long and rich experience. In fact, the special examination committee drew a conclusion made up of two points, both of which were in line with such accumulated experience. First, the accident was caused by insufficient blade strength. Second, turbine rotor vibration made the insufficient strength emerge as a problem [41]. On the basis of this conclusion, a plan was worked out to improve the design of the blades and rotors of the Kanpon type turbines for all naval vessels. It was decided to change the form of the blades so as to make their stress concentration lower to enhance their strength [42]. The improvement of 61 naval vessels’ turbines was indicated as the first step, in accordance with the voluminous previous reports of 66 committee meetings held over a period of 10 months [43].

However, the blade breakage in the accident was significantly different from that in the past. In impulse turbines, for instance, blades in most cases were broken at the base where they were fixed to the turbine rotor. In contrast, one of the salient features of the Rinkichō accident was that the tip of the blade was broken off. The broken off part amounted to one third of the total length of the blade.Footnote 20 Figure 10.2 is a photograph showing the locus of the breakage.

Fig. 10.2
figure 2

Broken part of a blade in the Rinkichō accident (Source [42])

These facts indicated that the accident was significantly different from any previous routine problem. Yoshio Kubota, an Engineering Captain of the Navy who happened to be transferred to the Military Affairs Bureau in November 1938 when the special examination committee reported its conclusion, eventually noticed this point. It was not really permissible for a newcomer to the Military Affairs Bureau of the Navy to utter an objection to the latest conclusion of the special committee. In addition, six months before his transfer to the bureau, the Japanese government enacted the Wartime Mobilization Law on April 1, 1938 for the purpose of “controlling and organizing human and material resources most efficiently… in case of war” (Clause 1). Naval vessels came first in the specification of the law as “resources for wholesale mobilization” (Clause 2). Against this background of wartime mobilization, a naval engine failure caused by small tip fragments of the main standard engine was a very delicate matter for anyone to raise.Footnote 21 Despite the circumstances, Kubota strongly recommended that confirmation tests should be conducted again for naval vessels of the same type. He argued that if turbine rotor vibration was the true cause, then the failure would be repeatable when the engine was run continuously at the critical speed causing rotor vibration (nearly 6/10 to 10/10 of the full speed).Footnote 22

The Navy finally decided to initiate continuous-run tests equivalent to ten-year runs on April 1, 1939. No failure occurred. This provided the Navy with the simplest practical rationale for cancelling the overall remedial measures for all naval vessels, which were expected to require huge amounts of extra money and time.Footnote 23 An order was issued promptly to postpone the modification to the turbine blades and rotors of the Kanpon turbines for all naval vessels. At the same time, however, there was obviously an urgent need to consider the possibility of another cause and a study to identify the cause was restarted. The Maizuru Naval Dockyard conducted preliminary on-land tests and a more thorough one followed at the Hiro Naval Dockyard to confirm the conditions that would make the failure recur. However, the test was extremely difficult to carry out. There were two reasons for this. First, the complete test required the Dockyard to construct from scratch a full-scale experimental apparatus for a load test of vibration, which was only completed in December 1941, the month the war with the U.S. and Britain broke out. Second, the test turned out to be so large-scale, eventually extending to more than 35 main items, that it took far more time than expected. As a result, the schedule for identifying the cause, which was originally expected to be completed in November 1940, was extended to mid-1943.Footnote 24 Thus it is probable that all of Japan’s naval vessels had turbines which were imperfect for some unknown reason when the country went to war with the U.S. and Britain in 1941.

What, then, was the true cause for the accident? The true cause was binodal vibration. Previous efforts to avoid turbine vibration had been confined to one-node vibration at full speed since multiple-node vibration below full speed had been assumed to be hardly serious and unworthy of attention based on rule of thumb.Footnote 25 The final discovery of the true cause of the Rinkichō accident drastically changed the situation. It revealed that marine turbines are susceptible to a serious vibration problem below full speed. It was in April 1943 that this true cause was eventually identified by the final report of the special examination committee—almost one and half years after war broke out (see Fig. 10.3).Footnote 26

Fig. 10.3
figure 3

The front page of the final report of the special examination committee (Source [47])

Only three months before the submission of the report, a theoretical study made at the Hiro Naval Dockyard supported the conclusion that the true cause was binodal vibration.Footnote 27 The results of theoretical calculation, on-land confirmation testing, and the characteristics of the actual failure matched. The complete mechanism creating binodal vibration itself was still left for further studies. Even so, every result from the special examination committee that finally concluded in 1943 pointed to the same single cause: binodal vibration [52].Footnote 28

Strictly in terms of the technology involved in the accident without hindsight, therefore, all the evidence suggests that the Japanese government went to war in haste in 1941 notwithstanding the fact that it had unaccounted for, highly intricate, and serious problems with the main engines of all its naval vessels. And that fact was kept secret by the military sector from other sectors involved in the military-industrial-university complex, not to speak of the general public. The rarity of breakdowns of naval vessels due to turbine troubles during the war is a completely different matter, one of hindsight. Thus, the Rinkichō accident strongly suggests that practical results alone (for example, rarity of breakdowns of naval vessels due to turbine troubles) during wartime, possibly in peacetime as well, do not prove the essential soundness of the development trajectory of technology, and that of the science-technology-society interface and national decision-making along the trajectory.

