How Deregulation Foretold Nuclear Disaster In Japan

Deregulation and the Japanese Nuclear Disaster

There will be a postmortem to determine the cause of the nuclear accident in Japan at Fukushima, and all the usual suspects will be rounded up for interrogation. One, however, will get a nod and a wink without any serious investigation: deregulation. It’s the linchpin of the problem, but it will get nary more than a cursory examination.

In the neoliberal world economy, deregulation and free markets are the Holy Grail on the altar at which we’re all forced to worship. Speaking badly about deregulation is like talking about someone’s mother; it’s simply not done. However, to exclude it from the discussion condemns us to another such tragedy. It’s time this thorny issue be addressed and resolved, once and for all, for the good of every living creature on the planet.

Deregulation is defined as, “the removal of government controls from an industry or sector, to allow for a free and efficient marketplace.” It sounds like a good thing to do. After all, don’t we in the West worship freedom, and shouldn’t everything be free, including markets? Certainly we want to be efficient, but what constitutes efficiency?

Having watched deregulation in action for 30 years, I will propose my own definition. Deregulation is about removing all controls, no matter how essential, in the name of generating the highest profits possible. Deregulation is the sanctification of greed.

Deregulation of Japan’s energy sector began in earnest in 2000, allowing commercial and industrial consumers using over 20kilovolts/2000kilowatts to contract with the providers of their choice. By 2005, 63% of Japan’s energy industry was privatized, creating a frenetic race to reduce costs. In an industry fraught with inherent hazards, it incentivized those least likely to act responsibly to be themselves.


Anyone who’s ever worked in a corporate environment knows the drill: when revenues are flat, managers are pressured to create profits through other efficiencies, i.e. reducing costs through labor, material, capital or advertising expenditures.

In the United States, the BP oil-spill disaster was precipitated by deregulation of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and BP was unable to cut off the flow of oil, it brought to light the fact that there was no acoustic switch installed. Required by most other countries, it would have given BP the ability to shut down the well the day of the accident. Unfortunately for the residents of the Gulf Coast, the Bush administration had gutted these types of safety requirements, and the oil flowed for months.

Deregulation was sold to us with the common sense argument that corporations will act responsibly without oversight, just as we do when making our personal purchasing decisions. My Dad always warned me never to buy the cheapest of anything, and invariably I’ve regretted it when I’ve not heeded that advice. That’s because I stood responsible for the cost to correct that prior bad decision, but corporate executives don’t have that pressure. Whatever method creates the biggest profit — even if it threatens lives and jobs — is the modus operandi.

Ideally, corporations would self-regulate by adherence to a best practices manifesto which always had safety as its primary concern. Unfortunately, we live in a world inextricably tied to quarterly profit reports and stock prices. By filling today’s need as cheaply as possible, with little regard for events more than three months down the road, profits, and therefore management bonuses, are maximized. Most corporate executives know that when the day of reckoning for their decisions arrive, likely someone else will be sitting in that chair.


In a previous life, writer Greg Palast served as a lead investigator in several government nuclear plant fraud and racketeering investigations. These are his words regarding what he found at a nuclear power plant investigation in New York:

Back in the day, when we checked the emergency backup diesels in America, a mind-blowing number flunked. At the New York nuclear plant, for example, the builders swore under oath that their three diesel engines were ready for an emergency. They’d been tested. The tests were faked; the diesels run for just a short time at low speed. When the diesels were put through a real test under emergency-like conditions, the crankshaft on the first one snapped in about an hour, then the second and third. We nicknamed the diesels, “Snap, Crackle and Pop.”

The investigation at Fukushima will likely center around the location of the backup generators that failed, placed where the tsunami could damage them, but there’s no guarantee they would have worked anyhow. Safety regulations required a backup system, so in New York they got the cheapest generators they could find to comply with the letter of the law, disregarding its spirit. Had there been a SCRAM at the New York facility prior to Palast’s investigation, it’s likely those generators would have failed and those plants would’ve melted down too, all in the name of profit.

