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Japan’s nuclear comedy just goes on and on

by Jake Adelstein

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 jakeadelstein@me.com.

  • Starviking

    What a lazy piece of journalism. If you believe this:

    “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.”

    Then TEPCO, or the people who had foreseen the tsunami are guilty of letting 20,000 people who could have been warned of the danger die.

    The alternative is that TEPCO did not foresee it, and the media is using general studies as another thing to beat TEPCO with.

    So, what is it? Are TEPCO or their advisors responsible for the deaths of 20,000 people – or is the media just sticking the boot in?

    • Eric

      We can’t blame TEPCO for the 20,000 deaths. Just for the lack of preparedness at the plant.

      I take more issue to:

      “The plant is being run on makeshift equipment and breakdowns are endemic.”

      Of course it is being run on makeshift equipment! Every nuclear accident is unique. It isn’t like when the fan belt snaps on your car, and you just slap on another one. TEPCO needs to get their act together, but this disaster is unique. It will take time to iron out the kinks in the system. If anyone thinks they can do it better, apply to TEPCO and give it a shot.

      • Starviking

        I’m more taking issue with people who effectively accuse TEPCO of knowing the tsunami was coming (false), but fail to wonder why, if this information was around, no one warned people on the Pacific coast of Tohoku.
        Good point on the uniqueness. Add the problems with retaining staff and the long-term prospects for effective action get dimmer.

  • Masa Chekov

    What is the point of this? It’s the same anti-nuclear editorial that JT has been running for years now, just with a different byline.

    We get it. You don’t like nuclear power. You don’t know much about it, but you don’t like it.

    • thedudeabidez

      You call this an “editorial” but most everything in the above piece is documented fact. What is known about nuclear power in Japan is that TEPCO plays fast and loose with safety and the truth.

      • Masa Chekov

        You folks love your semantics, don’t you? You say this is “documented fact”, but no, it’s semantics. Like the phrase “cold shutdown”. It’s a phrase, and it has a particular defined meaning. Yet Mr Adelstein and by extension here yourself take it to mean something completely different than what it actually means.

        It’s twisting words, and has no bearing on the actual status of the disaster.

        And quite clearly Mr Adelstein knows nothing about nuclear engineering or the actual status of the plant – so it seems he’s playing fast and loose with the truth as well.

    • JLSR

      I don’t think it’s a matter of whether someone likes or doesn’t like nuclear power. Just don’t eat the fish (or anything else from Japan to Hawaii)! Or if you feel there is no problem and don’t appreciate being informed of radioactive material seeping into the oceans and contamination of foodstuffs an d don’t mind when this information is covered up or denied–that’s fine. Most of us like to know. Forewarned is forearmed.

      • Masa Chekov

        Don’t overextend what I was saying.

        This is an editorial, it’s another know-nothing-but-I-have-an-opinion writer saying things that have already been said, repeatedly.

        I am all in favor of clear, accurate information delivered promptly and without bias. This editorial has none of that. That’s what I was saying.

    • douglas black

      Masa Chekov. You again… I get it. You support nuclear power & here you are making the rounds again to tidy up the mess. Getting ready to start rearranging facts again?

      • Masa Chekov

        Douglas Black. You again. Ready to start ignoring facts again? Ready to start playing semantic games again?

      • douglas black

        Facts, with track record.

      • Masa Chekov

        Pick a comment thread and stick to it.

    • Mike Wyckoff

      The only thing that hasn’t changed is Tepco’s desire to keep things quiet.

      For the record: I support nuclear power, but think TEPCO has stuffed it up for the rest of the power companies and nuclear power in Japan as a whole.

  • JS

    Unfortunately, Tepco’s tactics described in this article are a microcosm of the larger problems afflicting corporate Japan. These types of things are endemic in corporate Japan and are repeated time after time at companies all over Japan. The only difference is that some of these things have come out in the open in the case of Tepco, since it has been in the international spotlight due to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima.

    I can tell you from my personal experience working at Japanese companies that the lack of openness and transparency at many of these companies often results in unethical business practices, including, falsified reporting, concealment of facts, misreporting of information, forged documentation, and manipulation of data on the whims of the Japanese management. While these things may be beneficial to the respective management fiefdoms at these companies in the short term, they are very detrimental to Japan overall.