7 The Sociological Implications for the Fukushima Daiichi Accident: Beyond Success or Failure

The sociological implications of this Rinkichō accident that happened much earlier than the Fukushima Daiichi accident are closely related to the reasons why we can call it a little-known “structural disaster.” One of the reasons is that it was much more serious and complex than expected and therefore kept secret from outsiders. This fact requires us to reconsider the development trajectory of technology beyond the simplistic dichotomy of success or failure throughout peacetime and wartime. According to a standard view of the history of technology in general, Japan proceeded to a self-reliant phase with the establishment of the Kanpon type turbine in the 1920s, after improvements made to deal with various problems and failure incidents. In short, a successful self-reliant phase followed subsequent to improvements after various failures.

And it has been assumed up to now that this trajectory enabled Japan to go to war in 1941. According to the description and analysis of the Rinkichō accident given above, however, the trajectory becomes much more complex than the conventional “success story” account suggests, since there was a serious but little known missing phase, one of “self-reliant failure,” which the Navy was unable to completely solve by the outbreak of the war. Considering this in association with the similarity in terms of technological trajectory such that the reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi power station embody the turning point leading from licensed production to self-reliant production, there is the possibility that the Fukushima Daiichi accident was a “self-reliant failure” in the sense mentioned above.

There is another reason why we can describe the Rinkichō accident as a little-known “structural disaster.” The reason is that the recognition of binodal turbine blade vibration as the true cause was beyond the knowledge of the usual turbine designer of the day. This type of problem is supposed to have been unrecognized until the postwar period. In the postwar period, avoiding turbine blade vibration caused by various resonances still provided one of the most critical topics for research on turbine design.Footnote 29 The Imperial Japanese Navy certainly managed, after the serious technological and organizational errors of the Rinkichō accident that was kept secret from outsiders, eventually to detect the universal true cause during the war. But its complete solution seems not to have been found after the detection of the true cause.Footnote 30

In short, the problem was detected in the prewar period, but its final solution was left until after the war.Footnote 31 Far beyond the simplistic dichotomy of success or failure throughout peacetime and wartime, this hidden and little known “structural disaster”, an important snapshot of a serious failure of Japan’s self-reliant prewar technology, gives a significant confirmation of the functional disintegration of the network of the relationships linking the military and industrial sectors. That is to say, the incident enables us to look at a secret military problem-finding and investigation, and pioneering but partial diagnosis without a well-informed industrial problem-solving process. This was the end state of the military-industrial-university complex in the prewar period in which a pitfall was present within the success in technological development, from which the postwar industrial reconstruction in Japan started.

This will provide an important guideline for characterizing and understanding the Fukushima Daiichi accident beyond the simplistic dichotomy of success or failure. This is because the kind of fresh account exemplified here, which goes beyond a dichotomous narration, has tended to be unduly neglected up to now in the sociology of science and technology and particularly in relation to the sociological studies on extreme events such as the Fukushima Daiichi accident. As a matter of fact, the Rinkichō accident that occurred after a long history of successful technological development reminds us of its structural similarity to the Fukushima Daiichi accident that happened after a long successful operation of nuclear reactors closely associated with the myth of safety.

Another sociological implication that could be obtained from this hidden accident pertains to the social context of organizational errors involved in “structural disaster.” As mentioned earlier, the social context of the Rinkichō accident is the wartime mobilization of science and technology, which was authorized by the Wartime Mobilization Law in 1938 and the Research Mobilization Ordinance in the next year. This formal legal foundation gave rise to one of the salient features of the wartime mobilization of science and technology, namely the structural interdependence of the military-industrial-university complex under the control of the military sector. The military sector controlled the overall mobilization, in which the industrial sector and universities had to obey orders given by the military. This was associated with an extremely secretive attitude of the military toward outsiders. According to Hidetsugu Yagi who invented the pioneering Yagi antenna, a crucial component technology of radars, and in 1944 became the president of the Board of Technology, the central governmental authority specially set up for the wartime mobilization of science and technology, the military “treated civilian scientists as if they were foreigners.”Footnote 32

Thus, even at the central governmental authority specially set up to integrate every effort for the wartime mobilization of science and technology, cooperation, not to speak of coordination, with the military sector was very limited and the military-industrial-university complex began to lose its overall integration. Particularly in terms of the relationship between the military and industrial sectors, functional disintegration went further. What is important here is the fact that this functional disintegration of the network of relationships linking the military and industrial sectors was taking place just at the time the strong structural integration of the complex was formally being reinforced by the Wartime Mobilization Law and the Research Mobilization Ordinance.

