What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 1:9
These words are said to have been penned by King Solomon around 3,000 years ago. Perhaps they were an augury of Japan’s nuclear industry. I’m sure somewhere there’s an original text that reads, “In the Land of the Melting Sun.”
Here’s the basic pattern: An accident occurs in Japan’s nuclear industry; those in charge fail to deal with it well; people suffer; those in charge lie to the public; finally they admit it and apologize profusely. Then the cycle is repeated.
The latest revelations of leaks from at least one of more than 1,000 storage tanks being used to store radiation-contaminated water at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco) are really nothing new; it’s just another in a series of follies being handled in an irresponsible and short-sighted way.
True to form, while the media had been reporting on the problem for weeks, Tepco had denied it. Finally — and oddly, just after July’s Upper House elections — there was the admission, the obligatory apology, and an announcement by the Japanese government that it would come to the rescue.
They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it — yet the patterns of mishaps in Japan’s nuclear industry that I write about are so reproducible as to give me a strange sense of déjà vu. We have been here before.
The explosions and meltdowns of three reactors at Tepco’s Fukushima facility in March 2011, leading to massive leaks of radiation, comprised the world’s worst nuclear disaster since a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the USSR (present-day Ukraine) in April 1986. In the northeastern Tohoku region of Honshu, where the Fukushima plant is located, more than 100,000 people have been forced to evacuate due to high radiation levels and the cleanup will likely take at least 40 years.
Tepco at first blamed the accident on “an unforeseen massive tsunami” triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011. Then it admitted it had in fact foreseen just such a scenario but hadn’t done anything about it.
A Special Diet Commission reporting in July 2012, and other studies, concluded that the earthquake alone probably damaged the cooling system of the Fukushima plant’s 40-year-old Reactor 1 so badly that, even before the tsunami, meltdown was inevitable because it would overheat so much.
In other words, some of Japan’s nuclear power plants may be unable to withstand an earthquake. Not a comforting thought in a country that has constant seismic activity.
Of course, “nuclear meltdown” itself was denied for months. Even up to May 2011, while the foreign media had long labeled the Fukushima disaster “a triple meltdown,” Tepco — and the national government — stonewalled, insisting that meltdown had not been confirmed.
Then finally, just a week before members of an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation team were to arrive in Japan, the government and Tepco admitted the facts — with the usual ritual apologies.
The current leakage problems at the Fukushima plant are even more baffling to those of us blessed with a memory. That’s because, in December 2011, the government announced that the plant had reached “a state of cold shutdown.” Normally, that means radiation releases are under control and the temperature of its nuclear fuel is consistently below boiling point. Great! Mission accomplished! Let’s go home.
Unfortunately, though, if Tepco stops pumping coolant into the reactors to keep their temperature down, then they won’t be in “a state of cold shutdown” anymore.
And thanks to the haphazard cleanup at the plant, even just a few rats can jeopardize that shutdown. Yes, rats — not Tepco executives, but real furry rodents.
The plant is being run on makeshift equipment and breakdowns are endemic. Among nearly a dozen serious problems since April this year there have been successive power outages, leaks of highly radioactive water from underground water pools — and a rat that chewed enough wires to short-circuit a switchboard, causing a power outage that interrupted cooling for nearly 30 hours. Later, the cooling system for a fuel-storage pool had to be switched off for safety checks when two dead rats were found in a transformer box. Perhaps there’s a secret Tepco PR manual 101: When in doubt, blame the rats.
However, the words of a top Tepco exec should be of some comfort: “I wish to express regret for the recent cases of misconduct at our company, which eroded public confidence in the nuclear power industry. We will do everything … to prevent similar incidents and to maintain safety. We will promote release of information in order to reassure the general public that we are making sincere efforts, and to convince them that ‘Tepco is trustworthy’ again.”
All very well — but those remarks were made in 2003 by then Tepco Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata after the company admitted to extensive falsifying of safety records for more than a decade. The coverups included dangerous problems in a number of its aging nuclear power plants.
At that time, the entire nuclear industry came under great scrutiny. Reform had come. And just to show lessons had been learned, there were further apologies in 2004, when five workers at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Mihama nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture were scalded to death by steam leaking from a corroded pipe that hadn’t been inspected since 1976. Well, apologies are cheap; safety is expensive.
Do you see the pattern? My guess is there is only one way to stop it, and that’s to finally pull the plug on Japan’s nuclear energy industry. We can only trust them to do one thing: place profits first, wreak havoc, lie about it and then apologize. But I don’t think that works so well anymore.
Investigative journalist Jake Adelstein is the author of “Tokyo Vice,” a board member of Polaris Project Japan and a contributor to The Atlantic Wire and japansubculture.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.