    • Moonraker

      And that goes for local and national government bureaucracies too. Appearance and being able to provide a sheaf of important-looking papers are what count most.

  • Eija Niskanen

    Not to forget the tens of thousand of animals, both farm animals and pets, who died because of this, and the continued problems for Fukushima farmers and fishermen to try and earn a living for themselves and their families.

  • JS

    In talking about a commedy of errors, consider this. BBC news is reporting today (Sept. 1) that Tepco is now saying that the radiation levels in the water that has leaked from the storage tanks at Fukushima nuclear plant is 1,800 millisieverts. This is 18 times higher than the earlier figure of 100 millisieverts per hour which Tepco reported recently.

    Why the 18-fold increase in the level of radiation? Well, the answer is quite unbelievable and comical. Apparently, Tepco’s earlier admission that the water leak contained 100 millisieverts of radiation was based on the fact that the measuring equipment Tepco used to measure radiation was flawed, since it could measure radiation ONLY up to a maximum of 100 millisieverts. Now that Tepco is using new measuring equipment which can measure radiation up to 10,000 millisieverts, Tepco has suddenly realized that the actual level of radiation in the leaking water is 18 times higher than it reported previously.

    It is truly mind boggling that this is the amateurish way that Tepco is handling one of the largest nuclear disasters this world has ever experienced.

  • Dallas

    In other words . Whatever TEPCO and the Government say about the plant we have to assume it’s 10 times worse.

  • Enkidu

    What is up with the parade of non-experts pontificating on the Fukushima disaster at the Japan Times? Here is Jake Adelstein, normally a smart guy, happily demonstrating for the world that he has zero science background.

    Here’s a link to the technical definition of “cold shutdown”: http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/basic-ref/glossary/cold-shutdown.html. You’ll see that it has nothing to do with the leak of contaminated water. Basic research, guys!

    And also, the July 2012 Special Diet Commission report did NOT conclude 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.” The report said that the earthquake inflicted damage on the plant, including damage to the cooling systems. No where did it then make the logical leap to this damage would result in the meltdown being “inevitable”. I invite everyone (including Mr. Adelstein and the Japan Times!) to review the report, available here: http://www.cas.go.jp/jp/seisaku/icanps/eng/final-report.html

  • Sam Gilman

    I admire Jack Adelstein. He has done some remarkable work, both as an incomer to be a bona fide Japanese newspaper reporter, and as a writer on the Yakuza. His accounts of TEPCO’s awful treatment of contract workers are invaluable.

    It’s therefore really disappointing to see Jake Adelstein carelessly fall in line with the trendy media set in Tokyo, a group of people never afraid to oversell their expertise, when it comes to what energy choices we actually face. Instead of standing against the wind and facing highly uncomfortable truths, he joins in the groupletsnothink.

    Adelstein says “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.”

    OK. Let’s do that. Only we’re not going to turn the lights off. So what do we do instead? I’m pretty sure Adelstein’s answer, like the rest of the media set, is “build solar, build wind, turn onsens into geothermal powerhouses”. Great. Suddenly all these people are experts in energy. Problem solved, we can all go home and hang out with our media friends and tweet till we’re silly.

    This is where Jake Adelstein’s instinct for getting up people’s noses could be really useful. The big uncomfortable truth is that Japan is in a very, very bad position to power itself substantially from renewables. Because of population density (unless we want to start mowing down lots of our forests, there isn’t enough land even to generate the equivalent of current energy demand using current or near-future renewables technology, geography (not enough hydro for power or storage, nor geothermal – we’re rather more densely populous than Iceland), latitude (not enough, nor constant enough, sun), location (isolated grid unable to balance out supplies of sun and wind with other countries), and current and soon expected technology (simply no means of vast, long-lasting energy storage to balance out sun and wind intermittencies in the near future even if we could generate the equivalent of total energy demand overall), renewable energies, while marginally useful, are not going to power Japan in a substantial way. This is a big, unavoidable truth about our situation. No journalist in Tokyo seems to have the balls to take it up. Perhaps they don’t want to lose their backslapping media friends. Andrew De Wit, by the way, is not a renewables energy “expert”. He’s published a few articles in what appears to be a non-specialist, rather low quality online journal (the Asia Pacific Journal, aka “JapanFocus”). Judging by his work on renewable energy one can find there, he has a very weak and romanticized grasp of the technical obstacles to a renewable future. (Hell, if a hobbyist like me can pick large simple holes in what he writes, he’s no expert.)