And this coupling of structural integration and functional disintegration during wartime mobilization provides a suitable background for redefining success and failure not only in prewar Japan’s context but in the current context of the Fukushima Daiichi accident. The reason for this is that the social context of organizational errors involved in the Rinkichō accident provides us with an important insight such that if the Fukushima Daiichi accident is a “structural disaster” it could have some characteristics similar to the coupling of structural integration and functional disintegration. For example, functional disintegration of the network of relationships linking the government, TEPCO officials, and the relevant reactor designers of makers might be taking place just at the time the strong structural integration of the government-industrial-university complex was formally reinforced by the seemingly well-organized ordinances and laws revolving around the “double-check” system within a single ministry in the past and that between two ministries now, between METI and the Ministry of the Environment, ministry-bounded in either case.

8 Conclusion: Prospects for the Future

From the perspective of “structural disaster”, there are two different kinds of similarities between the Rinkichō accident and the Fukushima Daiichi accident: one relating to technological trajectory, the other to the social context of organizational errors.

First, regarding similarity between the two accidents in terms of technological trajectory, both accidents took place in the stage of domestic or almost entirely domestic production of a technology once produced through license contracts after a successful operation of domestically produced technologies extending over 10–30 years. In that particular sense, both accidents could be categorized in the “self-reliant failure” type.

Second, there could be similarity between the two accidents in terms of the social context of organizational errors. This is because the coupling of structural integration and functional disintegration observed in the Rinkichō accident could similarly reside in the Fukushima Daiichi accident, particularly with respect to the relationships between the governmental and industrial sectors.

Of course, there are differences between the two accidents. Among other things, the difference in the way organizational errors came to be detected and corrected is noteworthy. In the Rinkichō accident, the conclusion once submitted by the final report of the special examination committee and authorized by the organization in question was dynamically cancelled by carefully observed facts regardless of the rank in the organization of those who pointed out the facts and the past experience accumulated in the organization. Such a dynamic reconsideration of alternative possibilities that upset the face-saving procedure within a specific organization triggered the restart of the examination leading to a drastically different conclusion. In the Fukushima Daiichi accident, in contrast, up until now there has been no sign showing the working of this kind of dynamic correction of organizational errors. At least looking at inside stories of TEPCO, Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), and other governmental bodies that have been disclosed one after another, one might rather well suspect the working of mutual “cover-ups” within and/or between those organizations in question, though the possibility of the dynamic correction of organizational errors might still be left open. This difference is noteworthy because, even with the working of such a dynamic correction of organizational errors, reconsideration of alternative possibilities, and restarting of development, the timing of the realization of the true cause of the Rinkichō accident was too late for Japan to check the soundness of national decision-making before going to war in haste in 1941.

In sum, putting together the similarity between the Rinkichō accident and the Fukushima Daiichi accident as “structural disaster” and their difference as to whether the dynamic correction of organizational errors and the reconsideration of alternative possibilities could work, there remains the possibility that the causes of “structural disaster” embedded in the Fukushima Daiichi accident will continue in a path-dependent manner. In such a case, the science-technology-society interface surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi accident will probably be unable to tolerate another impact that could be given by serious and unexpected events such as a second huge earthquake and tsunami and/or the difficulty of decontamination within some of the reactors in question and their abrupt uncontrollability.

One of the most important lessons from understanding the Fukushima Daiichi accident as “structural disaster” based on scrutinizing the hidden one that happened much earlier is how to avoid the worst state of this kind. That is to say, the seemingly structurally robust but functionally disintegrated science-technology-society interface due to secrecy should be changed. By the same token, while various communication activities to facilitate links between science, technology, and society had been carried out with public funds as represented in café scientifique before the Fukushima Daiichi accident, it turns out that there had been only one café scientifique on anything nuclear (held on July 24, 2010) out of 253 carried out in the Tohoku district including Fukushima prefecture. And yet the topic taken up there had nothing to do with any kind of risk from nuclear power plants, not to speak of extreme events such as the Fukushima Daiichi accident.Footnote 33 This implies that various activities supposed to facilitate well-balanced links between science, technology, and society in reality did nothing in advance about the communication of the negative aspect of nuclear power plants and therefore played no role in early warning against extreme events such as the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

As long as this kind of functional disintegration of the science-technology-society interface continues to exist and operate behind the façade of structural integration, such a state can lead to a similar dangerous weakness in quite a different and larger-scale social context. The possibility of functional disintegration through structural interdependence accompanied with secrecy and the suppression of negative information under the name of communication activities could constitute one of the important symptoms of “structural disaster.” This state should be changed by the will of the people who are suffering from the Fukushima Daiichi accident for the purpose of instituting a significant structural remedy, the remedy which is far beyond counter measures that only temporarily patch over individual troubles coming into sight at the moment and serve to save face of responsible agents concerned.