A third-party panel set up by the government to investigate the accidents at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant issued Monday an interim report based on interviews with 456 people. It emerges from the report that before the March 11 disaster both Tepco and the government had ruled out the possibility of a worst-case scenario taking place at the nuclear plant and had been totally unprepared to cope with such a situation. They not only failed to take sufficient measures to minimize the chance that a worst-case scenario could occur, but also lacked the ability to imagine what such a situation would be like and what actions they should take if it happened. In short, they acted utterly irresponsibly.
Meltdown occurred in the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 reactors at the Fukushima plant and hydrogen explosions occurred in the Nos. 1, 3 and 4 reactors. The radioactive substances released by the nuclear fiasco has made a large area of land inhabitable for tens of thousands of Fukushima residents. These facts and the committee’s findings will make people wonder whether it is safe to let the nuclear power establishment continue its activities.
After the magnitude-9 quake shook the Fukushima plant at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, tsunami with a maximum height of more than 15 meters hit it at 3:27 p.m. and 3:35 p.m. On the basis of a 2002 study, Tepco had expected the maximum height of a possible tsunami to be 5.7 meters. But the report says that although Tepco’s own simulation in 2008 showed that a tsunami with a maximum height of 15.7 meters could strike, Mr. Sakae Muto (who became vice president by the time of the crisis) and Mr. Masao Yoshida (who became head of the plant by the time of the crisis) dismissed the study, saying that such a tsunami would not occur.
The report also shows that in 2009, Tepco explained to the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency the results of a simulation based on the Jogan earthquake of 869, which is believed to have caused a 9.2 meter tsunami. But NISA did not ask Tepco to take measures to cope with such a tsunami. The nuclear power establishment was clearly obsessed with a self-perpetuating belief that nuclear power is safe and rejected the findings of new studies that suggested that high tsunamis could pose a threat to the plant.
The committee found that Tepco officials and workers lacked basic knowledge concerning the functions of a reactor cooling system designed to work in an emergency. After the earthquake, the isolation condenser (IC) of the No. 1 reactor automatically activated. But after the tsunami, a fail-safe circuit fully or nearly fully closed the IC’s valves, causing it to stop operating.
Mr. Yoshida and other Tepco officials mistakenly believed that the IC was operating normally. He noticed as late as 11:50 p.m. on March 11 that it was not operating. The report says that as a result, the cooling of the reactor was halted for more than 12 hours. It stresses that if the reactor had been cooled properly, a worsening of the situation could have been prevented.
In the No. 3 reactor, the high pressure coolant injection (HPCI) system automatically activated after the reactor core isolation cooling system automatically stopped functioning shortly before noon on March 12. Fearful that the HPCI would be damaged by the vibrations it was producing, an operator stopped it at 2:42 a.m. the next day. But it took one hour for a report on the stoppage to reach Mr. Yoshida and other officials. The report says that the delay of the report resulted in the reactor not being cooled for seven hours, and states that it would have been possible to bring a fire engine to the scene to serve as a backup means of cooling the reactor while the HPCI was operating.
The report also conveys the government’s appalling attitude toward the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information (SPEEDI), a computerized system to predict how radioactive substances released from a nuclear accident will disperse in the atmosphere. The report says that the government headquarters, NISA and the education and science ministry, the final authority having jurisdiction over SPEEDI, had no intent to use it to inform people about the effects of a nuclear accident. If it had been used properly, Fukushima residents would have been able to avoid taking inappropriate evacuation routes that exposed them to radioactive substances. The government’s actions raise a serious question: What is SPEEDI for? Citizens may logically conclude that the government is not seriously thinking about protecting people’s lives in the event of a nuclear accident.
The report reveals a bizarre situation in the prime minister’s office. Bureaucrats from various ministries were stationed in the crisis management center in the basement. But Prime Minister Naoto Kan, industry minister Banri Kaieda, and NISA and Tepco officials made decisions on the fifth floor without getting real time information from the bureaucrats. In addition, an off-site center located about 5 km from the Fukushima plant, which was built to cope with an emergency situation, lacked an air purification system to remove radioactive substances and was soon abandoned.
Before it issues a final report, the committee should thoroughly question Mr. Kan and other officials concerning their handling of the disaster. It should be careful not to be duped by Tepco’s simulations concerning the damage to the reactors from the quake itself because Tepco may try to minimize such damage so that nuclear power plants now under inspection will be restarted without facing doubts or protest.
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