Behind the escalating nuclear crisis sits a scandal-ridden energy industry in a cozy relationship with government regulators, who are often willing to overlook safety lapses.
Leaks of radioactive steam and workers contaminated with radiation are just part of the disturbing catalog of accidents that have occurred over the years and been belatedly reported to the public, if at all.
In one case, workers hand-mixed uranium in stainless steel buckets, instead of processing it by machine, so the fuel could be reused, exposing hundreds of workers to radiation. Two later died.
“Everything is a secret,” said Kei Sugaoka, a former nuclear power plant engineer in Japan who now lives in California. “There’s not enough transparency in the industry.”
Sugaoka worked at the same utility that runs the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, where workers are racing to prevent a full meltdown following the March 11 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami.
In 1989, Sugaoka received an order that horrified him: Edit out footage showing cracks in plant steam pipes in video being submitted to regulators. Sugaoka alerted his superiors in Tokyo Electric Power Co., but nothing happened — for years. He decided to go public in 2000, and three Tepco executives lost their jobs.
The legacy of scandals and coverups over Japan’s half-century reliance on nuclear power has strained its credibility with the public. That mistrust has been renewed this past week with the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. No evidence has emerged of officials hiding information in this catastrophe, but the vagueness and scarcity of details offered by the government and Tepco — and news that seems to grow worse each day — are fueling public anger and frustration.
“We don’t know what is true. That makes us worried,” said Taku Harada, chief executive of the Tokyo-based Internet startup Orinoco. Harada said his many American friends are being urged to leave the capital, while the Japanese government continues to say the area is safe, probably to avoid triggering panic.
The difference is unsettling, he said. He has rented an office in Osaka, 400 km to the southwest, to give his 12 employees the option of leaving Tokyo.
“We still don’t know the long-term effects of radiation,” he said. “That’s a big question.”
Tepco official Takeshi Makigami said experts are doing their utmost to bring the reactors under control.
“We are doing all that is possible,” he told reporters.
The government threw its support into nuclear power following World War II, worried that overdependence on imported oil could undermine Japan’s burgeoning economy, and the industry boomed in profile and influence. The country has 54 nuclear plants, which provide 30 percent of the nation’s energy needs, is building two more and studying proposals for a further 12.
Before the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima crisis and sent the economy reeling, Japan’s 11 utilities, many of them nuclear plant operators, were worth $139 billion on the stock market.
Tepco — the utility that supplies power for Tokyo — accounted for nearly a third of that market capitalization, but its shares have been battered since the disasters, falling 65 percent over the past week to ¥759 Thursday. Last month, it got a boost from the government, which renewed authorization for Tepco to operate Fukushima’s 40-year-old reactor No. 1 for another 10 years.
With such strong government support and a culture that ordinarily frowns upon dissent, regulators tend not to push for rigorous safety, said Amory Lovins, an expert on energy policy and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute.
“You add all that up and it’s a recipe for people to cut corners in operation and regulation,” Lovins said.
The United States, Japan’s close ally, has also raised questions about the coziness between Japanese regulators and industry and implicitly questioned Tokyo’s forthrightness over the Fukushima crisis. The director of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. ambassador this week issued bleaker assessments about the dangers at the plant than the Japanese government or Tepco.
Competence and transparency issues aside, some say it’s just too dangerous to build nuclear plants in an earthquake-prone nation like Japan, where land can liquefy during a major temblor.
“You’re building on a heap of tofu,” said Philip White of Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a group of scientists and activists who have opposed nuclear power since 1975.
“There is absolutely no reason to trust them,” he said of those that run the nuclear power plants.
Japan is haunted by memories of past nuclear accidents:
• In 1999, fuel-reprocessing workers were reported to be using stainless steel buckets to hand-mix uranium in flagrant violation of safety standards at a processing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. Two workers later died in what was the deadliest accident in the industry’s history.
• At least 37 workers were exposed to low doses of radiation in a 1997 fire and explosion at another nuclear reprocessing plant in Tokai. The operator, Donen, later acknowledged it had initially suppressed information about the fire.
• Hundreds of people were exposed to radiation and thousands evacuated in the more serious 1999 Tokai accident, which involved JCO Co. The government assigned the accident a level 4 rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale ranging from 1 to 7, with a mark of 7 being the most serious.
• In 2007, a powerful earthquake ripped into Japan’s northwest coast, killing at least eight people and causing malfunctions at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant, including radioactive water spills, burst pipes and fires. Radiation did not leak from the facility.
Tepco has safety violations that stretch back decades. In 1978, control rods at one Fukushima reactor dislodged but the accident was not reported because utilities were not required to notify the government of such accidents. In 2006, Tepco reported a negligible amount of radioactive steam seeped from the Fukushima plant — and blew beyond the compound.
Now with the public on edge over safety, Tatsumi Tanaka, head of Risk Hedge and a crisis management expert, believes the government would find it difficult to approve new plants in the future.
Tanaka says that, true to Japan’s dismal nuclear record, officials bungled the latest crisis, failing to set up a crisis team and appoint credible outside experts.