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Japan should shun treaty that will shield nuclear tech suppliers

Dear Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida,

Although you are probably unaware, longtime readers of The Japan Times may recall that in April 2011, I sent an open letter to then Prime Minister Naoto Kan (“Who pays for nuclear nightmare?” Hotline to Nagata-cho, April 19, 2011) asking about who was going to pay for the massive costs resulting from the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

This question was prompted in part by the existence of documents revealing that as early as November 1971, officials at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) expressed concern about design flaws in General Electric’s Mark I nuclear reactors. All of the reactors that experienced meltdowns at Fukushima No. 1 were of this type.

In fact, in a memo dated Sept. 25, 1972, the top safety official at the AEC, Joseph Hendrie, agreed that elements of the General Electric (GE) reactor design could contribute to a core meltdown in the event of an accident. However, he refused to take action because doing so “could well mean the end of nuclear power.”

Further, by 1976, three GE nuclear engineers became so concerned about the dangerous shortcomings of the GE design that they resigned their highly paid positions in protest and testified about the reasons they had done so before the U.S. Congress. Yet no substantive corrective action was taken.

While this may now seem like old news, the question of who is going to pay for the massive and ever-growing cost associated with the 30-to-40-year-plus cleanup and associated compensatory damages has yet to be finalized, beyond ad hoc financial assistance dished out to Tepco by the Japanese government — i.e., ultimately by taxpayers in Japan, both Japanese and foreign.

The question now is whether this is fair in the face of possible financial liability on the part of GE, especially since the company built part of the Fukushima No. 1 complex as a turnkey operation. GE was also involved in shaving down the 35-meter-high cliff at the plant’s construction site to only 10 meters above sea level, thereby greatly increasing the plant’s vulnerability to tsunami.

Is GE financially liable for its part in the Fukushima No. 1 disaster? No one can answer that question until a thorough investigation of the relevant facts and applicable laws has been undertaken. Yet such an investigation has not been conducted either in Japan or anywhere else. Why not?

What gives this question particular urgency are recent news reports that Japan is now preparing to sign a treaty known as the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage. This treaty assigns accident liability entirely to plant operators rather than equipment and technology vendors.

At the moment, this treaty is not yet legally binding inasmuch as it requires a total of five countries to ratify it. At present only four nations have done so: the U.S., Romania, Morocco and Argentina. Thus, if Japan ratifies this treaty, it will, as the fifth nation, bring this treaty into force.

On Nov. 1, Kyodo News reported that you, Foreign Minister Kishida, intend to ask the Diet to ratify this treaty early next year. Ratification would appear to make examination of GE’s responsibility for the Fukushima disaster moot since, moving forward, Japan will be unable to hold GE or any other domestic or foreign nuclear equipment vendor financially liable, no matter how defective or dangerous the equipment they installed is. This is of special concern inasmuch as Japan currently has an additional 23 boiling water reactors of similar design to those in service at Fukushima No. 1.

I am aware there is a positive side to this treaty, i.e., that U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz recently promised assistance with the cleanup at Fukushima No. 1 once Japan ratifies the treaty. Yet, could the U.S. afford to be seen to be withholding technical assistance to Japan when the Pacific Ocean, the common resource of both nations, continues to serve as a sewer for Fukushima’s radioactively contaminated water?

But the real question, Foreign Minister Kishida, is this: As someone who is responsible for protecting Japan’s national interest, is it fair to taxpayers in Japan to be saddled either directly or indirectly with the massive costs of the Fukushima cleanup for a generation or more when there is good reason to believe that GE is legally liable for at least a portion of that cost?

As someone deeply attached to this country and its people, I appeal to you to postpone introducing this treaty to the Diet for ratification until the question of GE’s financial responsibility for the ongoing disaster has been clarified.

BRIAN VICTORIA

Kyoto

Send your comments on these issues and Hotline to Nagata-cho submissions of between 500 and 700 words to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Ryan Huang

    The corporation’s liability always argue that it is not their problem. GE had many issues in the past. for example, during the 1940′s,,According to wikipedia,” GE launched a giveaway program in which locals could receive PCB-contaminated material to use as fill. The recipients were required to sign a letter stating they were receiving clean fill and releasing GE for any subsequent problems.” IF that is the case, why did they even give the contaminated soil away? They don’t want to be liable for their own actions.

  • Ryan Huang

    GE knew about these hazardous reactor designs as early as 1972. They knew about these flaws long before Fukushima disaster. The same reactors are operating at a plant in Massachusetts.