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Questioning “Cultural” Explanations—an Investigative Article on Nuclear Safety at a U.S. Reactor (Dreux Richard, Japan Times, 11 March 2013)

Comments contributed by
Sharon Traweek (UCLA)

Dear colleagues,

A long investigative news article by Dreux Richard published 11 March 2013 in the Japan Times concerns a US nuclear power plant. Among other topics it addresses safety cultures at nuclear power plants in Japan & the US, as well as the role of management practices in shaping those practices: “Toxic management erodes safety at worlds safest nuclear plant: Echoes of Fukushima at Exelon’s flagship Byron Station in Illinois,”[1] The Exelon Corporation Byron Generating Station is about 110 miles (175 km) west of Chicago, near the Wisconsin border. (See these links: exeloncorp[2] / Wikipedia[3])

Two excerpts from that article:

“…As in Fukui and Fukushima prefectures — which, like Illinois, host a disproportionate number of their nation’s nuclear power stations — local taboos tend to keep public discussion of the plant’s troubles to a minimum…”

“… In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, many of Byron’s operators have bristled at the notion that that disaster bore a uniquely Japanese cultural imprint. “A lot has been made of the ‘cultural element’ of what precipitated the accident at Fukushima,” said one Byron reactor operator. “Even in that official [Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission] report. And that provides an excuse for American nuke companies: ‘Oh, that was a Japanese problem.’ But Byron is the poster child for that type of cultural failure. Ask …”

A Japanese governmental investigation of the Fukushima reactor failures cited Japanese culture as one source of the problem; see the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission Report, October 2012.



The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is about 160 miles (260 km) northeast of Tokyo.

Many find that exceptionalism claim annoying, not least because it suggests that no one is responsible. For a quick description of the problems with exceptionalism and the way it has been used in various contexts, such as in Nihonjinron, see

Furthermore, anthropologists are quite familiar with the errors of using culture as a so-called default explanation (often invoked when choosing to not provide other strong explanations).

Sharon Traweek, UCLA Gender Studies & History Departments, UCLA, USA


For more information on the Japan Times [established 1897}  In Japan investigative reports by journalists usually are published in weekly or monthly news magazines, not newspapers. See this wikipedia essay on the kisha club system for newspaper reporting

See this Apr 26, 2011 New York Times article on the so-called nuclear power village (genshi-ryoku mura) in Japan, sometimes translated into English as the ‘nuclear mafia.’

Search for “nuclear power” “regulatory culture” at to access 197 articles in scholarly journals; adding the word Japan to that search will reduce the list to 63.


* Yes, I am well aware that some colleagues scorn the use of Wikipedia; note that most of the pages are in many languages and they often have useful links. I also urge scorners to read some Wikipedia page in their own area of expertise, and if they find errors, correct them.


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