If this is what they do when regulations are in place, what would it be like if we relied in good faith on their promises that they would behave responsibly?

Military personnel have a propensity for dark humor. A standing joke was that our government and our people thought so highly of us that they were willing to send us to war using materials and munitions provided by the lowest bidder. You’ll never get more than you pay for in this world.

There are 23 boiling water reactors designed by General Electric in the US similar to those that are melting down in Fukushima. Fortunately, none are on the West Coast along the San Andreas fault, though some are in the Midwest around the New Madrid fault. Regardless, should some emergency or natural disaster cause a SCRAM at those reactors, will the backup diesel generators function properly, or will their driveshafts snap like twigs?

Things cost what they cost, yet men who wouldn’t dream of putting cheap brake pads in their car will buy generators that they know are insufficient to serve as backups at nuclear power plants. It’s the Achilles’ heel of capitalism — how to protect the collective good from corporate greed — but unfortunately the price is paid by all and not just those who circumvent regulations.



Larry Wohlgemuth was raised during the tumultuous 60s in the midst of sometimes violent civil rights and antiwar protests. After a stint in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, he earned a BBA degree from Washburn University. Wohlgemuth leans so far to the left he prefers to be called “Comrade”, and his book, “Capitalism’s Final Solution” is planned to be released in the spring, 2011. Larry is a contributor to Prose Before Hos and runs his own blog, It Begs the Question.


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  1. Nathan says:

    It is interesting that you ignore limited liability in your somewhat convoluted and self serving argument. The fact that managers and investors can not be ultimately held responsible for the death and destruction their actions cause is quite a strong incentive to partake in risky behavior. Of course, the reason you ignore this is because limited liability was created by government at the behest of business.

    Furthermore, as an ardent socialist I’m sure it’s never creeped into your mind that 99% of regulations only act to help current businesses and cement their profits at the cost to consumers. Nor has it entered your mind that the most widely recognized regulating agency in the world is Underwriters Laboratory, a private company.

    As if your argument couldn’t have any more holes punched into it, Nuclear would have little chance of surviving on a true free market. With profits that can take 10 years or more to realize, and a waste product that takes thousands of years before it’s safe, the only Nuclear plants built today are funded and insured by the government. In fact, lacking a centralized body to tell us where we should get electricity many more people might install their own solar panels, or load leveling battery systems to buy energy when it’s cheap, and use it when the cost goes up. But this is impossible in an industry regulated, controlled, and ruined by government tampering.

    • Anonymous says:


    • I’d rather have the government managing nuclear facilities than private business: the latter has an awful track record when compared to government. That said the age of the live vote is upon us: if you don’t like what your government is doing, change your vote. A government that could be in one day and out tomorrow will respond very differently to what the people want.

  2. novenator says:

    If you think the push for deregulation is over anywhere in the world, look out, because they haven’t even begun to maximize profits at your expense yet. The future is starting to look more like Aliens (run by evil, greedy corporations) than Star Trek (an enlightened world government), and the only thing that matters to corporations is the almighty profit (things like regulation, safety, health, and living wages stand in the way of that).

  3. Jeff says:

    ” Deregulation is the sanctification of greed.”

    Because regulation can never be caused by greed. Deregulation is just a thing, neither inherently good or bad; how it’s applied is more important. I’m all for removing bad regulations, just as I’m all for enacting good regulation. But your assumption that “all regulation is good” is, I feel, just as dangerous as Gordon Gecko’s creed. If you really cared about the issue, you should be fomenting better critical thinking skills so that people can recognized when they’re being bamboozled, not doing what you can to further dumb down the populace.

  4. Matt says:

    Good work on using the unprecedented disaster in Japan as a way of gaining attention for your anti-deregulation spiel.

