Monitor sees improvement in Tepco culture

Safety taking priority over efficiency with internal reform

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Forcing Tokyo Electric Power Co. into bankruptcy so the battered utility can get a fresh start is a notion that has been floated by critics and lawmakers, but it’s a bad idea, says Barbara Judge, deputy chairwoman of Tepco’s nuclear reform monitoring committee.

Facing huge compensation payments for the public havoc wreaked by the Fukushima No. 1 meltdowns and exorbitant bills for the decontamination and decommissioning work, Tepco has been unable to function as a normal company. This, critics and lawmakers say, could negatively affect morale and performance.

They say that the government should place Tepco into bankruptcy, take charge of the compensation problem and spin off the decommissioning work so a new Tepco can focus on it’s core job: providing electricity.

“I don’t believe you’re doing anyone a favor by forcing a company into bankruptcy, any company into bankruptcy,” said Judge, a former chairwoman of the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, during an interview Tuesday at Tepco’s headquarters.

The nuclear reform monitoring committee, formed in September 2012, is headed by Dale Klein, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It’s purpose is to keep an eye on Tepco’s efforts to reform its nuclear division.

“I don’t think (employees) get more motivation by working for a company that’s been through bankruptcy in general,” Judge said.

Instead, the government should work more closely with Tepco and give it the tools it needs to become healthy again, she said.

“You get more motivation from people by turnarounds . . . and by going through tunnels and coming out the other end (rather) than just by jumping off the roof and starting to swim.”

She recommends dividing Tepco’s nuclear division in two. One section would handle power generation and the other would tackle the reactor decommissioning, which requires a completely different skill set.

Judge, who was hired by Tepco to spearhead its “self-regulation” and “social communications” efforts, said the division has been making progress in shifting from “a culture of efficiency” to “a culture of safety.”

One small step forward was made when the utility set up a nuclear safety oversight office directly under the board of directors to serve as the in-house regulator, she said.

The NSOO was set up in May with help from Judge and is headed by John Crofts, a former security assurance director from the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority. The rest of the staff of 21 are mostly Tepco employees.

These people are key in helping the company move from efficiency to safety, Judge said.

The NSOO is divided into three groups, with one at Fukushima No. 1, one stationed at the massive Kahiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture, and the third at Tepco’s headquarters.

She said the NSOO played an important role last month overseeing the plan to begin removing fuel rods from the cooling pool of reactor 4 in Fukushima.

When the utility finished transferring the first special transport cask of fuel rod assemblies from reactor 4 to a safer building, the NSOO halted the removal process for a few days to conduct a safety review.

Under normal circumstances the workers would have forged ahead. But Judge said the NSOO was prudent in calling for an immediate safety review.

She recalled that when the company decided to establish the NSOO, many employees appeared to wonder if it was really necessary.

Even those who were transferred to the NSOO appeared bewildered about their role and were shy about giving their opinions at meetings.

But as time went by, they opened up and their commitment grew, and the successful start of the fuel removal has given them confidence and motivation, Judge said.

Another area that needed improvement when Judge came in was corporate communications.

“They weren’t really in touch with their consumers . . . when they did talk to them, it was in a very technical way,” she said.

“I also thought that this was a culture of efficiency and not a not culture of safety.”

Internal reform, through a new social communications office set up in April, has helped Tepco get better at dealing with the public, Judge said.

For instance, the utility is trying harder to explain what is going on at Fukushima No. 1 and with other related matters in a way laymen can understand.

Even though she said communications have improved, it is still doubtful whether the new office has been truly effective, considering how Tepco was unwilling to admit that toxic water was seeping into the Pacific until the day after the Upper House election in July, a blunder that Judge has harshly criticized.

“I’d like to say myself how disappointed and distressed I was when I arrived in Japan yesterday,” she said at a news conference July 26. “To find that the communication with respect to the water problem has been so difficult and so late was devastating.”

While Judge points out some of the areas where Tepco has made progress, the public is still concerned by the problems that continue to plague Fukushima No. 1.

Judge said Tepco will just have to keep demonstrating that it has changed if it is ever going to win back the public’s trust.

For example, the utility will have to “not just pass, but excel” in an upcoming safety evaluation to restart the reactors at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, she said.