Nuke ‘black box’ needed: investigator

by Matthew Winkler and Yuriy Humber

Bloomberg

The global nuclear power industry needs to share cross-border information to prevent accidents, replicating the transparency of international air traffic control, said the head of the investigation into the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

Nuclear plant operators and regulators need an international common language and standard for investigating and preventing disasters, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, who headed the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, one of the panels that investigated the calamity, said in an interview last week in Tokyo.

The airline industry offers a model in the use of flight and voice data recorders, known as black boxes, as a globally accepted means of recording and investigating accidents, he said. The transparency derived from intrusive international oversight in the nuclear industry is necessary to prevent the collusion that contributed to the Fukushima disaster, Kurokawa said. That isn’t happening yet with the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

“Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority seems very isolated” not only from the domestic power industry but also from counterparts abroad, he said. “Isolation in one nation is a very dangerous thing.”

Kurokawa, 77, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy in Tokyo, was special adviser to the Cabinet and Japan’s representative at the World Health Organization. He is a former dean of Tokai University School of Medicine, and professor at Tokyo University School of Medicine and the medical school at the University of California at Los Angeles.

He led a six-month investigation into the catastrophe at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 atomic station.

He won wide-ranging subpoena powers, giving his team of 10 commissioners unprecedented authority to conduct the investigation. He also insisted on public hearings, which saw former Prime Minister Naoto Kan and then-Tepco President Masataka Shimizu offer conflicting accounts of the disaster response.

Kurokawa’s report released in July 2012 was scathing in its account of events leading up to March 11 and the response that followed, calling the disaster man-made and citing “collusion” between Tepco and its previous regulator, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, to avoid implementing new safety rules.

“Across the board, the commission found ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organization that deals with nuclear power,” the report said.

While the report won acclaim abroad, including an award for Kurokawa from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2012, its findings were mostly ignored at home, with bureaucrats unable or unwilling to grasp its call for more outside-the-box thinking, he said.

The government has followed through on at least one of the report’s recommendations by setting up an independent nuclear watchdog. The NRA was established last year and now has more than 500 staff. It also has control over three other organizations that employ experts to research and monitor nuclear energy.

Still, the NRA needs more international experience and should send staff abroad to learn best practices, gain experience and create links to other nuclear regulators, said Kurokawa.

“The NRA has been exchanging information with foreign regulators such as the NRC and the ASN to enhance mutual understanding and competency,” said Tadashi Yamada, spokesman for the NRA’s policy review and public affairs division, referring to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and France’s nuclear safety authority.

While the NRA’s legal independence is a step in the right direction, it needs to be more transparent about what it’s doing, Kurokawa said.

That’s especially important as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seeks to restart some of the country’s 50 reactors, he said.

The prime minister is attempting to get the economy growing and dealing with national security policies, so the mess at Fukushima, where the world’s largest cache of molten nuclear fuel lies trapped beneath the wreckage of reactor buildings, is “maybe not top of the agenda for Abe,” Kurokawa said.

The nine regional nuclear power utilities retain strong influence in politics and are lobbying to delay by several years legislation to split the country’s grid from generating plants, Kurokawa said.

The utilities dominate generation, distribution and transmission of electricity in their respective areas and that is preventing competition from new suppliers.

A global nuclear regulator’s network would help on this issue as it could defend such deregulation efforts in the face of corporate and bureaucratic lobbying, he said.

Restarting nuclear power is partly an economic benefit for Abe and his administration, which needs to bring down the increased spending on fossil fuel imports to run power plants.

As Abe champions the restarts, Japan should at least compile a ranking of its nuclear plants by age, safety measures and earthquake risks to make sure the units that are switched back on are the safest ones, Kurokawa said.

Japan’s response to Fukushima will be an example for nations newly embracing atomic energy such as Jordan, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Having a global regulator advisory network would also help ensure greater safety, Kurokawa said.

One step Japan has taken in terms of closer international cooperation is agreeing to form an information exchange network with South Korea and China despite recent tensions between the three countries.

The nations will set up special e-mail accounts to share information on nuclear accidents and invite each other to attend emergency preparedness drills, according to a copy of the agreement provided by the NRA. Dedicated video-conference capabilities between nuclear regulators in the three countries for use in emergencies are also being considered.

Japan has also taken preliminary steps toward opening up the nuclear industry to foreign advisers and companies, requesting solutions for cleaning up Fukushima, Kurokawa said.

“Once you start discussing things, additional advice may come,” he said. “As the process becomes transparent, open sourced, you can see what will be the fastest, most cost-effective and scientific way to implement answers.”