    To “pull the plug” on nuclear therefore means staying pretty much with fossil fuels. There simply is no other choice, no matter what the corporations selling solar and wind tell us, nor what the ideological “environmental” (scarequotes alert) groupings tell us. We power most of our cars and factories with the stuff, as well as producing our electricity. And this is where not just Adelstein, but other journalists have lost their nerve: they do not address this issue: if the choice is actually between more fossil or more nuclear, which is better?

    The news media don’t help in understanding the problems with fossil fuels – they assist in our passive acceptance of the health problems created. Jake Adelstein mentions the steam leak which killed five people in 2004. We can all feel the awfulness of that. So in the same journalistic light, consider the following horror story about an accident with gasoline.:

    Witnesses said they saw victims, including children, screaming as they rolled around on the ground to try to extinguish the flames, while thousands who had gathered for the evening festival fled in panic.

    Video footage showed the stalls, which had been selling drinks and snacks, going up in flames and sending smoke into the night sky.

    “I heard a boy crying, ‘atsui, atsui’ (hot, hot),” a middle-aged man told NTV from the scene Friday morning.

    That happened last week, and will be forgotten by most people by next week, including the media. Of course, we can say – no one died, only 59 got injured. If that’s your response to emotive journalism, then welcome. We’re into the grim issue of body counts for each form of energy supply.

    If you’ve come that far, you can start thinking – if you have aspirations to being a challenging journalist – about whether or not all the prolonged evacuations are actually justified on health grounds (the levels of radiation almost everywhere in the zone are way below anything ever known to cause even a slight bit of harm; Tokyo’s environment is rather more cancer-inducing). What a story! Government control over people’s lives revealed to be patronizing non-scientific nonsense!

    Or you can get really provocative. The fires in Kessennuma that killed hundreds and destroyed people’s homes were the result of fires started by our inability to store fossil fuels safely in the event of an earthquake/tsunami. Or simply scary: if emissions from coal-fired electricity kills 12,000 people (a low-end estimate) in the US each year simply by the tech working normally, what’s happening annually in Japan? 3,000? 4,000?

    And that’s before we get to the big one: global warming, which threatens Tokyo with sea rises, and is already forcing evacuations from islands in the Pacific and threatens millions of mainly impoverished peoples around the globe. Although we can never “prove” any particular death is from global warming (much like we can’t “prove” any particular cancer came from radiation exposure), record temperatures and increased heat waves are killing people in Japan already – the elderly in particular. The WHO estimates a couple of hundred thousand around the world are dying yearly from climate change already. Of course, global warming is not just up to Japan, but I believe Mr Adelstein is all for the rich doing their bit to protect the poor.

    This is a good story, Jake: how TEPCO’s criminal negligence is forcing us to keep killing ourselves with fossil fuels. It would be nice for at least one journalist to break out of the bubble.

  • Nihilist

    at some point the world will wake up and find the whole pacific is now a dead zone, but at that point the death sprial will be well on its way…. and the msm would rather have distractions and silly sideshows.

  • CaptD

    TEPCO aka Utility Gang have done everything they can to minimize their expenses since 3/11/11 and I predict that much of this money will never be spent on doing the job intended, it will be siphoned off into off-shore accounts instead!

    The Japanese people are powerless because their Utility Gangs are the ones running the Country despite what the PM or Japanese MSM says.
    +

    Here is what Former Japanese PM Kan (1), Gregory Jaczko (2) the Former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and 2 other Nuclear Experts (3) had to say at a June 4, 2013 seminar in San Diego,CA, “Lessons for California” which was based upon what they experienced as the Leaders “in-charge” when 3/11/11 occurred:

    (1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAYVK8_W2h4

    (2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AG1QmEQ84aY

    (3) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8g6mViUvHUo