    “The investigation at Fukushima will likely center around the location of the backup generators that failed, placed where the tsunami could damage them, but there’s no guarantee they would have worked anyhow.”
    And you have some kind of evidence that the generators themselves wouldn’t function properly if not for the tsunami? Or is this just pure speculation based on a totally different US example?

    The Fukushima plant has been in operation for decades before the deregulation of the energy industry in Japan. To blame the nuclear issue at Fukushima on deregulation is illogical.

    I don’t necessarily agree with deregulation (if it isn’t done right) but what happened in Japan was an unprecedented natural disaster pure and simple. The resulting nuclear problems at the plant were caused by said natural disaster that no one could have predicted, and wouldn’t have been prevented even if the plant had never been deregulated.

    • Deregulation was a significant contributing factor. The whole neo-con movement in monetarism is DEAD. It doesn’t work. It’s created all kinds of problems. We require careful scientifically studied regulations to keep things going. Sociopathic Capitalism is just that.

  5. Ruben says:

    Tthe nuclear power plants were rated only for an 8.2 earthquake, not a 9.0. Because of the nonlinear nature of the scale, that is actually an earthquake 7 times stronger, which (I believe) is unprecedented for Japan. Unlike the BP oil spill, all safety systems performed up to spec, indeed beyond spec. No serious radiation leak has occurred, and virtually no possibility of one threatening to the general population exists.

    While it would be nice if plants could withstand anything nature could throw out, at some point we must decide how many safety systems are enough. Any radiation leak so far is less than that of most coal plants. Even if somehow a meltdown still occurred, the final safety system of the concrete containment vessel is still inplace. The worst that could happen is that the plant cannot be repaired. New specifications now require powerplants to withstand 9.0 earthquakes(which according to Japenese nuclear engineers means it will in all likelihood withstand a 9.1 or 9.2). This is not a failure of deregulation. If you want to point fingers, point them at the fact that there are no backup power facilities, and now many people in Japan are freezing with no heat.

    • kaz says:

      Huh? I live in the area of the Fukushima plant, and there is a leak–that’s why I was evacuated from my home and am told not to eat food from the area or drink tap water. And, yes a 9.0 quakes is unprecedented in Japan, it was not unforeseen. This is earthquake and tsunami country! Japan gets 80% of the world’s big ones (magnitude 5.0 or stronger) and scientists have been predicting this particular big one, exactly where it happened, for decades. So, if the plant couldn’t have been built to withstand a 9.0 + tsunami, then it shouldn’t have been built. I’m to tired to argue all your points (maybe the radiation is taking my energy). You are way off base on everything.

  6. Ghenghis Khan and his brother Don says:

    Nate, limited liability can be seen as a form of ‘deregulation’ whereby business is legally taken off the hook and can hardly be considered a form of regulation as you attempt to put it.

    You also err in saying that Underwriters Laboratory is a ‘regulating agency’ since they have no power to enforce anything; they merely develop standards and test for them in various fields. They can tell a client whether or not their device meets a certain standard but have no power to force them to make adjustments. They could have told Fukushima Daiichi (for instance) that their diesel generators only put out xxx foot/pounds (or N/m) or torque and were “substandard” or that their ‘anti-tsunami’ barriers were 6.298″ too short according to ISO standards, but could not have done anything about this. This is measurement not regulation.

    And, as if your counterargument couldn’t be any weaker, I would have to say that your last statement describes rather the epitome of deregulation: nationalize risk and privatize profit. Yes indeed, get the state to foot the bill for funding and insuring my factory and I’ll take in the profit, thank you kindly. When the sh*t hits the fan, I’ll already be on a beach sipping on my margarita, what do I care. One last thing…I’m sure the big US banks were really pissed off by government intervention during the last economic meltdown and really wishing the government hadn’t written those billion dollar cheques. I know if I were AIG or Goldman Sachs, I would have been *very* upset to get all that money.

    May good thoughts inhabit your souls

    Ghenghis Khan and Don (brother)

  7. myne says:

    ALL BWR’s should be retrofitted with Stirling engines mechanically driving the coolant pumps.

    Yes, there is always the possibility of a crank failure, so I’d suggest multiples that are each capable of supplying enough torque to achieve X% of full operational load. They must each be capable of 100% of non-operational load.

    Heat is their fuel.
    Being underwater would only improve their efficiency.
    Had Stirling engines been installed in Japan, they should have been able to completely control the situation. No power. No diesel. No oxygen. Only the heat of the very reactors they are there to cool.

  8. […] The PBH Network: Is deregulation partly responsible for the nuclear nightmare in Japan? […]

  9. rickrocket says:

    Just for your information, a SCRAM or Reactor Trip is the safety action that shuts the reactor down in an emergency. You want this to happen. What happened in Japan was a LOOP or Loss Of Offsite Power. This is the condition that requires the operation of emergency diesel generators. Most plants in the US have 2 diesels per unit (one has 3), and only one of these is required to maintain safe shutdown conditions. These diesels are run monthly in a full load test that lasts a minimum of 4 hours, and quarterly they are run in a time-response loading test. You are entitled to your opinion and your opposition to nuclear power, but your argument would be better if you actually included correct data and terminology.

  10. kaz says:

    Excellent article. You are bang on. I can’t beleive all these ignorant monkeys commenting here. I live in the area of the Fukushima plant and was evacuated by my embassy. Bottom line is deregulation and privatization lead to cuts and compromises that lower the standard of safety (not to mention the toll it takes on workers and the environment). This article in no way is poorly timed or uses the tragedy to promote your cause as some here have suggested. By highlighting the true causes of this nuclear disaster it does justice to the victims. Believe me, they blame the TEPCO power company in this also and are very angry that deregulation has led to this.

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  12. Another Freelance Writer says:

    “It’s time this thorny issue be addressed and resolved, once and for all, for the good of every living creature on the planet.”

    You’re so glib and uninformed I’m not sure if I should feel sorry for you or refer you to Fox News. I applaud your use of the disaster in Japan in some pathetic attempt to rant about deregulation. Good work not citing a fucking thing, especially when you “define” what deregulation is. Garbage like this is what gives the rest of us freelance writers a bad name. I’m a recent UO grad with a BA in English and I’m struggling to find steady income in the freelance writing industry because of the overwhelming number of no talent assclowns flooding the market. Any dumbass with a keyboard and internet connection can spout their opinions nowadays with no legitimate sources or citations to back them up. Thank you for being the final nail in the coffin steering me away from this bullshit industry once and for all.

  13. “WTF…a sea burial?”

    I didnt realize OBL was a fkg viking!! I wonder how long theyve had his ugly ass on ice? According to Bhetto, he was killed in ’07…..alot of Con.Theorists claim it was longer ago than that! Obama claims it JUST happened…SPLAT… brain just exploded! Its a definite sign o’ the times when a huge % of Americans, upon hearing “we killed osama”, had that same cynical, skeptical reaction that I did…the one that tells us “this is just some more BS they expect us to believe”…IDK…maybe its me..maybe i’ve just given too much brain space to Alex and Icke? Ima go outside and run a mile and breath in the chemically altered air and see if my head feels better…

    lata people!!

  14. I was a columnist in the Middle East Times for 5 years. My column was titled “One Woman’s View.” I’m a gender expert with a BA in Economics-Political Science. two master’s degrees and A PhD in Mass Communication. I was supposed to fight for women’s empowerment in my column and I did. As time passed though I started to write in all topics, especially politis.

  15. I wrote a novel in English and published in the USA titled Yesterday Is Gone Forever. Ben Laden was just murdered. My novel was about Shoukri Moustafa, our Egyptian Ben Laden. Moustafa wanted Moslems, and everybody else if possible, to go back in time and live in the exact mannr in which Prophet Mohamed lived. He had many followers in Egypt and the Arab World. As I didn’t agree with him hence the title of my novel: Yesterday Is Gone forever.

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